State of the Union

The Case for “Serfdom,” Rightly Understood

Baker County Tourism / Flickr
Baker County Tourism / Flickr

Last Saturday I had the honor of addressing the 50th anniversary meeting of the Philadelphia Society. The title of the meeting was “The Road Ahead—Serfdom or Liberty?” My remarks sought to suggest that conservatives should be more circumspect about their rote incantation of the word “liberty,” and that there may even be something to be said for “serfdom,” properly understood. My remarks in full are printed, below.

“The Road Ahead—Serfdom or Liberty?”

 The Philadelphia Society Annual Meeting—50th Anniversary

Patrick J. Deneen, The University of Notre Dame

I would like to begin my remarks by calling to mind two commercials that aired at different points during the last five years. The first aired in 2010, and was produced by the Census Bureau in an effort to encourage Americans to fill out their census forms. It opens with a man sitting in his living room dressed in a bathrobe, who talks directly into the camera in order to tell viewers that they should fill out the census form, as he’s doing from his vantage as a couch potato.

Fill out the census, he says, so that you can help your neighbors—and at this point he gets out his chair and walks out the front door, past his yard and the white picket fence and points at his neighbors who are getting into their car—You can help Mr. Griffith with better roads for his daily car pool commute, he says—and then, indicating the kids next door, “and Pete and Jen for a better school,” and continues walking down the street. Now neighbors are streaming into the quaint neighborhood street, and he tells us that by filling out the census, we can help Reesa with her healthcare (she’s being wheeled by in a gurney, about to give birth), and so on… “Fill it out and mail it back,” he screams through a bullhorn from a middle of a crowded street, “so that we can all get our fair share of funding, and you can make your town a better place!”

The other ad, produced in 2012, was produced by the Obama re-election campaign, though it was not aired on television and has today disappeared from the internet. It was entitled “The Life of Julia,” and in a series of slides it purported to show how government programs had supported a woman named Julia at every point in her life, from preschool funds from a young age to college loans to assistance for a start up to healthcare and finally retirement. In contrast to the Census commercial—which portrayed a neighborhood street filled with people who knew each others’ names—“The Life of Julia” portrayed a woman who appeared to exist without any human ties or relationships, except—in one poignant slide—a child that had suddenly appeared but who was about to be taken away on a little yellow school bus, and as far as we’re shown, is never seen again. No parents, no husband, a child who disappears.

The first ad is a kind of Potemkin Village behind which is the second ad. The first ad shows a thriving community in which everyone knows each others’ names, and as you watch it—if you aren’t duped by what it’s portraying—you are left wondering why in the world would we need government to take care of our neighbors if we knew each other so well? Why is my obligation to these neighbors best fulfilled by filling out the Census form? The commercial is appealing to our cooperative nature and our sense of strong community ties to encourage us to fill out the Census form, but in fact—as the commercial tells us—it is in order to relieve us of the responsibility of taking care of each other; perhaps more accurately, it’s reflecting a world in which increasingly we don’t know our neighbor’s names, and instead turn to the government for assistance in times of need.

The second commercial is what lies “behind” the Potemkin village of the first. Read More…

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Even If Hobby Lobby Wins, We Lose

Today’s Supreme Court oral argument, in the case of Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc. and Conestoga Wood Specialties Corp. v. Sebelius, is correctly understood to pit defenders of religious liberty against those who believe that the government has a compelling interest in requiring employers to provide contraception, abortifacients, and sterilization services through their healthcare policies. In significant part, the case hinges on whether the companies—privately held businesses whose owners are unquestionably deeply religious individuals, and who run their businesses informed by those views—can be considered “persons” under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. I, like many Christians, hope their case prevails.

But while the businesses are often characterized as “family-owned businesses,” each is a national business with hundreds of employees and multi-state operations. Hobby Lobby is by far the larger chain, with 640 stores that employs 28,000 individuals. While it has religiously-themed goods, plays Christian music, and closes on Sundays, in most respects it is identifiably a “big-box” store that can usually be found in major retail corridors, surrounded by acres of concrete and provisioned largely by merchandise made in China. While it is a “family-owned” business, it is hardly a mom-and-pop shop.

