The Lost Promise of Patriotism: Debating American Identity, 1890-1920

The Lost Promise of Patriotism: Debating American Identity, 1890-1920

by Jonathan M. Hansen

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During the years leading up to World War I, America experienced a crisis of civic identity. How could a country founded on liberal principles and composed of increasingly diverse cultures unite to safeguard individuals and promote social justice? In this book, Jonathan Hansen tells the story of a group of American intellectuals who believed the solution to this crisis… See more details below


During the years leading up to World War I, America experienced a crisis of civic identity. How could a country founded on liberal principles and composed of increasingly diverse cultures unite to safeguard individuals and promote social justice? In this book, Jonathan Hansen tells the story of a group of American intellectuals who believed the solution to this crisis lay in rethinking the meaning of liberalism.

Intellectuals such as William James, John Dewey, Jane Addams, Eugene V. Debs, and W. E. B. Du Bois repudiated liberalism's association with acquisitive individualism and laissez-faire economics, advocating a model of liberal citizenship whose virtues and commitments amount to what Hansen calls cosmopolitan patriotism. Rooted not in war but in dedication to social equity, cosmopolitan patriotism favored the fight against sexism, racism, and political corruption in the United States over battles against foreign foes. Its adherents held the domestic and foreign policy of the United States to its own democratic ideals and maintained that promoting democracy universally constituted the ultimate form of self-defense. Perhaps most important, the cosmopolitan patriots regarded critical engagement with one's country as the essence of patriotism, thereby justifying scrutiny of American militarism in wartime.

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In December 1898, the U.S. government established the Division of Customs and Insular Affairs as the first step in administering its new empire--Puerto Rico, Guam, Hawaii, and the Philippines. In January 1899, the Philippines declared independence from the United States, inaugurating a three-year war. The paradox of a republican government waging an imperialist campaign against a national independence movement largely escaped a nation one century removed from its own war of independence and flushed with the spirit of jingoism. For the philosopher William James, the contradiction was too egregious to ignore. "Hostile Natives Whipped," proclaimed the New York Times, in early February 1899. "I've lost my country," James remarked, upon hearing news of an American attack. To James the Philippine-American War seemed a "shameless betrayal of American principles" and exposed a spirit of "big'ness . . . sweeping every good principle and quality out of the world." The nation's "relapse into savagery" kept him awake nights, he wrote his brother Henry. " 'Terminata, terminata,' indeed is our ancient national soul!"

James's cri de coeur partakes of a long tradition of concern about the effect of expansion, or "modernization," on republican government. Since the fall of the Roman Republic, republican theorists have trembled as modernization chipped away at local affiliation and loyalty, jeopardizing the principles and institutions on which republican government is based. James was no knee-jerk opponent of modernization. Guided by judicious leaders and guarded by a virtuous citizenry, modernization need not have endangered American democracy, in his view. The problem with late nineteenth-century American modernization, from his perspective, was that it imperiled Americans' virtue by eroding their autonomy and independence. Without the check of a vigilant citizenry, politicians were liable to succumb to temptations of personal ambition. American imperialism appeared to validate these concerns by undermining the capacity of citizens to monitor government policy, by appealing for justification to public passion rather than calm deliberation, and by contradicting the principles of self-government. In short, James argued, imperialism represented the interests of the few disguised in the rubric of the many. Imperialists read "America" wrong.

By claiming to read "America" right, James joined a contest to define American ideals and institutions that stretched back to the American Revolution. The rhetorical amplitude of the Declaration of Independence and U.S. Constitution engendered perennial debate about the scope and form of American government. Though putatively universal, the privileges of American citizenship remained the province of an Anglo-Saxon cultural majority through much of the nineteenth century. By the turn of the twentieth century, William James, Jane Addams, Randolph Bourne, Louis Brandeis, Eugene V. Debs, John Dewey, W. E. B. Du Bois, and Horace Kallen, among others, began to demand that the rights of American citizenship be extended to all citizens regardless of ethnic, racial, economic, or gender affiliation. If their civic ecumenicalism seems unremarkable from an early twenty-first-century perspective, it was hardly so at the time. When confronted by the paradox of republican principles, on the one hand, and imperialism, racism, sexism, and the alienation of labor, on the other, American elites did not merely justify this contradiction in terms of manifest destiny; rather, they suspended belief in those principles--consensual government, equal opportunity, and equality before the law--that did not accord with their interests. Thus, when William James responded to America's invasion of the Philippines by bemoaning the loss of his country, he posed a timely, perhaps timeless, question: absent a commitment to America's founding principles, what could hold this disparate country together?

