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Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
The Cycles of American History / Edition 1

The Cycles of American History / Edition 1

by Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.
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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780395957936
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date: 06/16/1999
Pages: 514
Sales rank: 1,278,498
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.25(h) x 1.12(d)

About the Author

ARTHUR M. SCHLESINGER, JR., the author of sixteen books, was a renowned historian and social critic. He twice won the Pulitzer Prize, in 1946 for The Age of Jackson and in 1966 for A Thousand Days. He was also the winner of the National Book Award for both A Thousand Days and Robert Kennedy and His Times (1979). In 1998 he was awarded the prestigious National Humanities Medal.

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The Theory of America: Experiment or Destiny?

In the bicentennial year of American independence, almost two centuries after Crèvecoeur propounded his notorious question, an American Indian writing on the subject "The North American" in a magazine addressed to American blacks concluded: "No one really knows at the present time what America really is." Surely no observer had more right to wonder at this continuing mystery than a descendant of the original Americans. Surely no readers had more right to share the bafflement than the descendants of slaves. Nor indeed does the mystery have a final answer. There is no solution in the last chapter; there is no last chapter. The best the interpreter can do is to trace figures in the carpet, recognizing as he must that other interpreters will trace other figures.


The American carpet has many figures. Two strands, intertwined since the time when English-speaking white men first invaded the western continent, represent themes in recurrent contention over the meaning of America. Both themes had their origins in the Calvinist ethos. Both were subsequently renewed by secular infusions. Both have dwelt within the American mind and struggled for its possession through the course of American history. Their competition will doubtless continue for the rest of the life of the nation.

I will call one theme the tradition and the other the countertradition, thereby betraying at once my own bias. Other historians might reverse the terms. I would not quarrel too much about that. Let them betray their own biases. In any event, the tradition, as I prefer to style it, sprang initially from historic Christianity as mediated by Augustine and Calvin. The Calvinist ethos was suffused with convictions of the depravity of man, of the awful precariousness of human existence, of the vanity of mortals under the judgment of a pitiless and wrathful deity. Harriet Beecher Stowe recalled the atmosphere in Oldtown Folks: "The underlying foundation of life ... in New England, was one of profound, unutterable, and therefore unuttered melancholy, which regarded human existence itself as a ghastly risk, and, in the case of the vast majority of human beings, an inconceivable misfortune." "Natural men," cried Jonathan Edwards, "are held in the hand of God, over the pit of hell. ... The devil is waiting for them, hell is gaping for them, the flames gather and flash about them, and would fain lay hold on them, and swallow them up; the fire pent up in their own hearts is struggling to break out. ... You have nothing to stand upon, nor any thing to take hold of; there is nothing between you and hell but the air." The language rings melodramatically in twentieth-century ears. Perhaps we moderns can more easily accept it as a metaphorical rendering of what those for whom God is dead call the existential crisis.

So terrible a sense of the nakedness of the human condition turned all life into an endless and implacable process of testing. "We must look upon our selves," said William Stoughton, the chief justice of the court that condemned the Salem witches, "as under a solemn divine Probation; it hath been and it is a Probation-time, even to this whole people. ... This hath been and is a time and season of eminent trial to us." So had it been at all times for all people. Most had failed the test. Were the American colonists immune to the universal law? In this aspect, the Calvinist notion of "providential history" argued against American exceptionalism. In the Puritan cosmos, Perry Miller has written, "God is not a being of whims and caprices, He is not less powerful at one moment than another; therefore in a certain sense any event is just as significant as any other." This facet of the Calvinist outlook came close to the view of the Lutheran Ranke in the nineteenth century that "every epoch is immediate to God."

The idea of "providential history" supposed that all secular communities were finite and problematic; all flourished and all decayed; all had a beginning and an end. For Christians this idea had its locus classicus in Augustine's great attempt to solve the problem of the decline and fall of Rome — the problem that more than any other transfixed the serious historical minds of the west for thirteen centuries after the appearance of The City of God. This obsession with the classical catastrophe provided a link between the sacred and the profane in the American colonies — between seventeenth-century Americans who read the Christian fathers and eighteenth-century Americans who read Polybius, Plutarch, Cicero, Sallust, Tacitus.

By the time the revolutionaries came to Philadelphia in 1776, the flames of Calvinism were burning low. Hell was dwindling into an epithet. Original sin, not yet abandoned, was, like everything else, secularized. Still, for the fathers of the republic as for the fathers of the Church, the history of Rome, in the words of Jaroslav Pelikan, remained the "textbook to which to turn for instruction about the course of human affairs, the development of freedom and the fate of despotism." And, from different premises, Calvinists and classicists reached similar conclusions about the fragility of human striving.