The dominant narrative—religious liberty against state-mandated contraception—altogether ignores the economic nature of the case, and the deeper connections between the economy in which Hobby Lobby successfully and eagerly engages and a society that embraces contraception, abortion, sterilization, and, altogether, infertility. Largely ignored is the fact Hobby Lobby is a significant player in a global economy that has separated markets from morality. Even as it is a Christian-themed brand, it operates in a decisively “secular” economic world. It is almost wholly disembedded from any particular community; its model, like that of all major box stores, is to benefit from economies of scale through standardization and aggressive price-cutting, relying on cheap overseas producers and retail settings that are devoid of any particular cultural or local distinction. The setting where one finds Hobby Lobby near us—on Grape Road in nearby Mishawaka—is about as profane imaginable a place on earth, accessible by six lanes of concrete roads where there is a heavy concentration of large chain retailers, where it anchors a sensory-deadening row of retail store fronts that border acres of cracked and barren pavement, awash in discarded plastic bags and crumpled fast food wrappers. On the rare occasion that I enter the store, even amid the Chinese mass-produced crosses and the piped in Christian music, under the endless florescent lighting and displays carefully-managed to optimize impulse buying, I am hardly moved to a state of piety, prayer, and thanksgiving. I am, like everyone else, looking for the least chintzy item at the cheapest price.

Hobby Lobby—like every chain store of its kind—participates in an economy that is no longer “religious” or even “moral.” That is, it participates in an economy that arose based on the rejection of the subordination of markets embedded within, and subject to, social and moral structures. This “Great Transformation” was detailed and described with great acuity by Karl Polanyi in his masterful 1944 book of that title. He described a sea change of economic practice that took place especially beginning in the 19th-century, but whose theoretical groundwork had been laid already in the 17th- and 18th-centuries by thinkers like Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and Adam Smith. As he succinctly described this “transformation,” previous economic arrangements in which markets were “embedded” within moral and social structures, practices, and customs were replaced by ones in which markets were liberated from those contexts, and shorn of controlling moral and religious norms and ends. “Ultimately that is why the control of the economic system by the market is of overwhelming consequence to the whole organization of society: it means no less than the running of society as an adjunct to the market. Instead of economy being embedded in social relations, social relations are embedded in the economic system.” Read More…

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What’s Wrong with Academic Freedom

Rarely do opinion pieces in college newspapers emerge as subjects of national controversy, but a recent essay by Harvard student Sandra Y.L. Korn has generated widespread denunciation among conservatives. Her essay—entitled “The Doctrine of Academic Freedom“—argues for dispensing with longstanding commitments to “academic freedom” in favor of what she calls “academic justice.” Academic freedom permits the airing and defense of any and all views, but she rightly notes that some views have come to be largely unacceptable in academia today. Since such views are not only socially unacceptable, but often discouraged or even prohibited as a matter of university policy, why should they not also be banned when they are articulated as findings of faculty research?

If our university community opposes racism, sexism, and heterosexism, why should we put up with research that counters our goals simply in the name of ‘academic freedom’? Instead, I would like to propose a more rigorous standard: one of ‘academic justice.’ When an academic community observes research promoting or justifying oppression, it should ensure that this research does not continue.

As might be expected, Ms. Korn’s essay has provoked strenuous criticism, including accusations of “academic totalitarianism,” investigations into her personal background aimed at exposing her as a limousine liberal, and criticism from at least one highly visible blusterer in the conservative media.

The default position of these conservatives is that Ms. Korn is attacking the sacred holy of the academic enterprise—academic freedom. In other words, mainstream conservatives have adopted the view of … John Stuart Mill, the lion of liberalism. The same John Stuart Mill who stated that most stupid people are likely to be conservative. And perhaps he had a point. Because academic freedom is not a particularly conservative principle. Academic freedom has been the vehicle by which the universities have been transformed into liberal bastions today, but it is now the inviolable principle that conservatives are rallying around in their denunciation of a Harvard undergraduate. True to form, and as I have argued in a previous column, American conservatives tend to be subject to drift, and almost inevitably end up occupying the territory once held by liberals when they move leftward. Their rallying to apparently contentless “academic freedom” is a particularly vivid case in point.