In posing the problem of American civic identity, James did not cling nostalgically to a mythic American past. He knew American principles to be "something of a fiction," as he put it in a letter to his brother, Henry, "but one of those fictions which, once ingrained in traditions, grow into habits and realities." As long as those principles retained their salience, they might serve as the bar at which citizens could challenge injustice and chart the country's political, economic, and moral development. Absent those principles, Americans would be without recourse in the struggle between right and wrong. Worse, they might lose all capacity to discriminate between them.

This chapter links two late nineteenth-century debates about civic identity and foreign policy in an attempt to demonstrate how attention to U.S.-world relations can reframe and illuminate what have heretofore been treated as isolated or local historical phenomena. If identity, as theorists since Hegel suggest, entails the continuous construction of "opposites" and "others," then contests over civic identity are bound to result in new global oppositions, just as new global oppositions will inevitably affect a nation's sense of selfhood. The controversy surrounding U.S. annexation of the Philippines in 1899 reflects the dialectical nature of national consciousness. With whom should the United States ally itself in the company of nations?

In opposing U.S. annexation of the Philippines, William James sought to recast American national identity on a cosmopolitan foundation. Both a staunch liberal individualist and committed nationalist, James rejected the Western dichotomy between civilization and savagery, along with the assumption that U.S.-world relations would follow a Western model. James's anti-imperialism marks a new epoch in the history of cosmopolitanism. Before James, cosmopolitans subordinated national allegiance to universal affiliation; since Diogenes, they denied ethical warrant for elevating the good of fellow citizens above the welfare of humanity at large. James rejected this affiliative hierarchy. Maintaining group, national, and global affiliations in equilibrium, he worked to cultivate an atmosphere of cultural and political reciprocity conducive to international justice.

The force of James's cosmopolitanism emerges in comparison to the universalism of two of the most influential Americans of his era, Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson. Roosevelt and Wilson endorsed America's annexation of the Philippines on the grounds that global cultural and political development must follow a single, universal model. As the fabled beacon of democracy, America knew best what was good for the Philippines, hence the Filipinos had no choice but to accept the United States as their master. James's disagreement with Roosevelt and Wilson about the Philippines is compelling in light of their common concern about the fate of American citizenship in industrial, mass society. Like James, Roosevelt, newly elected governor of New York in 1898, delineated a model of civic identity worthy of what he perceived to be America's exceptional commitment to liberty. Innovative, if not progressive, at home, Roosevelt proved reactionary abroad. Thrilled by America's new global status, he championed the civilization/savagery dichotomy emanating from the very European capitals whose cultures he admonished Americans not to imitate. Roosevelt's nationalism extended the logic of liberal universalism from the individual to the nation. Reading Roosevelt one is reminded that imperialists can think in racial categories without being racist. According to Roosevelt, every people had the potential to depart savagery for civilization. Civilization achieved its zenith in the Western nation-state. Woodrow Wilson regarded America's civic identity in light of Anglo-Saxon destiny, defending American policy in the Philippines with allusions to Edmund Burke. Wilson viewed liberty as a profound burden and insisted that political institutions accord with culture. Peoples untutored in the arts of restraint could not endure the responsibilities of self-government. Hence, annexation of the Philippines was the only course for a responsible nation.

