Continental Themes

Reconnecting with our roots

One of the articles in Rediscovering The North American Vision (IC#3)
Originally published in Summer 1983 on page 4
Copyright (c)1983, 1996 by Context Institute

How shall we reconnect with our roots? Our past is so rich and varied that a few pages can hardly do its content justice. If we had to learn that content from scratch there would be no hope, but there is another approach. This section assumes our roots are still alive within us and its intention, through short summaries and a sampling of specifics, is to help us remember.

WHEN IT COMES to North American (i.e. U.S. and Canadian) history, most of us have a "can’t see the forest for the trees" problem. We are so immersed in the results that it is hard to get a perspective. To help with this, I’d like to start this exploration of our cultural roots by suggesting what seem to me to be some of the major characteristics and issues that have shaped North American society.

MANY ROOTS

North America has been the meeting ground for cultures from all over the world – E Pluribus Unum. Whether the image is of a melting pot or a stew, there is hardly any spot on the planet that has not sent its representatives, that has not influenced our society. We are in some significant ways a microcosm of the world. Do we use this opportunity to learn cultural tolerance, or do we attempt to impose one set of roots as superior to the rest? Do we try to act as representative of the whole or do we see ourselves as an island of the elect? The question of how to make "one out of many" has been a persistent continental challenge.

INTENTIONALITY AND "THE NEW WORLD"

On the other hand, there are some important ways in which we are unrepresentative of the bulk of humankind. With some important exceptions, we (or our close ancestors) chose to come here, and that represents a major selection effect. Those who came, did so as individuals, in families, or in small groups – not as the migration of whole tribes and nations. They left behind people of identical social and economic standing. What made the difference? Probably thousands of factors, but those who came were surely characterized by a belief that it was all right to change, to try to shape your own destiny. That belief is so familiar to us that it hardly seems worth mentioning – until you realize that, around the globe, it is probably a minority opinion. It has made us unusually inventive, unusually concerned about our responsibility to destiny (since we are conscious of having chosen), and unusually restless.

These characteristics were intensified by the European image of the Americas as "The New World" – a place of pristine wilderness, a new Eden, where not only individuals but whole societies could get a new start. Never mind that the land was already populated by ancient cultures – these were so well adapted to their environment and so different from anything that Europeans understood as human society that the Europeans conveniently mistook them for part of the wilderness.

LIBERTY, EQUALITY AND COMMUNITY

Those who came by choice were overwhelmingly from the middle levels of society. The rich and well established had no reason to come, and the destitute lacked both the money and the skills to come. Those who did generally hoped to better their lot in life and carried some animosity towards the limitations of the class structure they came from. Combining this with the leveling effect of pioneer living, there was a strong bias towards the development of a classless society based on voluntary cooperation.

Yet it is one thing to have this bias and to make grand statements about all men being created equal. It is very different to try to put that into practice, especially when the cultural habits that you brought with you from the Old World are full of all kinds of discriminations based on wealth, sex, race, and religion, as Thomas Jefferson’s ownership of slaves so clearly illustrates. Even deeper than this, even a formally classless society has to come to grips with the fact that liberty, equality and community are in a constant state of tension generated by their simultaneous conflict and interdependence. Absolute liberty destroys equality and community, absolute equality destroys liberty and community, and absolute community destroys equality and liberty, yet realistic liberty depends on equality and community and likewise for the other two. What is the proper balance among these three? The answer to that has kept changing, but our preoccupation with the question has been constant.

THE FRONTIER AND NATURE

There is perhaps no more powerful continental symbol for the Euro-Americans than the frontier. It was the point of hope, of freedom, and of unlimited opportunity. It was the place where the known human world met the wilderness and was rejuvenated by humanizing that wilderness. It was the quintessence of "the New World".

To be properly understood, this needs to be seen against the background of the pattern of civilization during the past 5500 years. This has always been based on a hierarchical relationship between "the center" and "the hinterlands". The hinterland, and especially the frontier at its outer edge, could be both a place to be exploited and refuge for non- conformists, yet its ultimate status was always subservient.

The early colonists carried this cultural orientation with them, either hoping to gain their fortune and return home (as in the original Jamestown settlers), or hoping to develop a deviant lifestyle free from oppression from the center (as in the Pilgrims). Neither of these turned out to be easy, but the escape went better than the exploitation, in part because the Atlantic proved to be a significant separator and in part because North America had no easy gold or other source of quick wealth. Those who did eventually prosper mostly chose to stay. The result was an understandable shift in loyalty from the old center to the new home, but with this came a mythically profound glorification of the virtues of, and identification with, the frontier. Thus, in keeping with all the other images of newness, the new goal became the ascendancy of the frontier, with all "centers" either deprived of power or kept carefully in check.

Of course, living on the frontier usually did not match this romantic image. Indeed, it was hard, often brutalizing and dehumanizing. Large numbers of the first colonists died within a year of their arrival, and so did many frontier men and women in the centuries that followed. The wilderness (and the native people who were part of it) became a symbol of malevolent power – an adversary that needed to be conquered. On the other hand, especially as we became more successful at "conquering" nature, we gradually came to see how much our mythos needed some wilderness. Without wilderness there is no frontier and without the vitality of the frontier we are in danger of being subordinated to some "center". North Americans have continued to have an ambiguous but powerful image of our relationship to nature that has had a major impact on our sense of who we are.

WHICH TREASURE?

Another ambiguity that has continued with us has been the tension between the pursuit of wealth and the pursuit of righteousness and salvation. While most North Americans over the centuries would claim that they were pursuing them both, and many of the most influential Protestant religions specifically linked these two, that did not eliminate the conflict and the tension. Is "freedom" meant to be primarily economic laissez-faire, or is it more closely associated with freedom of belief, speech, and lifestyle? Is it freedom for the strong to be unrestrained in the exercise of their strength, or freedom for the weak from dominance by the strong? From the contrasting settlements at Plymouth and Jamestown through the debates of Hamilton with Jefferson and the Civil War to supply-side economics, it has been a persistent contentious issue.

Do all these issues taken together add up to the North American Vision? I don’t think so – they are still not deep enough. But they are at least reflections of that vision as it has influenced the many people from many roots who now dwell here.


Bibliography

Bedford, Henry And Trevor Colbourn, The Americans – A Brief History (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1976).

Mcwilliams, Wilson Carey, The Idea Of Fraternity In America (Berkeley: Univ Of Calif Press, 1973).

Nagel, Paul, This Sacred Trust (New York: Oxford University Press, 1971).

Robertson, James Oliver, American Myth, American Reality (New York: Hill & Wang, 1980).

Savelle, Max, Seeds Of Liberty (Seattle: Univ Of Wash Press, 1965).

Washburn, Wilcomb E., The Indian In America (New York: Harper & Row, 1975).

Wills, Garry, Inventing America (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday & Co., 1978).

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