Antiquity haunted the federal imagination. Robert Frost's poem about "the glory of a next Augustan age. ... A golden age of poetry and power" would have been more widely understood at George Washington's inauguration than at John Kennedy's. The Founding Fathers had embarked on a singular adventure — the adventure of a republic. For landmarks on a perilous voyage they peered across the gulf of centuries to Greece and especially to Rome, which they saw as the noblest achievement of free men aspiring to govern themselves. "The Roman republic," Alexander Hamilton wrote in The Federalist, "attained to the utmost height of human greatness." In this conviction the first generation of the American republic called the upper chamber of its legislature the Senate, signed its greatest political treatise "Publius," sculpted its heroes in togas, named new communities Rome and Athens, Utica and Ithaca and Syracuse, organized the Society of the Cincinnati, and assigned Latin texts to the young. "One is hagridden," complained Edmund Trowbridge Dana in 1805, "... with nothing but the classicks, the classicks, the classicks!" (In consequence of this heretical attitude, Dana was denied his A.B. degree, receiving it posthumously in 1879 as of the class of 1799.)

There was plausibility in the parallel. Alfred North Whitehead later said that the two occasions in history "when the people in power did what needed to be done about as well as you can imagine its being possible" were the age of Augustus and the framing of the American Constitution. There was also warning. For the grandeur that was Rome had come to an inglorious end. Could the United States of America hope to do better?


The Founding Fathers passionately ransacked the classical historians for ways to escape the classical fate. One cannot easily overstate the anxiety that attended this search or the relevance they found in the ancient texts. Thomas Jefferson thought Tacitus "the first writer of the world without a single exception. His book is a compound of history and morality of which we have no other example." "To live without having a Cicero and a Tacitus at hand," said John Quincy Adams, a founding son, "seems to me as if it was a privation of one of my limbs." As Adams's cousin William Smith Shaw put it, "The writings of Tacitus display the weakness of a falling empire and the morals of a degenerate age. ... They form the subject of deep meditation for all statesmen who wish to raise their country to glory; to continue it in power, or preserve it from ruin." Polybius was almost as crucial — for delineating the cycle of birth, growth, and decay that constituted the destiny of states; and for shadowing forth the mixed constitution with balanced powers that the Founding Fathers seized as remedy.

The classical indoctrination reinforced the Calvinist judgment that life was a ghastly risk and that this was a time of probation for America. For the history of antiquity did not teach the inevitability of progress. It taught the perishability of republics, the transience of glory, the mutability of human affairs. The traditional emphasis on John Locke as the father of us all obscures the darker strain in the thought of the Founders recently recalled by J. G. A. Pocock — the strain of classical republicanism and civic humanism that led from Machiavelli's Discourses on Livy through Harrington, the English country party and Montesquieu to the Constitutional Convention. This tradition argued that republics lived and died by virtue — and that in the fullness of time power and luxury inexorably brought corruption and decay. "The Machiavellian moment," according to Pocock, was the moment in which a republic confronted its own mortality.

This apprehension of the mortality of republics pervaded Philadelphia in 1787. Not only was man vulnerable through his propensity to sin, but republics were vulnerable through their propensity to corruption. History showed that, in the unceasing contest between corruption and virtue, corruption had always — up at least to 1776 — triumphed. "It is not at all easy to bring home to the men of the present day," wrote Sir Henry Maine in 1885, "how low the credit of republics had sunk before the establishment of the United States." The authors of The Federalist were "deeply troubled by the ill success and ill repute of the only form of government which was possible for them."

The Founding Fathers had an intense conviction of the improbability of their undertaking. Such assets as they possessed came in their view from geographic and demographic advantage, not from divine intercession. Benjamin Franklin ascribed the inevitability of American independence to such mundane factors as population increase and vacant lands, not to providential design. But even these assets could not be counted on to prevail against human nature. "The tendency of things will be to depart from the republican standard," Hamilton told the New York ratifying convention. "This is the real disposition of human nature." Nor did history hold out greater hope. "Every republic at all times," Hamilton said (always the classical analogy), "has its Catilines and its Caesars. ... If we have an embryoCaesar in the United States, 'tis Burr." Jefferson and John Adams no doubt thought it was Hamilton.

If Hamilton be discounted as a temperamental pessimist or a disaffected adventurer, his great adversaries were not always more sanguine about the republic's future. "Commerce, luxury, and avarice have destroyed every republican government," Adams wrote Benjamin Rush in 1808. "We mortals cannot work miracles; we struggle in vain against the constitution and course of nature." "I tremble for my country," Jefferson had said in the 1780s, "when I reflect that God is just." Though he was trembling at this point — rightly and presciently — over the problem of slavery, he also trembled chronically in the nineties over the unlikely prospect of "monarchy." In 1798 he saw the Alien and Sedition Acts as tending to drive the states "into revolution and blood, and [to] furnish new calumnies against Republican government, and new pretexts for those who wish it to be believed, that man cannot be governed but by a rod of iron." As President, Jefferson trembled himself into panic over the murky dreams of Aaron Burr, that embryo forever struggling to become Caesar. From the next generation William Wirt asked in 1809, "Can any man who looks upon the state of public virtue in this country ... believe that this confederated republic is to last forever?"


