After having spent a week with some very fine persons, armed with very fine minds, I am depressed. Please don’t get me wrong. I had a wonderful time in Portland, and I’ve been thrilled (yes, truly thrilled) to have my family with me. Traveling across the northern part of the country with my family has been a dream of mine long before my family was even a material and spiritual reality.
We’ve hit all of the major Lewis and Clark sites on the way West, and we’re doing the same with Oregon Trail sites on the way home—with some major detours through Craters of the Moon, the Tetons, Yellowstone, and Laura Ingalls Wilder country. My three oldest have earned a number of “merit badges” (by no means, much to my surprise, an easy feat) at the various National Park Service sites we’ve visited, and I’ve been thoroughly impressed with the dedication of the NPS personnel I’ve met. Frankly, the experiences I’ve had with the NPS might very well prove a number of my theories and beliefs about federal bureaucracies wrong. If only they could get Americans to aim properly while using their restroom facilities. . . .
I have happily visited with my older brother and his daughter. I have seen his homely house and his farm, his grand abilities as an uncle, and his expertise in entrepreneurship, cooking, and tree herding. He is, simply put, one of the most honorable and talented persons I have or will ever have met.
I saw old friends who welcomed me and my family as would Mary and Martha, their children with souls as radiant as those wielded by their mothers.
I have stood, shoulder to shoulder, with my wife and children, overlooking the vast and overwhelming riverine, mountainous, and oceanic scapes of the northern Plains and Pacific Northwest. I have seen and photographed more statues of Lewis, Clark, York, Sacajawea, and Seaman (the loyal Newfoundland dog on the journey); I have stood where the actual, living, breathing, non-bronzed persons of the Corps of Discovery stood. I have seen the places of their glories, their monotonies, and their failures.
With them, I have wondered, and I have wandered.
And, as we begin our return trip westward this morning, I can now legitimately and happily proclaim that I have driven from the Atlantic to the Pacific in one summer. While I have done so not by foot, birch canoe, or dugout, I have done so.
And, yet that depression nags at me. I am, as are you, familiar with the many slogans and 19th-century bumper stickers. Oregon or bust. Westward, the course of empire Westward, I go free, but eastward I go unwillingly. Go West, young man.
Or, more realistically: Go West, middle-aged, graying man with large family, not as environmentally friendly as most Portlanders would wish.
None of these things depress me. I have had my joys—far beyond what I should expect—this summer, and my family and I have made many, many memories. None of us is the same after this trip.
My nagging depression comes from my fear of what the future holds and my realization of what the past offered for what we once called, proudly, if not always honestly, our republic.
How can one look back at the piercing light radiating from Philadelphia in the summer of 1787 and believe we have upheld the gifts of the Founders with any dignity or integrity? Confession of confessions, we simply can’t. The question then becomes, where did it all go wrong? Where did we squander our inheritance? Where did we, as Winston so wonderfully quoted the Roman Senator, Cicero, forget to refreshen the form and outlines of the painting?
A man I’ve admired for years but had never met–Ken Grasso, a scholar, a Christian gentleman, a New Yorker-turned-patriotic Texan, and now a friend—eloquently claimed that we had “crossed the Rubicon” when Jefferson purchased the Louisiana Territory. A man of great genius and possessed of the power of the spoken and written word, Grasso is no radical. He has no desire to give our 1803 acquisition back. But, he persuasively showed the disastrous effects of the decision, made in D.C., by our third president, the so-called Saint of Monticello.
But, of course, as we Americans should be painfully aware, the Americans could not remain content with the purchase of these 800,000 square miles of new land, purchased from Napoleon. Maybe this should’ve been a clue that something was not quite right with this purchase. Napoleon wasn’t exactly honorable. In the terms of the day (and eerily prophetic of a twentieth-century European expansionist), Americans “needed room to expand.”
Such a dramatic and radical step as Jefferson took in 1803 had serious consequences. No one suffered, ultimately, more than the original possessors of the land.
Indians in the East “had” to be removed, by military force if necessary, forced, ultimately, on small parcels of land. After massacring the rights of the Indians and either taking or destroying the resources upon which their lives and cultures depended, we brutalized the Hispanics, the Asians, and anyone else who didn’t seem to fit in properly with progressive, Protestant Anglo-Saxon-Celtic culture. Americans expanded and expanded, regardless of the consequences, heedless of “those over whom we purchased sovereignty” [E.L. Godkin], all to fulfill our so-called “Manifest Destiny.” Imperialism replaced the republicanism of the Constitution and became the new habit, the new Americanism.
So many excuses were offered, but none so heinous as “God willed it.”
