To understand a nation, look at its origins.
An American sociologist once said to me “If you want to establish a new nation based on either recusant Protestants or London criminals – pick the second.” Broad brush admittedly, but he had a point. Religion has been one determining factor. And to understand the present, it is wise to examine the origins.
Here are six determinative factors which set the USA on its way and extend their impact to the present day.
- A mercantile colonial foundation
- with ruthless indigenous suppression,
- economically dependent on slavery,
- bolstered by the Calvinism of the Pilgrim Fathers,
- born in by revolution and
- expanded by frequent wars.
The British colonies were often set up with private capital underwriting joint stock companies. It was mercantilism’s day. The Dutch, the French, the Spaniards, and the Portuguese were all in it. Get raw materials from the colonies, value add at home then sell at home and abroad. Getting rich was the objective.
The Virginia Company was chartered in 1606 to establish communities in North America. The early settlement was hard and competitive. The Dutch and French were in the race. Despite difficulties, Virginia advanced to being a colony in 1624. They belonged to England; they dispossessed the indigenous American Indians. They claimed they were entitled to do this. The new culture was immigrant, European and mainly English. Over time they developed the belief that it was their Manifest Destiny to rule from sea to shining sea. American exceptionalism was born.
Slavery was central to mercantile success. After a short experiment with indentured labour, slavery became the main source of labour. Racism was fundamental to seeing black Africans as property. With Emancipation in 1863, racism only intensified. this resulting in an apartheid system of legislation in the formerly slave states – the Jim Crow laws. Racism is endemic.
The Church of England was part of the new political structure of early American colonialism. This changed in 1620 when the Pilgrim Fathers arrived at Plymouth Massachusetts. They were separatists from the Church of England and Calvinistic Protestants. As other migrants arrived so, too, did other post-Reformation religions. Separation of church and state emerged as the solution. Meanwhile, Calvinistic belief in an interventionist God, the Protestant ethic of hard work and frugality, and predestination entered the mainstream culture. Over time, it overwhelmed the weaker religious adherence of earlier settlers.
Since then, religion has been a key cultural factor of America. If adherence waned, along would come a Great Awakening which revived religious enthusiasm. Sin and redemption, presided over by an angry God, were the central message. The revivalist preacher became a regular feature of American life. The Bible was the icon and its interpretation literal and Fundamentalist. A 2017 Gallup Poll shows 40% of USA citizens as creationists.
Revolution brewed in the mid-1700s. Mercantilism and expanding colonialism were making England rich. But there was a price to be paid. The East India Company incurred massive debt. A famine in Bengal triggered a debt and credit crisis which the English government had to bail out – another case of ‘too big to fail’. Colonial taxes were increased and resented by the locals. This became so acute in America that the 13 colonies got together and declared independence in1764.
George III’s government, confronted by rebellion, sent in the troops. This triggered the Revolutionary War which lasted seven years and happened when cash-strapped England struggled to afford it. Against the odds, the revolutionaries won, the 13 colonies federated and became the United States of America. The new nation’s constitution was approved in 1787.
That constitution was hammered into shape by a fortuitous coming together of well-educated men enthused by the Enlightenment and experienced in politics or governing. Its basic assumption was that authority came from the people, not from above. It was not the first flowering of democracy (each of the states already had democratic institutions) but it was the first to be built from the bottom up, systematically structuring a federal government which incorporated democracy, the three arms of government and checks to keep those arms in balance. Its crowning glory was the federation of 13 states to form one nation.
Emboldened by this success the nation looked to expand. First came the French Indian war resulting in cementing the new nation over other rivals – the French and then the Spaniards. This extended the nation to the west. The Louisiana Purchase in 1803 added massive territory further to the west. The Mexican War ended in 1848 and fulfilled the “Manifest Destiny” of sea to shining sea. America had become big and strong – but not without a fight. War accompanied the creation of the United States and was the engine of expansion on the North American continent.
But there have been countless overseas wars starting with Jefferson sending a US fleet to fight the Barbara Pirates in 1801. As the hymn of the US Marines goes: From the halls of Montezuma to the shores of Tripoli – we will fight out country’s battles on the land and on the sea. Sixty years later internal divisions led to the five year long Civil War. And it is not fully over yet as the flag-waving at the recent invasion of the Capitol demonstrated. South America, Europe, Korea, Vietnam, and the Middle East have been theatres for the US military.
Since its inception the USA has only had 17 years without war.
Today the USA is on the wane. Divisions that have been growing for some time resulted in the election of Donald Trump. His four years as President drew on those divisions and aggravated them to reach a culmination in an angry mob invading the seat of government. Playing on the resentment of those left behind, he enriched the plutocrats. The originating mercantilism was still there for all to see.
The dispossession of the indigenous Indians was one of the first issues taken up by the first President – George Washington and is still not satisfactorily solved.
The racism which accompanied African slavery has been an engine of division and discrimination. It mutated after emancipation, becoming worse under Jim Crow apartheid. It became ritualised by the Ku Klux Klan and was still there for all to see in the deadly liturgy of the Charleston rally.
Freedom of religion was a founding necessity. But it, too, has been politicised and become a vehicle of division. Concern for the poor, disadvantaged and politically powerless has been discarded and replaced with a Prosperity Gospel that rationalises the policy of poor social welfare. Self-justification takes the form of taking the high moral ground on totemic issues like abortion and “family values” which justify discrimination against homosexuality and gender dysphoria.
Whether my American sociologist friend, quoted at the beginning, is right is a matter for discussion. But his underlying assumption is correct. An emerging nation can never escape its origins.
Eric Hodgens is a retired Catholic Priest with a life-long interest in the US.