200 Years of Identity Crises

A cultural history of American
moods and self-images in 8 big steps

One of the articles in Rediscovering The North American Vision (IC#3)
Originally published in Summer 1983 on page 10
Copyright (c)1983, 1996 by Context Institute


WHEN I THINK of North American visions, I think first of American Indians, colonists, and the American Revolution. These, after all, are the sources for much of our mythos, the people we celebrate in holidays and stories. Yet the process of both creating and interpreting the North American Vision did not end in 1776, and as I have focused in on this theme I have felt a growing appreciation for those who came after the revolution. These seemingly less heroic folk are more like ourselves – faced with, not the glorious task of birthing a society, but the more prosaic and perhaps more demanding task of making it work.

What follows could be described as a cultural history of American moods and self-images in 8 big steps. Alternatively it might be described as the same thing in 8 gross generalizations, so let me begin with some cautions. Cultures are diverse, and at any time in history you can find many different moods and points of view. In this brief review I have tried to focus only on what seems to have been the dominant tone, especially in terms of the imprint it left on the culture. The division into periods is also somewhat artificial, since each period had its precursors and its diehards in other time periods. Within these limitations, I hope what follows will help to fill the gap between the formal end to the War For Independence (Treaty of Paris, September 3, 1783) and now.


The period after the War For Independence through the War of 1812 was dominated by the founding fathers, whose vision for the new nation was a genteel agrarian republic. The republic part made it radical and unusual for the time, and their response to victory was cautious, even doubtful. They saw great dangers in contamination from the old world and, especially, excessive democracy here at home. They had fought the Revolution in order to preserve their society, not overturn it, and much of their action and rhetoric during this period was aimed at saving the nation from the perils of too much social change.

It was during this time also that significant aspects of the mythos of the Revolution and the purpose of the nation got enshrined. The Revolution was seen as a Divine intervention in history, intended to establish a new political model for the world. The citizens of the new nation were stewards of a "sacred trust", expected to transform both history and human nature. While many doubted, and even despaired, that we could fulfill this destiny, all agreed with the loftiness of the vision. If the nation could just survive there might be hope.


While the new nation didn’t exactly win the War of 1812, they didn’t lose it either, and the dramatic victory of Andrew Jackson at New Orleans (two weeks after the peace treaty was signed in Ghent) provided a psychological turning point. The nation had indeed survived, and in the process, changed. The initiative shifted to the first truly post-revolution generation, many of whom, like Andrew Jackson and Henry Clay were from the west.

This new generation stuck to the vision of the Revolution, but shifted the social context. The new hero was the common man and politics became unabashedly democratic. The sense of goal changed from refinement of the old order to expansion (physically westward, but in other ways too) into a new order. The vision of "manifest destiny" claimed the whole continent as the rightful territory of the growing nation. Men like Emerson called for the development of a profoundly new culture ("a new race, a new religion, a new state, a new literature.") to fulfill the promise of the New World. In effect, this generation felt sanctified by its political institutions, confident that they were working, exhilarated by the magnitude of the continental opportunity opening before it, and anxious to possess the wealth that it envisioned.


This next period began with the nation’s first war of unprovoked aggression against a friendly non-colonial country – the Mexican War – and ended with the bloody Civil War. In terms of vision, it was a time of soul searching and doubt mixed with increasingly hardened attitudes of self- righteousness. All along during the previous periods there had been a few voices questioning the moral imbalance of the headlong rush of expansion. In his farewell address, Washington had warned, "Can it be, that Providence had not connected the permanent felicity of a Nation with its virtue?", and later speakers often referred to this connection between national morality and national survival. At first most of these expressions of doubt were just sermonizing and hand wringing in an increasingly melodramatic age, but after 1848, the idea of the responsibility of national morality became increasingly important to Americans. The North saw this in terms of slavery and maintaining the "sacred trust" of the Union, while the South saw it in terms of state’s rights and the "sacred trust" of the liberties guaranteed by the Constitution, but both saw America’s destiny hanging in a moral balance.


The Civil War had a major impact on America’s self-image. It was more brutal than any had expected, yet given the worldview of the times this just heightened its sanctity as an act of moral purification (at least from the perspective of the North). In American Myth, American Reality, James Robertson observes: "Out of the memories and explanations of the Civil War, war became, in the imagery and metaphors of American myth, the ultimate defense of the nation and the ultimate expression of nationalism. In Lincoln the emancipator, war leader, frontier hero, and spokesman of charity, freedom and democracy, is the image of the great and good uses to which American war is put." It was with this same image of "holy crusade for the ideals of American democracy" that World Wars I and II were sanctified, and it was the failure to live up to that image that so condemned the Vietnam War.

The Civil war was not only seen as "a new birth of freedom" and the preservation of the Union. It also marked a turning point in the symbolic roles of agriculture and industry. Before the war, the national self-image assumed that we were primarily an agrarian nation with industry as a supplement. Cities, industry, and transport had all been growing vigorously during the first half of the 1800’s, but by 1860, industry still only supported a sixth of the population (workers and their families). The war not only expanded industry, it emphasized its importance and revealed the power of large scale group effort. The genteel agrarianism from which many of the founding fathers had come was consigned to the past (the pre-war South being its last stronghold), the common man agrarianism of the west was seen as a present reality, but industry became the wave of the future.

