Revolt against Destiny: An Intellectual History of the United States
by paul a. carter
columbia university press, 331 pages, $24.95
The only thing really wrong about this thought-provoking book is its subtitle. Whatever else it may be —and it is actually several fine things — it is not “an intellectual history of the United States.” Not to demean the genre of intellectual history, but Carter’s Revolt Against Destiny is a good bit more engaging than much that passes under that banner. A properly explanatory subtitle would have read something like “Meditations in Rough Chronological Order on the Fate of Republicanism in the United States.” This adjustment would have made it clearer what Carter — who teaches at the University of Arizona and who has written learnedly on the eras of Grant, Coolidge, and Eisenhower, as well as on such disparate subjects as Antarctica and science fiction — was up to.
As it is, we are well into the book before Carter’s purpose is readily apparent, but once clarified, admiration for the book’s lucid prose and for the author’s wit grows also into appreciation for his wisdom. The thesis appears at the end of the second chapter. After describing the hopes of those who wrote the Constitution, Carter takes note of the assumption that almost all men of affairs in the eighteenth century shared about the fate of governments like the one proposed in Philadelphia. Republics proclaiming liberty, this conventional wisdom held, were doomed to become empires of practicing tyranny. They were haunted by “Caesar’s ghost,” and they were inevitably fated to cry out, at moments of unusual strain, for the Napoleonic “man on a tall horse” who could cut through the delays and legal niceties of popular government to curb anarchy and restore national purpose. Precariously susceptible to the blandishments of aristocratic right and demagogic left, republics were destined to go down.
If decline is the destiny of republics, the United States, Carter argues, has been in revolt against that destiny, at least so far. “The dramatic tension in [the] unfolding story [of the United States] comes from seeing the ghost of Caesar rise again and again and watching Americans cheat destiny, preserving their republicanism in spite of events that seem sure to send them down the road to empire”until the latest bout with destiny, in which we ourselves have been actors.” With this thesis stated. Carter then proceeds to show how various events (like the Civil War), conditions (like the closing of the frontier), ideas (like popular views of religion and science), and personalities (like Presidents and cultural arbiters) have challenged, imperiled, undermined, stretched, invigorated, defended, or nourished that republican tradition. The result is a serious essay on the tortuous, but still surviving, course of democratic, anti-despotic self-government in the United States.
A serious essay, yes, but not a heavy-handed one, for Carter is as quick with the scintillating quotation or the witty aside as he is with the wise development of his theme. Native Americans, he points out, learned very early how to get along with the well-armed banditti from Europe: “Tell the strangers what they want to hear; this will get them temporarily away from our previously untroubled villages. Yes, the gold or the Great Khan or the Fountain of Youth is just down the road a little way.” And literary romanticism would always have a different flavor in the U.S. than in Great Britain, where “the English lake country which inspired Wordsworth and his friends did not open out into endless wilderness; while tramping across it you were never very far from a hot meal, a clean bed, and a bath.” In a book filled with apt quotation, perhaps the most poignant is the barb of Federalist Josiah Quincy with which he described Thomas Jefferson’s vision for America: “Democracy,” said Quincy, is “an Indian word, signifying ‘a great tobacco planter, who has herds of black slaves.’”
As for his argument, Carter writes learnedly about the most notable crises of American republicanism, especially the Constitutional period, the Civil War, and the New Deal. He praises the generation of John Adams, Jefferson, Hamilton, and Madison for its courage in attempting to establish a permanent republic. Then with a fine sense of historical irony he describes how the development of a party system, which embodied the very “factionalism” that Washington above all felt would bring down the republic, gave the nation “a mechanism of . . . self-criticism and self-correction” that, for all its descent into inanity, has somehow served the cause of republicanism well.
When he comes to the crises of the Civil War, Carter takes pains to elaborate John C. Calhoun’s defense of liberty over union and Lincoln’s defense of union over liberty. But what most impresses Carter about the conflict between the states was its effect on the republican ideal. He notes the irony that the Confederacy, in order to save republicanism as it had come to understand it, transformed its own government into a more vigorous and more comprehensive agent of control than Washington had ever been when it seemed to threaten so directly the liberties of South Carolina and its sister slaveholding states. Next he suggests that while Lincoln bent the Constitution to save the union, he was succeeded by leaders who, however questionable in competence or morals, did not fundamentally disturb the republican equation. “Whatever one thinks of the series of Civil War generals who were elected presidents of the United States for the following quarter century, not one of those bearded Republican old duffers remotely resembled Caesar.”
When Carter writes about responses to the Depression, he makes less of both FDR’s creative innovations and his dastardly deviations than the polemicists of that era did. Rather, he depicts Roosevelt as a major force in shifting the historic roles of the two political parties, whereby Democrats abandoned the habits of nineteenth-century individualism for “a spiteful and ultimately self-destructive inactive protectionism” and Republicans traded the moral paternalism of nineteenth-century Whigs for a “narrow and doctrinaire brand of ‘free enterprise.’” On such standard themes of American political economy, Carter is illuminating but not particularly original.