I agree with Ms. Korn—academic institutions inevitably are dedicated to some substantial commitments, and (often with difficulty) attempt to “patrol” those boundaries, if not with sticks, more often by populating their institutions with people who generally share those commitments. “Academic freedom” was the means by which the substantial commitments once held mainly by religious institutions were initially destabilized and eventually rejected, and provided the cover for their replacement with a new set of commitments. “Academic freedom” purports to be an openness to all views and opinions, but itself contains an implicit philosophy that eventually becomes manifest in, well, Sandra Korn (who is entitled to the confident assertion of the victory that has been won on today’s campuses by her teachers). Read More…

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Liberalism’s (Un)Limited Government

Why is it that today’s liberals have become the most ardent cheerleaders of arbitrary monarchy? Wasn’t liberalism born of the effort to limit arbitrary rule of a single, unelected ruler?

No, I’m not suggesting that the Left has suddenly decided that they regret the American Revolution. But, in nearly every leading liberal magazine, newspaper and blog, there is a growing excitement and hope that Pope Francis will change the Roman Catholic Church’s “policies” on birth control, male celibate priesthood, homosexuality, gay marriage, divorce and (some, at least, though far fewer) abortion. They have celebrated the appointment of Pope Francis as a sign that the Church is finally going to join the modern world, and fervently hope that he will simply declare that those teachings are no longer valid and embrace today’s accepted orthodoxies. They yearn for executive fiat.

It is striking to witness this palpable longing in juxtaposition of the absence of any real concern on the Left about possible abrogations of the rule of law arising from President Obama’s decision to suspend the “employer mandate” until 2015, and general support of the President’s assertion that in the face of Congressional opposition that he has recourse to the “Pen and the Phone.” And, after a season of accusatory lamentation about Pope Benedict’s authoritarian treatment of the “Nuns on the Bus,” there has been deafening silence from the Left over the Obama administration’s decision to go to court to force the Little Sisters of the Poor to violate their conscience in accepting provision of contraception, abortifacients, and sterilization.

Liberalism was born, the story goes, as a reaction against arbitrary and unlimited rule by monarchs. Yet, today’s liberals seem to adore executive power when it’s used to effect their preferred ends, even hoping that one of the only remaining “monarchs”—the Pope—will single-handedly change the “rules” of the Church. They wish to exchange “fiat” in the sense of “let it be done” to “fiat” in the sense of “do as I say.”

(Of course, “conservatives” don’t escape from this general inclination—they tend also to be ardent supporters of expansive executive power when one of their own is in office, and it is generally conservative intellectuals who have been most interested in developing theories about active executive power.)

What happened to limited government, you might ask? I answer: exactly what liberalism promised. For, liberalism was never about “limited” government, but the pursuit and exercise of potentially limitless power toward seemingly “limited” ends of securing Rights. Read More…

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A Catholic Showdown Worth Watching

For most casual observers, whether Catholic or not, the main battle lines within American Catholicism today seem self-evident. The cleavage overlaps perfectly the divide between the political parties, leading to the frequently-used labels “liberal” and “conservative” Catholics. We have Nancy Pelosi and Andrew Cuomo representing the Left, and Rick Santorum and Sam Brownback aligned with the Right. Mainstream opinion has classified Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI as honorary Republicans, and Pope Francis as a Democrat (hence, why he is appearing on the covers of Time and Rolling Stone magazines).

This division does indeed capture real battle lines, but more than anything, the divide is merely an extension of our politics, and—while manned by real actors—does not capture where the real action is to be found today in American Catholic circles.

The real action does not involve liberal “Catholics” at all. Liberal Catholicism, while well-represented in elite circles of the Democratic Party, qua Catholicism is finished. Liberal Catholicism has no future—like liberal Protestantism, it is fated to become liberalism simpliciter within a generation. The children of liberal Catholics will either want their liberalism unvarnished by incense and holy water, or they will rebel and ask if there’s something more challenging, disobeying their parents by “reverting” to Catholicism. While “liberal” Catholicism will appear to be a force because it will continue to have political representation, as a “project” and a theology, like liberal Protestantism it is doomed to oblivion.

The real battle is taking place beyond the purview of the pages of Time Magazine and the New York Times. The battle pits two camps of “conservative” Catholicism (let’s dispense with that label immediately and permanently—as my argument suggests, and others have said better, our political labels are inadequate to the task).

