There have been, in the course of American History, different periods of development; an “evolution” or “progression” if you will, of our society. Today’s American citizenry would not recognize the Founders’ America any clearer than those American Founders would recognize today’s society. We exist on the same Continental soil, but beyond that, pitiful little have we in common.
Those periods of societal evolution can be traced, in large part, to a few historical events that had prodigious effects on American society, both politically and culturally. We shall explore only the most obvious of those in the next two installments for the sake of brevity.
Of course, to begin at the beginning, we must precede the beginning.
The Colonial Period: The Mayflower Compact was the first document in the New World which set forth and outlined the commitment to rule of law and self governance for the good of society, in the absence of a ruling power. (While they agreed to status of “loyal subjects of the King” of Britain, the Pilgrims were on their own, as there was no pre-existing structure of government and law enforcement.) Only the “Laws of Nature and Nature’s God” would be enforceable in this wilderness settlement for several years, until the Colony became established. Survival was the immediate goal; all else would become secondary. Self governance of the individual would become the key to the survival of the community.
This principle carried through the entire colonial period and served to galvanize the American culture as the frontier was settled. As the Colonies became more prosperous, the British Crown exacted more governance, the end of which was the eight year long American Revolutionary War and subsequent independence.
Post Revolution: The ratification of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights emphasized those same principles of self governance, delineating the limitations of Federal government, and charging the Federal and State governments with protecting and preserving the rights of the individual. Continuing the American tradition of “Rule of Law”, the individual citizen continues to recognize the importance of self control and the intrinsic value of citizenship. Not “citizenship” as in simply “born in America” therefore due an equal portion, but citizenship as in exercising ones God given rights, not to mention ones duty, in civil matters as well as socially. The cooperation of responsible individuals makes for responsible communities. Likewise, the responsible community holds the individual accountable, and the personal accountability is rooted in belief and faith in a Supreme Deity which is the ultimate Judge and Lawgiver. In Western civilization, that faith foundation is and has been for Millennia, Judeo-Christian.
James Madison, Member of the 1st Congress and 4th President of the United States said this concerning self governance: “The future of America lies not in the Constitution, or anything but our ability to govern ourselves according to the Ten Commandments of God.” That sentiment is echoed in the words of former Speaker of the House (1847-1849) Robert Winthrop: “Men, in a word, must necessarily be controlled either by a power within them or by a power without them; either by the Word of God or by the strong arm of man; either by the Bible or by the bayonet.”
John Adams, the 2nd President had this to say, “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people; it is wholly inadequate to the governance of any other.” This was not an uncommon sentiment in early America. In fact, it had so saturated American culture that in 1838 the New York State Legislature issued this statement:
“With us it is wisely ordered that no one religion shall be established by law, but that all persons shall be left free in their choice and in their mode of worship. Still, this is a Christian nation. Ninety-nine hundredths, if not a larger proportion, of our whole population, believe in the general doctrines of the Christian religion. Our Government depends for its being on the virtue of the people, — on that virtue that has its foundation in the morality of the Christian religion; and that religion is the common and prevailing faith of the people. “[Christian Life and Character of the Civil Institutions of the United States, Developed in the Official and Historical Annals of the Republic, 1864, B.F. Morris]
Can you imagine any governing body today, let alone a state legislature, issuing such a statement?!
This was the period (early to mid-1800’s) known as the “Second Great Awakening”; when Christian Revival swept across the land. It lasted up into the Civil War years. (“The Great Awakening” was 100 years earlier, fostered by missionaries and itinerate preachers like Charles Finney and David Brainerd.)
The Civil War/War Between the States: The war that divided America was a particularly horrendous event, which if Europe had not been previously devastated by war itself, could very well have been used by European nations to regain the entire North American Continent. This time in American history has always been a point of fascination for me personally.
The technological advances of weaponry during the Civil War were so rapid that the antiquated tactics of massing forces to take a battlefield resulted in massive bloodshed. Casualties would mount into the tens of thousands during a single battle. Three days of fighting at Gettysburg in 100 degree July heat would result in 51,000 casualties; dead, wounded, or missing from both sides. “The Bloodiest Day” at Antietam Creek saw 26,000 Americans dead or wounded. Sometimes it took weeks to bury the dead.
This was the most horrendous 4 years in American history. Over 600,000 American soldiers, North and South, died during this time. That is more than all the subsequent wars fought since, combined.
The newest journalistic tool in 1862 was the camera. Matthew Brady exposed hundreds of plates burnishing the images of bloated dead American men, many where he found them on the field, into the minds of civilians who never heard a shot fired. These images haunt us yet today. Find them. Study them.
I once heard a historian say that the Civil War defined us as a people. I disagree. I believe this was a tragedy of such magnitude that America became shell shocked and never fully understood who she was afterward. This war was not fought on some remote field in another land; it happened on our front lawns, our corn fields, and in our living rooms. We witnessed it first hand; saw our sons butchered in muddy ditches that drained into creeks thickened with their blood. We picked up their severed body parts from among our dead livestock. Our brothers returned maimed for life, and many of our fathers and husbands simply never came home. Hunger and disease took its toll on civilians across the land. America never recovered from this emotional trauma. [Note: The Civil War was a politically complicated affair and had the Confederacy gained its independence as a sovereign nation, there would certainly have been another war (over western expansion) that could very well have been much worse than what was.]
The economic destruction from the war was no less debilitating if not crippling. Politically, a sea change had occurred as a result of the Civil War. A stronger and much more centralized Federal government sprang forth from the ashes and was fertilized by the stench of death. Perhaps most importantly, the spiritual breath had been knocked out of American society. The faith of the American people had been shaken; their resolve and purpose brought into question, and answers were in short supply.
As a result, for the next 3 decades, many Americans trying to put the war years behind them, turned westward. Whatever happened in Washington or the East was of little or no concern to a war weary population. Homestead land allotments offered many Americans their first taste of government subsidization. The taste was sweet. The promise of a new start was even sweeter in “your America”.