As an American Studies major at Hillsdale, I am confronted with this question often. I have to admit that sometimes it is unsettling to think that I often feel incompetent in answering the questions that lies at the heart of my area of concentration. While I don’t have a comprehensive answer, the following are some characteristics that I believe characterize the American people. I welcome and encourage discussion, criticism, additions, etc.
1) the little “platoons”–From Burke to Tocqueville to Kirk, some of the greatest minds have recognized the uniqueness of the American people to form voluntary assemblies and organizations. From the Temperance Society to the American Red Cross to the NRA to Boy Scouts to the YMCA, men and women have joined hands in creating communities that worked towards a common end. These common ends may often focus on one specific thing, but more often then not they seek to preserve the common good and to unify people towards a common cause. These associations, as Tocqueville so acutely recognized, tempered the rugged individualism that could easily veer into anarchy, or at the very least selfishness.
2) aesthetic purity–The American people have never been knights or royal blood, and though remnants of the Medieval serfdom and nobility seeped into American culture, particularly into the South, for the most part, a simple way of living seemed to define the American lifestyle until the Guilded Age. Ambition has always spurred immigrants to move to America and has also caused emigrants to move Westward. Yet, many of those Westward travelers did not hope to get rich fast, with exception of the miners; instead, they wanted to have their own plot of land to till the soil, plant crops, and cultivate the earth. They wanted to live self-sufficiently, revering God’s power in nature, helping their neighbors when they suffered hard times, and strengthening the bonds of family in the midst of hard work. The Laura Engels Wilder books, Willa Cather’s My Antonia, and the Ralph Moody books demonstrate this frontier life that began with the puritans and continued well into the 19th century. This simple lifestyle has diminished in much of modern-day America, with the decadence of American’s diets, convenience of one new invention after another, and American’s growing materialism, but I still believe the aesthetic purity lies dormant in many American’s souls.
3) The guttural and intellectual instinct to protect and defend property–The republican ideal of property rights being our first and most important right has remained a definitive element of the American people. At the battle of Lexington and Concord, men stood together to defend their little plot of the earth, and to defend their families and their communities. Though armed, they followed the Anglo-Saxon myth of peacefully protesting by standing against Norman tyranny. The British forced fired at them and ended all hopes of restoration. Just as this moment lit the flames that inspired many colonists to sacrifice their lives for their rights, men have continued to cling to their rights, as demonstrated by recent events like the tea party movement. While Europeans seem willing to surrender to socialist programs, the American people remain determined to protect the individuals rights to keep what each man earns, free speech, freedom of religion, press, the right to bear arms, and many others. Though some have succumb to socialists ideas, the resurgence of conservative in the new House represents a rekindling of the Americans’ love of property and their willingness to defend it.
4) We can fix it attitude–Americans often seem to think that when they see a problem, they must find a solution. This instinctive response often is at tension with the Conservative understanding of the falleness of man. As early as Thomas Paine’s Common Sense revealed the American’s readiness to see a problem, in this case Britain’s abuse, and solve the solution with war. Though this instinct often leaves Americans hopeful, it also leads to government intervention when the people can’t find a solution on their own. The War on Poverty, on Terrorism, the crisis in education, and many other “crises” have spiraled into a massive bureaucratic work force to “fix” solutions that 1) are out of their control, and 2) are not completely fixable. For example, the Bible states in John 12:8, “You will always have the poor among you;” thus, the idea that we can eliminate poverty is Utopian. Should we do everything in our power to serve the poor? As citizens and Christians, I believe the answer is yes, but the falleness of man will still leave some impoverished monetarily.
5) The culmination of the Western man–as Kirk asserts in Roots of American Order, the American culture and constitution are results of thousands of years of history that derived especially from Jerusalem, Greece, Rome, and London. Our understanding of God, His order, ordered liberty, reason, politics, common law and free market economics is deeply seeded in the Western tradition, and this tradition is a fundamental part of the mythos that characterizes the American narrative.
Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.