The ensuing discussion probes these political positions, as James, Roosevelt, and Wilson struggled, often at odds, to reconcile subjectivity and solidarity--the imperative of individual self-realization with the demands of political responsibility, mobilization, and efficiency--in the local and global realms. My purpose in what follows is to highlight dilemmas of local, national, and global affiliation posed by America's entrance onto the geopolitical stage as a major player. It is not my intention to offer solutions to these dilemmas. In James and his fellow cosmopolitan patriots, we witness the transformation of a cosmopolitan ideal into a cosmopolitan politics at the turn of the twentieth century. James serves as the pivot on which this distinction turns, as the crisis of the Philippine-American War put his philosophy to practical test. But this war was only one of a series of national and international events that forced turn-of-the-century Americans to define America's relationship to the outside world. The book as a whole recapitulates and extends the argument presented in this chapter: the demographic upheaval and political developments of the era spawned a cosmopolitan perspective on American identity that, at the hands of James, Addams, Dewey, and others, promised to reestablish American citizenship and international relations on truly universal moral principles. Less discomfited by nationalism and cultural difference than their classical and Enlightenment predecessors, the cosmopolitan patriots proved more egalitarian, more ecumenical, less aloof. Like cosmopolitans before them, James, Addams, and Dewey embraced an ethic of cultural exchange based on the latest models of scientific rationality; but, according to the cosmopolitan patriots, Filipinos, immigrants, African Americans, and women could be "scientists" too--testing the virtues of self-government at the bar of infinite experience.

Debate over America's Philippines policy raised questions about what it meant to be a national power at the end of the nineteenth century and about the nature of civic virtue. James and Roosevelt, particularly, shared the sense that a century of economic development had left America vulnerable to the material decadence Alexis de Tocqueville anticipated in Democracy in America. Roosevelt embraced imperialism as a way to revive republican virtues putatively imperiled by the closing of the American frontier. No less concerned than Roosevelt about the state of American citizenship, James interpreted national greatness in a manner unfamiliar to adherents of conventional geopolitics. Against a backdrop of scientific and moral discovery, old republican virtues seemed blunt instruments to James--incapable of meeting the epistemological and moral challenges confronting citizens of the modern world. James set out to define an ideal of virtue ostensibly more in tune with the times. This chapter begins by reviewing Tocqueville's observations about the possibilities for virtue and national greatness in an age of social leveling. Few writers have posed the problem of virtue in liberal society as persuasively as Tocqueville. Few have demonstrated Tocqueville's understanding of how a country's ideal of virtue informs its national enterprise. Such concerns may seem remote to the problems confronting contemporary Americans at the dawn of the twenty-first century. But the world Tocqueville scrutinizes is very nearly the world in which James, particularly, grew up. He was closer to Tocqueville than to us. I turn to Tocqueville to recover a sense of what was at stake in the republican tradition that James, Roosevelt, and Wilson saw slipping away. The challenge confronting James's cosmopolitan heirs, as we shall see in ensuing chapters, was to promote a sense of mutual obligation necessary to achieve political reforms in what looked to be an atmosphere of diminishing civic virtue.


Thirty days after arriving in the United States on the tour that would culminate in Democracy in America, Tocqueville challenged his friend Earnest de Chabrol via letter to envision a society composed of disparate European peoples--"people having different languages, beliefs, opinions: in a word, a society without roots, without memories, without prejudices, without routines, without common ideas, without a national character, yet a hundred times happier than our own." Doubtful this hodgepodge could be bound by virtue conventionally conceived, Tocqueville wondered: what linked "such diverse elements? What makes all of this into one people? Interest," he concluded. "That's the secret. The private interest that breaks through at each moment . . . appears openly and even proclaims itself a social theory. In this we are quite far from the ancient republics, it must be admitted, and nonetheless this people is republican, and I do not doubt that it will be so for a long time yet. And for this people a republic is the best of governments." This insight contains the kernel of Tocqueville's life work, notwithstanding some significant revision. By asking Chabrol to imagine a republic founded on interest rather than virtue, Tocqueville confronted him with an apparent paradox. Republics, according to convention, drew sustenance not from citizens' self-interest but from their transcending self-interest, from sacrifices undertaken explicitly for the common good. Chabrol would have shared his correspondent's awe at the thought of a republic established without common roots, memories, prejudices, and all that. For these were thought to spring from common blood, and blood was thought to bind society together. To contemplate a nation lacking these elements was to invite an image of disorder and disease--in which liberty lay exposed to passing fancy, and where standards of excellence and heroism receded before the flood of egoism.