The book’s distinctive contribution lies, rather, in other areas. Carter is especially astute in tracing the interconnections between Roman and Judeo-Christian themes in the national past. He writes shrewdly on the intellectual alternatives to traditional religion that have arisen in the course of our history. And he describes with unusual sensitivity the ecological dimensions of American republicanism.
One of the special strengths of the book is Carter’s ability to show how religion has, on balance, strengthened the republican tradition. Along the way he does, to be sure, slander the Calvinism that constituted the central core of early American religion (it had “outrageous doctrines,” fostered “harsh usages,” and was an “oppressive faith”). At the same time, Carter also respects the way that this Calvinism, along with other supposedly reactionary beliefs (Catholic, evangelical Protestant, and Jewish), fostered the deep sense of personal moral responsibility without which republicanism would never have been possible. He also notes that it was a variant of the Calvinist creed which, during the nation’s deepest crisis, sustained the one whom Carter calls “A. Lincoln, Theologian.” Carter pays considerable attention to the force of the Bible in America, both where least expected (e.g., FDR’s first inaugural) as well as where most expected (e.g., the voluntary societies that civilized the wilderness during the early national period). And he writes with empathy (though not agreement) about the humane populism that inspired William Jennings Bryan’s crusade against evolution. The religious dimensions of American republicanism. Carter holds, deserve much of the credit for retarding the slide of republicanism into imperialism.
On that subject — the threat of republican decline — Carter has compiled an intriguing catalogue of commentators who have drawn parallels between the history of Rome and the history of the United States. Most of these authorities predicted that America would follow the Roman move from republic to benevolent empire to despotic imperialism. Much of Carter’s most intelligent analysis concerns the reasons why this move has not yet taken place, or at least why lapses toward imperialism have been episodic and momentary, rather than irreversible.
The way in which the growth of science has related to the republican ideal is a major theme in the last half of the book. Carter notes that many in the early heyday of the new university at the end of the nineteenth century felt that science on a large scale would require socialistic government on a large scale. What actually developed, instead, was the military-industrial complex, an arrangement with its own threats to republicanism. Carter hails the vigilance of conscientious guardians like President Eisenhower, who pointed out the collusive dangers of this threat, and commends their wisdom to the ardent militarists of the Reagan years.
A different set of strains attended the expansion of social science. Carter appreciates the learning and good will of influential theorists like John Dewey. But because he also believes that a religious point of reference is necessary for the healthy functioning of republicanism, Carter describes with telling insight the central dilemma of the social science ideal: “Pragmatic social democracy such as John Dewey professed had set itself an all-but-impossible intellectual goal: to revalidate, in acceptable modern scientific terms, a kind of politics that had been founded upon truths held to be self-evident, while denying on scientific grounds that anything can be self-evidently true.”
Carter writes most movingly when he writes about the West. If there is a hero in the book, it is John Wesley Powell, early explorer of the Grand Canyon, long-time and influential head of the United States Geological Survey, and ardent conservationist. Powell, who combined respect for scientific rigor, natural grandeur, and republican ideals, seems to embody the virtues that Carter also holds most dear. Carter’s fascination with the West leads him on to learned discussion of Frederick Jackson Turner’s “frontier thesis” (which, despite flaws, Carter holds to be the most influential statement ever by an historian of America), along with the views of Russian ecologists, American social scientists, and a wide variety of conservationists. The connections between Carter’s keen sense for nature and natural resources, on the one hand, and the history of republicanism, on the other, are not always as clear as they might be. The implicit claim, however, seems to be that just as religion provides a necessary moral ballast for the republican ideal, so does a healthy respect for the natural realm.
In the end, Revolt Against Destiny summons to reflection as much as to engagement. The book does not display, for example, the wounded zeal of John Patrick Diggins’ Lost Soul of American Politics. While Carter is no less impressed than Diggins with the virtues of hereditary religion and the importance of debating Locke’s place in the republican tradition, he is much more sanguine about the possibility of adding the strengths of liberalism to the virtues of republicanism. And while Carter has kind words for the socialist impulse, he finds its value as a counter-balancing corrective to the opposing excesses of unchecked individualism.
The book’s virtues are like those found in some other works by seasoned historians. Such people know too much about the past to believe in easy solutions to current problems. They resist the ideological quick-fix, partly from disposition, but also from having observed how easily flaming ideologues consume the structures they intend to save as well as those they struggle against. Yet along with the best historians. Carter’s instinct draws him to issues of deepest significance. In his case it is the nobility, but also the fragility, of the republican ideal; the notion that human virtue, however compromised, might truly establish a polity of freedom; and that a polity of freedom, however human, might truly encourage virtue. Carter’s admiration for that republican ideal is extraordinary. His account of why it has survived so long is compelling.
Mark A. Noll is Professor of History at Wheaton College and editor of Religion and American Politics from the Colonial Period to the 1980’s.