The immediate post Civil War years of 1865-1876 were the time when this new mythology permeated into the American consciousness. Northerners confirmed their victory over the South through the process of Reconstruction, a process that managed to leave deep, long term bitterness throughout that region, but more dramatically, industry leaped forward as the new shaper of American society.


By 1876, reconstruction had run out of steam and the problems of industrialism were growing more evident. The immediate post Civil War hopes of a new birth of idealism and morality soon faded in the face of extensive greed, corruption and violence. In this turbulent environment, the prime contenders for Americans’ self-image were Social Darwinism and Populism.

American Protestantism had a long history of associating wealth with virtue. During the late 1800’s these values were combined with the new theories of evolution to claim that the accumulation of personal wealth was the goal of both God and nature for Americans. Those who did not succeed had only themselves to blame. According to Henry Ward Beecher, a prominent preacher of the time, "no man suffers from poverty unless it be more than his fault – unless it be his sin."

While such images appealed to the beneficiaries of industrialism, and those who hoped to be, they rang hollow for many workers, and especially for small farmers. During this time period, farmers produced more but earned less, so they did not take kindly to the suggestion that their losses were their own fault. The Populist revolt that grew out of this was, at a symbolic level, an attempt to reaffirm the moral virtues of common man agrarianism, with its emphasis on equality and community cooperation. In attempting to adapt these values into the new industrial setting, the Populist platform called for a graduated income tax, government ownership and operation of railroads, telephone, and telegraph, the eight-hour working day, secret ballot in elections, the initiative and referendum, and the direct election of senators. While the Populist Party never did well outside of the west, much of their program did eventually get adopted, and William Jennings Bryan, as a populist Democrat, almost became president in 1896.


By the late 1890’s, a new synthesis of values emerged, called Progressivism. It drew elements from both industrial economic individualism and populism, yet it was, above all, the optimistic creed of the respectable middle class. It admitted that there were industrial excesses and was willing to regulate railroads and trusts, but it held fast to most of the assumptions of economic individualism. It was anxious to promote democratic reforms like direct primary elections and the elimination of political corruption, but it had no qualms about suppressing (as Wilson did around World War I) the free speech of those who challenged Progressive views. It was sure that, thanks to science, industry, Progressive democracy and Protestant Christianity, the world could get better and better.

Yet it did not believe this progress would be automatic. It scoffed at earlier optimism as romantic and naive. Industrialism was not solving its own problems. Only through careful planning and skillful organizing by well educated, energetic experts, devoted to democracy and progress, could American industrialism fulfill its full promise. Progressives favored increasing the power of the federal government over the states and likewise the power of the executive branch over the legislative. They felt governmental action was called for, and they wanted the best and the brightest from the middle class to provide the leadership. From local governments to the presidency, they dominated this era and set a tone that has influenced much of the 20th century.


Yet crusades can’t maintain their momentum forever. After World War I, the U.S. (like much of the world) was ready for a rest. Some were disillusioned by what the war had revealed while others were optimistic that our problems had indeed been solved. In either case, the drive of the Progressive era faded. The passage of Prohibition in 1919 was the final major act of Progressive idealism, and in its wake a new generation undertook to rebel against the self-righteous paternalism and prudery of the previous era. America had become a thoroughly industrialized, employee society, and the new goal became the "American Dream" of consumerism as portrayed in the movies and advertising.

The crash of 1929 put an end to the light hearted optimism, but did not change the underlying consumerist orientation of this period. More so than in previous crises, people were willing to blame the system rather than themselves and look to the government for help. Roosevelt’s New Deal liberalism was a direct descendant of the Progressive faith in central government, but the mood was very different. The nation felt it had its hands full with simply trying to get back to work, and it had no interest in foreign affairs or moral crusades like Prohibition. For perhaps the first time, the nation felt a sense of deep, discouraging, persistent failure.


World War II pulled America out of the depression both economically and psychologically. Americans didn’t want a new mission, but the world forced it on them. They responded heroically yet without fanaticism. By the end of the war Americans had renewed their faith in themselves and in technology, and strengthened their faith in liberalism. While consumerism remained the main focus of life, Americans again felt on the forefront of history (as in the Space Race), willing to engage in social reform (Civil Rights), and guardians of a sacred trust (leader of the Free World).

This post-war sense of confidence and virtue reached its peak sometime in the 1960’s. During the late 60’s and early 70’s things like the Vietnam War, Civil Rights, environmental pollution, the counter culture, Watergate, and the oil crisis all worked together to undermine the nation’s faith in the liberal worldview. It is hard to really tell while still in the midst of it, but we seem to have again entered a period of doubt with no particular sense of national purpose or national identity. If history is any guide this too will pass.

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