But more was at stake here than virtue and law. Meaning, heroism, culture itself hung in the balance. "What do you expect from society and its government?" Tocqueville asked readers of Democracy in America. "Do you wish to raise mankind to an elevated and generous view of the things of this world? Do you want to inspire men with a certain scorn of material goods? Do you hope to engender deep convictions and prepare the arts to blossom? Do you desire poetry, renown, and glory? Do you set out to organize a nation so that it will have a powerful influence over all others? Do you expect it to attempt great enterprises and, whatever be the result of its efforts, to leave a great mark on history?" If you find yourself assenting to these aspirations then you are likely to be a stranger in your own land, Tocqueville tells us, for these are the stuff of antiquity and aristocracy; they can't be met with via democratic government. Democratic government, by contrast, can promote well-being, tranquility, rationality. It can blunt the hand of fate, cultivate prosperity, provide civil protection. Grandeur or glory it cannot produce on its own.

Tocqueville's convictions about society and politics pivot on the distinction between virtue and interest--on whether a regime founded on virtue or one predicated on interest is the more likely to advance the cause of liberty. As alternative springs of the civic participation that Tocqueville took to be the sine qua non of responsible government, virtue and interest represent the keystones of liberal politics. The ideal of virtue whose demise Tocqueville signals in Democracy in America derives from classical republicanism. Originating in the Athenian polis, or thereabouts, republicanism made its way to Tocqueville's generation via the Roman and Florentine republics and the political meditations of, among others, James Harrington, Montesquieu, and Rousseau. With so tortuous a provenance, republicanism eludes easy classification; nevertheless, two fundamental commitments have long characterized republican theory: a politics based on the principle of a balance of power among competing interests and a model of citizenship in which virtue is seen as its own reward. A belief in excellence as the object of life undergirded this conception of politics and virtue. Only by steadfastly pursuing an impersonal standard of excellence could individuals realize their fullest human potential. Striving toward excellence was necessarily a collective endeavor, dependent on constant political, athletic, and martial engagement. Republicans renounced luxury and vocational specialization, which, by luring individuals away from public obligations, cut them off from the contest--the clash of excellence--that constituted the good life.

The aristocratic elite from which Tocqueville sprang left its mark on this ideal of virtue, notwithstanding the supposed tension between republicanism and feudalism. Aristocrats imbued virtue with a type of reciprocity based on the feudal ideal of chivalry, or noblesse oblige. In exchange for their subjects' fealty, feudal lords provided their dependents security of life and limb, first from the barbarian hordes who scoured Europe after the fall of the Roman Empire, then from rival knights and warlords who, while ostensibly exercising virtue, rewrote the book on avarice. Republicanism and feudalism make easy targets a century and a half after Tocqueville; sexist, racist, patriarchal, martial: virtue and its twin vehicles republicanism and feudalism were all these and more. But republicanism and feudalism were welcome if not indeed progressive expedients in their day. As Tocqueville and Edmund Burke remind us, they can be credited with conveying the ideals of republican government, democracy, equality, reciprocity, responsibility, and, above all, liberty and virtue to our era, thereby affording us the opportunity to rework them. And rework them we must, Tocqueville tells us. Do we want liberty? Justice? Grandeur? Excellence? Then we have to contemplate whether these can be won without social cohesion, and whether social cohesion is possible in an age where self-interest reigns and egoism runs rampant. This much Tocqueville and his friend Chabrol took for granted.

The two were skeptical, meanwhile, about the possibilities of interest-- about the so-called virtues of liberalism. Liberalism emerged in European political discourse via the work of John Locke and Adam Smith, among others. From its inception, liberalism represented the ideals of a commercial bourgeoisie rather than republicanism's warrior-political elite. Thus liberalism heralded the empowering of individuals to pursue commercial interests secure from the interference of both government and unpropertied masses. In contrast to republicanism, liberalism described a model of citizenship in which self-interest was the means to the accumulation of private property, and politics the instrument for protecting property rights. Liberals clung to no impersonal standard of excellence publicly pursued as the object of life. Rather, making a virtue of necessity, liberals expected egoism to generate civic-mindedness: citizens would safeguard the government that safeguarded them. Liberal virtues were no less rigorous for being the product of self-interest. Success in the liberal political economy demanded self-discipline, sociability, imagination, honesty, and patience--the characteristics Adam Smith grouped in The Theory of Moral Sentiments under the mantle of sympathy and prudence.

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