As a polity and culture, America is heterogeneous. It was built on two pillars, those of Puritanism and the Enlightenment. America was created twice, the first time when the Pilgrim Fathers landed at Plymouth Rock in 1620, and the second time when the Founding Fathers declared independence from England in 1776 and thus re-created America as an enlightened republic.

The Pilgrim Fathers were motivated by a religious idea and their aim was the creation of a theocratic state. One can hardly overestimate the impact of Puritanism on America. John Higham writes in The Reconstruction of American History in 1962 that ‘Puritanism, as a living religious tradition, died out in the course of the eighteenth century but elements of the tradition lived on … Until quite recently, New England dominated American culture and New England was wholly Puritan in origin’.

Puritans had a vision of creating a perfect community. John Winthrop talks in a sermon, delivered in 1630, about a city upon a hill, a new Jerusalem to be built in New England which would be a visible sign of the Puritans’ covenant with God. Winthrop was one of the ‘saints’ in early New England who acted as guardians of the Godly Commonwealth.

The Founding Fathers, in contrast, cared primarily about the rational organisation of the state whose role was to create an environment in which people could focus on the pursuit of happiness. The aim of the state was the safety and happiness of its citizens rather than some grand, religiously inspired project. Happiness features prominently in the Declaration of Independence:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness … it is the Right of the People to … institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

Many Enlightenment thinkers were so enthusiastic about the notion of the perfectibility of man that they cared little about ordinary human needs and desires. The project of building an enlightened republic could only succeed with the participation of informed citizenry. Ordinary folk had to transform themselves from subjects of a king into citizens. Thus, the mission of the Founding Fathers was to create democratic institutions which would ensure the participation of all citizenry in the process of nation-building.

It is significant that one of the Founding Fathers and an archetypal American, Benjamin Franklin, is also the founder of a library which was perceived by him as essential in this process. Franklin was obsessed with moral and intellectual improvement through study. He approached his project of making himself a better person with quasi-religious zeal. Raised as a Presbyterian, Franklin abandoned his church to become a deist. Sunday, which should be a day of worship, is now devoted to studies. He wanted nothing less than moral perfection.

The American Revolution triggered a process of democratisation which seemed to be unstoppable. However this process also involved uniformisation of convictions and behaviour. Alexis de Tocqueville, in Democracy in America, is sceptical about the dominant doctrine of the Republic, that of the perfectibility of man.

It is impossible, Tocqueville writes, to make people more intelligent for the simple reason that intellectual work requires considerable time to be devoted to it. Tocqueville discovers in democracy the propensity to act impulsively in the search for instantaneous gratification. In a democratic society, the dominant majority makes dissent futile. People are strongly convinced that they live in the best of all possible worlds and do not tolerate criticism. ‘I know of no country in which there is so little independence of mind and real freedom of discussion as in America. … The majority lives in the perpetual utterance of self-applause’ .

Having two sources of its political and cultural tradition, America is dichotomic.  There is a fruitful tension in American life between religious zeal and secular ideas of the Enlightenment, idealism and pragmatism, and elitism and egalitarianism.

This post is composed of fragments of “Carol Kennicott’s dilemma”, an article published in The Australian Library Journal, 2015, v. 64, no. 1, 48-56


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