On the one side one finds an older American tradition of orthodox Catholicism as it has developed in the nation since the mid-twentieth century. It is closely aligned to the work of the Jesuit theologian John Courtney Murray, and its most visible proponent today is George Weigel, who has inherited the mantle from Richard John Neuhaus and Michael Novak. Its intellectual home remains the journal founded by Neuhaus, First Things. Among its number can be counted thinkers like Robert GeorgeHadley ArkesRobert Royal, and—if somewhat quirkier than these others—Peter Lawler.

Its basic positions align closely to the arguments developed by John Courtney Murray and others. Essentially, there is no fundamental contradiction between liberal democracy and Catholicism. Liberal democracy is, or at its best can be, a tolerant home for Catholics, one that acknowledges contributions of the Catholic tradition and is leavened by its moral commitments. While liberalism alone can be brittle and thin—its stated neutrality can leave it awash in relativism and indifferentism—it is deepened and rendered more sustainable by the Catholic presence. Murray went so far as to argue that America is in fact more Catholic than even its Protestant founders realized—that they availed themselves unknowingly of a longer and deeper tradition of natural law that undergirded the thinner liberal commitments of the American founding. The Founders “built better than they knew,” and so it is Catholics like Orestes Brownson and Murray, and not liberal lions like John Locke or Thomas Jefferson, who have better articulated and today defends the American project. Read More…

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Corporatism and Gay Marriage: Natural Bedfellows

One of the truer sayings that comes down to us is that “politics makes strange bedfellows.” Coalitions form and dissolve according to changing political winds and tides, and at times temporary partnerships are forged that are at best amusing, at worst, incoherent. The home-schooling movement has brought together anarchist hippies and conservative Christians; libertarians and social conservatives have spent some time shacked up together in their common animus against the activist liberal State; today, Catholics and evangelicals often find themselves manning the barricades against the HHS mandate. The list is long and sometimes amusing if not jarring.

One of the more remarkable partnerships that is least remarked upon today is the coalition that has formed around the effort to advance gay marriage—namely, left-leaning gay activists and corporations. If any political antipathy seemed to be permanent and unchangeable, one would have believed that it would be the Left’s hatred of the Corporation. Corporations, by the Left’s telling, represent almost everything that is wrong in contemporary America—crony capitalism, structural inequality, environmental degradation, worker indignity—in short, legalized immorality. Occupy Wall Street designated the corporation as Enemy #1, and the Left generally begins foaming at the mouth at the mere mention of Citizens United as, effectively, a coup by corporate America against democracy.

Yet, generally unremarked upon has been the deep friendliness between the Left and corporations in the most burning issue of the day (according to the Grammy Awards at least)—gay marriage. It has been particularly noticeable to me as a recently transplanted Hoosier, given recent efforts to defeat the proposed amendment banning gay-marriage in Indiana by a combination of Left gay-activists and corporations. To the extent that the amendment has run into trouble, it has been arguably because of the concerted resistance not by the activist Left—who were always going to have limited traction with an overwhelmingly Republican state legislature—but corporations.

Here is what those corporations are saying: “A ban would tell talented workers to stay out of Indiana.” According to Marya Rose, chief administrative officer for Indiana-based company Cummins, “If we have a climate in our state that makes people feel unwelcome in any way, we think that’s bad for Cummins, and we think that’s bad for business.” Similar arguments have been made by Nike in Oregon and General Mills in Minnesota. In New York, the push for legal recognition of gay marriage received major financial backing from some of the oft-denounced “wolves” of Wall Street—many of them prominent in conservative circles, especially Paul E. Singer, chairman of the conservative think-tank the Manhattan Institute. In Indiana, a coalition combining gay activists and corporations has been formed under the banner, “Freedom Indiana.”

In a period when the Left takes up the banner decrying “income inequality,” it should at least give pause to see them cozy up to corporate elites in support of their most darling issue of the day. Indeed, what is most striking is the not-so-subtle threat that is made by opponents of the Indiana gay-marriage amendment: if you pass this ban, talented people will leave, and even corporations will find it difficult to remain. The same threat that is often used by corporations to compel localities into watering down collective-bargaining powers, diluting environmental restrictions, crafting significant tax breaks and “sweetheart deals” is now being used by proponents of gay marriage to threaten the legislators of Indiana. A state struggling with high unemployment and a rust-belt economy can ill-afford to upset the Masters of the Universe.