If God truly did guide the Americans as the “New Chosen People,” He has one wicked and brutal sense of humor. And, since God is never (and never can be) evil, we can only conclude that Americans were either following the Fallen One or their own egos. Either way, America’s expansion into the West possessed much that was simply diabolical.
For 19th Century Americans to claim this expansion as divine or for modern Americans to ignore this part of our history is equally shameful.
The destruction of the Indians and abuse of the Hispanics should be obvious and painful to any thinking person. Rarely, though, do we think about what became of the republic itself—its institutions, its spirit, its self-respect. Our republic was never made for such reckless abandon, such imperial movement, whether we claimed expansion as a mission from God or not.
And, yet, we continue to expand, to project, to possess, to remake that which is not ours. The north of Mexico, Hawaii, Cuba, the Philippines, Central America…and the list goes on and on until we hand out cd-roms, filled with American founding documents to Iraqis, meanwhile oppressing those under the constitution through such perverted laws as the horribly named Patriot Act. If this is truly patriotism, may the good Lord protect us all.
So, depressingly, I think Professor Grasso is right. Thomas Jefferson—who missed the constitutional convention, who had no real stake in the constitution itself, who thought more of himself than he did his fellow countrymen or his slaves, and who, as governor, fled Virginia as a coward when British troops entered in state in 1780—overturned the meaning and intent of the Founding with his purchase in 1803. “All honor to Jefferson,” Lincoln proclaimed. As much as I respect and admire President Lincoln, I’m assuming that, in this case, he used the same judgement regarding Jefferson as he did when he choose to marry Mary Todd. What honor is there in Jefferson? His exploitation of his slaves, his weak speaking voice, his inability to look another in the eye, his Deism, his effeminate handshake, his cowardice, his going into debt for books and wine?
Diatribe aside, there’s much to argue. As historian Walter Nugent has effectively demonstrated, Americans have always been a people of war and empire. Certainly, since 1803, this has been true.
And, yet, it’s never so simple as I’ve stated it here on The Imaginative Conservative. The world of today, so dramatically shaped by the American Empire, is a hostile place, and we have enemies galore. I’m all in favor of protecting ourselves through a serious navy, army, air force and, especially, the marines—perhaps one of two greatest and best institutions of western civilization. (The other has been shaken by its inability to deal effectively with sexual perversion in its own ranks—may God protect it.)
Is it even possible for us as Americans to be honest, especially in our dealings with the rest of the world? If we really are fighting for the freedoms of men and women around the world, why do we oppress those at home? If we really are fighting because, as our last president put it, we believe (Poor St. Paul) that we have “freedom written on our hearts,” why do we allow the quarter-literate thugs of the TSA to violate our fourth amendment rights every time we decide to fly? Does anyone out there really believe that the suspension of the Bill or Rights has ever or can ever be worth the security such suspension supposedly brings us?
Again, a call for honesty. We are no longer a republic, it should be proclaimed, so that we no longer sully such a profoundly beautiful word. The chances of us ever reclaiming a republic is next to impossible. Of course, any thing is possible through Grace. But, I’m skeptical of renewal–why would God protect us when we remake and oppress in His name?
Any real renewal of western civilization, as Bruce Frohnen has argued on this site, will come only from the fostering of real community.
How will this come about? The American empire wants democracy and it has since Jefferson’s day as president. If the empire can divide us into individuals, each armed merely with one vote, it can prevent us from assembling, petitioning, and truly acting as communities.
As Thomas Fleming noted so perceptively at the beginning of the 1990s, “Truth is treason in an empire of lies.” We’ve been fed lie after lie from our federal government over the past several presidencies. Not only does the federal government lie to us directly, but through it numerous agencies of welfare and warfare, it lies to us indirectly, betraying its trust, its duty to protect our natural rights as unique and unrepeatable centers of dignity. No longer can we claim to be members of a republic (res publica–the good or common thing). We can speak only in terms of “the government” and us, distancing ourselves, abstracting ourselves from the ever consuming Leviathan on the Chesapeake. No one really claims to be a part of a common community any longer. We know the government is something other than us. It tries to purchase us through its gifts, it exploits us through its need to pay for such gifts, and it treats us at best, as wayward children, and, at worst, as slaves.
So, like the Stoics of old, conservatives must maintain that which really matters in life–the faculty of Reason and possession of our souls, knowing that all men and women of good will belong to a Country far beyond that which we can survey here and now. We must cultivate friendships—as C.S. Lewis recognized, always frowned upon in a democratic age, seen as too elitist and exclusive—and we must love and nurture our children.
Tragically, we barely possess the power to do this in the public (res publica) space; we must protect what little parcels of our private life, praying that neither the ATF nor the IRS take it all away in the burst of a flash-bang.
Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.