This pervasive self-doubt, this urgent sense of the precariousness of the national existence, was nourished by European assessments of the American prospect. For influential Europeans regarded the new world, not as an idyll of Lockean felicity —"in the beginning, all the world was America" — but as a scene of disgusting degeneracy.

In the middle of the eighteenth century the famous Georges Buffon lent scientific weight to the proposition that life in the western hemisphere was consigned to biological inferiority. American animals, he wrote, were smaller and weaker; European animals shrank when transported across the Atlantic except, Buffon specified, for the fortunate pig. As for the natives of the fallen continent, they too were small and weak, passive and backward. Soon Abbé de Pauw converted Buffon's pseudoscience into derisive polemic. Horace Walpole drew the inevitable conclusion: "Buffon says, that European animals degenerate across the Atlantic; perhaps its migrating inhabitants may be in the same predicament." As William Robertson, the Historiographer Royal for Scotland, rendered it in his widely read History of America, published the year after the Declaration of Independence, "The same qualities in the climate of America which stunted the growth ... of its native animals proved pernicious to such as have migrated into it voluntarily." In Britain Oliver Goldsmith portrayed America as a gray and gloomy land where no dogs barked and no birds sang.

No one made this case more irritatingly than Abbé Raynal in France. Buffon, Jefferson observed, had never quite said that Europeans degenerated in America: "He goes indeed within one step of it, but he stops there. The Abbé Raynal alone has taken that step." Raynal's popular Philosophical and Political History of the Settlements and of the Commerce of Europeans in the Two Indies, first published in 1770 and much reprinted thereafter, explained how European innocence was threatened by American depravity. America, Raynal wrote, "poured all the sources of corruption on Europe." The search for American riches brutalized the European intruder. The climate and soil of America caused the European species, human as well as animal, to deteriorate. "The men have less strength and less courage ... and are but little susceptible of the lively and powerful sentiment of love" — a comment that perhaps revealed Raynal as in the end more a Frenchman than an abbé. "Let me stop here," Raynal said in summation,

and consider ourselves as existing at the time when America and India were unknown. Let me suppose that I address myself to the most cruel of Europeans in the following terms. There exist regions which will furnish thee with rich metals, agreeable clothing, and delicious food. But read this history, and behold at what price the discovery is promised to thee. Does thou wish or not that it should be made? Is it to be imagined that there exists a being infernal enough to answer this question in the affirmative! Let it be remembered, that títere will not be a single instant in futurity, when my question will not have the same force. [Emphasis added.]

After the Declaration of Independence, Raynal added insult to injury. He was passing through Lyons on a journey from Paris to Geneva. The local academy, apprised of his presence, made him a member. In return, Raynal established a prize of 1200 francs to be awarded by the Academy of Lyons for the best essay on the arresting topic: "Was the discovery of America a blessing or a curse to mankind? If it was a blessing, by what means are we to conserve and enhance its benefits? If it was a curse, by what means are we to repair the damage?"

The Founding Fathers were predictably sensitive to the proposition that America was a mistake. Franklin, who thought Raynal an "ill-informed and evil-minded Writer," once had to endure at his own dinner table in Paris a monologue by the diminutive abbé on the inferiority of the Americans. "Let us try this question by the fact before us," said Franklin, calling on his guests to stand up and measure themselves back to back. "There was not one American present," wrote Jefferson, who was also there, "who could not have tost out of the Windows any one or two of the rest of the Company." Jefferson himself devoted long passages in his Notes on Virginia to the refutation of Buffon on animals and of Raynal on human beings. Europeans "admired as profound philosophers," Hamilton wrote scornfully in The Federalist, "have gravely asserted that all animals, and with them the human species, degenerate in America — that even dogs cease to bark after having breathed a while in our atmosphere." Tom Paine joined the fight; and John Adams noted in his Defence of the Constitutions of the United States his delight in the way Paine had "exposed the mistakes of Raynal, and Jefferson those of Buffon, so unphilosophically borrowed from the despicable dreams of De Pau [sic]."


Excerpted from "The Cycles of American History"
by .
Copyright © 1999 Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr..
Excerpted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.
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Table of Contents

Title Page,
Foreword to the Mariner Edition,
Part I,
The Theory of America: Experiment or Destiny?,
The Cycles of American Politics,
Part II,
Foreign Policy and the American Character,
National Interests and Moral Absolutes,
Human Rights and the American Tradition,
The Solzhenitsyn Challenge,
America and Empire,
Why the Cold War?,
Part III,
Affirmative Government and the American Economy,
The Short Happy Life of American Political Parties,
After the Imperial Presidency,
The Future of the Vice Presidency,
Vicissitudes of Presidential Reputations,
Democracy and Leadership,
Read More from Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr.,
About the Author,
Connect with HMH,

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