On America

by G. K. Chesterton

[From "Come to Think of It" by G.K.Chesterton]

XXXVI. On America

IT has always puzzled me to notice how little English people seem to know or care about the history of America. It is one of the most picturesque and personal of all the histories of the nations. The number of really interesting characters that figure in it is very large. The ideas and ideals for which they stood are very living. If there is a touch of wildness in it, combined curiously with modern conditions, that makes it all the more romantic, and is natural enough in the memories of a nation of pioneers. But the American people were not merely opening up a continent; they were also working out a conception. We, or for that matter they, are not yet absolutely certain how that conception will work out. But they started with a great ideal, like a law graven on stone tablets, and practical problems arose out of ft as they arise out of a real creed or religion. Almost all the questions they had to settle were worth settling. For instance, there seems to me to be more vital interest about the Civil War in America than about the Civil War in England. It was more of a fight to a finish, and they were a very much finer sort of people who were finished. It is said that the English are fond of compromise; and, in spite of the killing of the King by a few fanatics, it is true to say that even on their battle-fields there was compromise, and even some elements that might be called compromising. The Stuarts were not quite such despotists as the legend makes them. The Puritans were certainly not such democrats as their own legend implies. The monarchy was not completely destroyed with the monarch. It was certainly not completely restored at the Restoration. There was a deep change in English history, but it did not entirely depend on the Civil War. In one sense it had begun nearly two generations before; in another sense it was not achieved till nearly two generations afterwards. It was, in fact, the change from a medieval monarchy to a modern plutocracy, and in that sense it is not completed yet. But, anyhow, it was not a mere fencing-match between Roundheads and Cavaliers; yet that is all that is remembered.

But the American Civil War was a real war between two civilizations. It will affect the whole history of the world. There were great and good men, on both sides, who knew it would affect the whole history of the world. Yet the great majority of Englishmen know nothing about it, or only know the things that are not true. They have a general idea that it was `all about niggers'; and they are taught by their newspapers to admire Abraham Lincoln as ignorantly and idiotically as they once used to abuse him. All this seems to me very strange; not only considering the importance of America, but considering how everybody is now making America so very important. America is allowed to have, if anything, far too much influence on the affairs of the rest of the world; yet those who submit to that influence, or praise that influence, or warmly welcome that influence, seem to take no interest in American affairs. They invite the American to settle our future, but they are bored with him when he is interested in his own past. It is especially so with those who say they are Anglo-Saxons, and presumably mean that they are Anglo-Americans. They believe that the first Americans went over in the Mayflower, which is untrue; and they believe that the best Americans come back again in the Olympic, which is also untrue. But between the Mayflower and the Olympic they seem to have amazingly little interest in what their beloved kinsmen were doing. I do not quite understand why America before the Civil War should be so much less interesting than America after the Great War. I need not say that I dismiss the possibility that enlightened modern people could be interested in a country because it is rich.

A book has recently been published on the sequel of the American Civil War, called The Tragic Era, writ ten by Mr. Claude Bowers, and published by Houghton Mifflin. It is concerned chiefly with an episode only known to Englishmen through the very fine and effective film called The Birth of a Nation. It is significant in some ways that what the film-producer called a national birth, the historian can only call a national tragedy. Many things that followed on wars have been rather more tragic than the wars. We know, in our own case, that it is sometimes possible to lose a war after we have won it. The American politicians lost something more valuable than a war; they lost a peace. They lost a possibility of reconciliation that would not only have doubled their strength, but would have given them a far better balance of ideas which would have vastly increased their ultimate influence on the world. Lincoln may have been right in thinking that he was bound to preserve the Union. But it was not the Union that was preserved. A union implies that two different things are united; and it should have been the Northern and Southern cultures that were united. As a fact, it was the Southern culture that was destroyed. And it was the Northern that ultimately imposed not a unity but merely a uniformity. But that was not Lincoln's fault. He died before it happened; and it happened because he died.

Everybody knows, I imagine, that the first of the men who really destroyed the South was the Southern fanatic, John Wilkes Booth. He murdered the one man in the North who was capable of comprehending that there was a case for the South. But Northern fanatics finished the work of the Southern fanatic; many of them as mad as he and more wicked than he. Mr. Bowers gives a vivid account of the reign of terror that Stevens and Sumner and the rest let loose on the defeated rebels a pestilence of oppression from which the full promise of America has never recovered. But I have a particular reason at the moment for recommending to my countrymen some study of the book and the topic.

Every age has its special strength, and generally one in which some particular nation is specially strong. Every age has also its special weakness and deficiency, and a need which only another type could supply. This is rather specially the Age of America; but inevitably, and unfortunately, rather the America of the Northern merchants and industrialists. It is also the age of many genuine forms of philanthropy and humanitarian effort, such as modern America has very generously supported. But there is a virtue lacking in the age, for want of which it will certainly suffer and possibly fail. It might be expressed in many ways; but as short a way of stating it as any I know is to say that, at this moment, America and the whole world is crying out for the spirit of the Old South.

In other words, what is most lacking in modern psychology is the sentiment of Honour; the sentiment to which personal independence is vital and to which wealth is entirely incommensurate. I know very well that Honour had all sorts of fantasies and follies in the days of its excess. But that does not affect the danger of its deficiency, or rather its disappearance. The world will need, and need desperately, the particular spirit of the landowner who will not sell his land, of the shopkeeper who will not sell his shop, of the private man who will not be bullied or bribed into being part of a public combination; of what our fathers meant by the free man. And we need the Southern gentleman more than the English or French or Spanish gentleman. For the aristocrat of Old Dixie, with all his faults and inconsistencies, did understand what the gentle man of Old Europe generally did not. He did understand the Republican ideal, the notion of the Citizen as it was understood among the noblest of the pagans. That combination of ideal democracy with real chivalry was a particular blend for which the world was immeasurably the better; and for the loss of which it is immeasurably the worse. It may never be recovered; but it will certainly be missed.

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Last modified: 6th January 2010
Martin Ward, De Montfort University, Leicester.
Email: martin@gkc.org.uk