My youngest son and I just finished a road trip. We revved up our overloaded Toyota Camry in Idaho, stopped in Sheridan, Sioux Falls, Chicago, Columbus, and Pittsburgh, and continued across Pennsylvania to New York City before taking a sharp right to Philadelphia and Washington on our way to Birmingham. Sixteen states, eight hotels, and over 3,800 miles in two weeks, and only one lost piece of electronics. It was The Great American Road Trip or, as we called it, The GART.
Out the window we glimpsed the natural wonders of the continent: breathtaking Rocky Mountain passes, Wyoming prairies with more pronghorn than people, bluffs towering above the northern Mississippi. We laughed at the fun-house reflection of Chicago’s skyline in the Millennium Park “bean,” watched a camera-mounted helicopter hover over a blocked-off street in front of the Willis Tower, sped past an Amish buggy on a Pennsylvania highway, drank in tree-blanketed vistas in the Shenandoah Valley. We stared at the monumental heads of Mount Rushmore, watched hip-hop dancers rehearse for an evening performance in Philadelphia’s City Hall under the benign gaze of William Penn, saw Lincoln seated like Zeus in his temple to liberty. I realized that Manhattan is less a city than a world all its own, and for the first time the New Yorker worldview made sense to me.
As we traveled, I contemplated the diversity of American culture and politics. We saw Montana ranches and Wisconsin dairy farms, Chicago bankers and aspirants to Broadway, wondered what the West Virginia mountain men and deep-South dirt farmers were up to under the dense cover of the forests. We traversed Scott Walker country and the liberal Mecca of Minnesota. There’s an awful lot of empty space out there, but at the horizon there’s another urban skyline.
I think it was somewhere between Wisconsin and Minnesota that it began to dawn on me that the Wyoming cowboy and the Gramercy Park professional, the Montana militia and the Minnesota feminist are variations on a theme. Blue Minnesota and red Alabama are both irreducibly American. In, with, and under the teeming diversity, we are one country.
It’s an old saw that the frontier made American democracy. Tocqueville already observed that the open frontier liberated Americans from government, social civilities, Europeans folkways and thoughtways. Frederick Jackson Turner proposed that rugged America was born on the border between civilization and the savage wilderness. And the Lewis and Clarks, the Crocketts and Donners and Clymans were already heirs to a two-century “tradition” of experimentation. It’s noteworthy that our first national charter, Winthrop’s Model of Christian Charity, was delivered during a voyage, aboard the Arabella plowing the Atlantic. We’ve been trying to legislate in transit ever since.
Tocqueville knew that geography is not destiny. Step into Canada or Mexico, and you’ll find a very different people living in an identical landscape. Canadians and Mexicans, Tocqueville recognized, were engaged in the recognizable European project of forming a stable society. Americans were and are born revolutionaries, restless, destroying and creating with each sunrise, “cutting out its institutions, like its roads, in the midst of the forests.” Leave aside Turner’s thesis about the causal force of the frontier, and think instead of metaphor: Every American has an unconquered frontier in his soul.
It’s the determination to conquer the wilderness that marks the American character. Americans wake up in the confidence that we can remake the world, perhaps, if we get busy, in the next twenty-four hours. Tomorrow, we’ll make it again. Each generation finds new ways to test itself, new barriers to break through. Lincoln captured only one part of the American genius in saying that America is dedicated to a “proposition.” We are dedicated to a mission, an errand into the wilderness.
Social conservatives make both a substantive and a strategic error if we write off our opponents as un-American. It muddies the issues to suppose that the country is divided between patriots and traitors. The emerging divisions are in some cases far more basic than that, and we won’t understand where the battle lines are if we fail to recognize that gay pride and pro-family activism both have deep roots in the same American soil. We’re all children of the founding adventurers, and, like it or not, we all bear the imprint of that youthful and quite wondrous form of humanity known as “American.”
I believe that other Americans are wrong about many things, sometimes profoundly so. What divides us is sometimes more fundamental than what unites us. But it’s not insignificant that when Americans are wrong, they are wrong in American ways. Seneca Falls to Selma to Stonewall is a perverse reading of American history, but it’s a story of revolution and new frontiers that only an American could tell.
Peter J. Leithart is President of Trinity House, a study center in Birmingham, Alabama, and an adjunct Senior Fellow at New St. Andrews College, Moscow, Idaho. His most recent book is Between Babel and Beast: America and Empires in Biblical Perspective. His previous “On the Square” articles can be found here.