Perhaps this is merely a marriage (no pun intended) of convenience, an instance of “strange bedfellows.” However, a deeper connection is discernible. Long before the current debate over gay marriage, modern capitalism required the redefinition of the family and marriage. Gay marriage is only the logical conclusion of a long process of the redefinition of marriage into a largely private, interpersonal bond whose main purpose is the self-actualization and personal fulfillment of the contracting individuals, to be made and remade at the convenience of both or even one of the contracting parties. Read More…

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A Culture of Life

The Supreme Court. Orhan Cam / Shutterstock.com
The Supreme Court. Orhan Cam / Shutterstock.com

Today marks the 41st anniversary of the national legalization of abortion in the United States. Thousands will march on the Mall and in the streets of Washington D.C. in protest of this decision, braving frigid temperatures and a blanket of snow to express their profound moral objection to Roe v. Wade and lamenting the estimated 55 million young lives that were legally extinguished since January 22, 1973.

The March for Life has become a rallying point for the pro-life movement, an annual pilgrimage of sorts, especially for young people who gather together to affirm a bedrock belief: the sanctity of human life from conception to natural death. Even amid the overwhelming sense of tragedy and loss that draws them to D.C., in order, it is hoped, to effect a change, there is also a sense of affirmation and even celebration in the company of many others who are also so firmly committed, who gather to defend a belief that is today dismissed and mocked by cultural elites and cognoscenti (including the governor of New York, purportedly a Catholic), who find joy in the fellowship of so many companions who stand for life. As one friend posted on Facebook, “the Tribe is together.”

Amid the widespread sense of shared purpose, there is perhaps little time or inclination to reflect on a question: why gather, as Marchers do, in Washington D.C.? It is perhaps a question whose answer is self-evident: the March ends outside the Supreme Court, which continues to affirm Roe v. Wade as controlling precedent. It is the location of the president and the Senate, which ultimately has the power to make or confirm appointments to the Court. It is the nation’s media center, where such a protest has the best chance of being amplified to the nation. It is physically laid out to accommodate large protests, with its Mall almost seeming to have been designed for that purpose. It is the nation’s capital, where our elites congregate to make policy and steer the nation. Naturally, if people from all parts of the nation gather in protest of a national issue, it is not only the best place, but the only place.

However, the March’s annual presence in D.C. obscures a number of issues, above all, whether abortion is ultimately a political and even legal matter. On one level, inescapably so: it has been a political matter for decades, even a “wedge” issue that has become a defining difference between the two political parties. It is obviously a legal issue, generating countless pages of legal theory and philosophical argument, as well as scores of subsequent High Court and even more lower court decisions that have responded to ongoing challenges and debates over the issue. So perhaps no further thought is necessary—destination D.C.

However, by other considerations, treating it exclusively as a political and legal matter obscures the extent to which it is most fully a question of culture. And, if conservatives would generally tend to agree on one thing—aside from the immorality of abortion—it is that culture does not originate in Washington, D.C., or at least that it shouldn’t. Read More…

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Would Someone Just Shut That Pope Up?

Since the release of Evangelii Gaudium there have been countless articles and commentary about the economic portions of Pope Francis’s Apostolic Exhortation. Some of the commentary has been downright bizarre, such as Rush Limbaugh denouncing the Pope as a Marxist, or Stuart Varney accusing Francis of being a neo-socialist. American conservatives grumbled but dutifully denounced a distorting media when Pope Francis seemed to go wobbly on homosexuality, but his criticisms of capitalism have crossed the line, and we now see the Pope being criticized and even denounced from nearly every rightward-leaning media pulpit in the land.

Not far below the surface of many of these critiques one hears the following refrain: why can’t the Pope just go back to talking about abortion? Why can’t we return the good old days of Pope John Paul II or Benedict XVI and talk 24/7/365 about sex? Why doesn’t Francis have the decency to limit himself to talking about Jesus and gays, while avoiding the rudeness of discussing economics in mixed company, an issue about which he has no expertise or competence?

There are subtle and brash versions of this plea. At “The Catholic Thing,” Hadley Arkes has penned a characteristically elegant essay in which he notes that Francis is generally correct on teachings about marriage and abortion, but touches on these subjects too briefly, cursorily and with unwelcome caveats of sorts. At the same time, Francis goes on at length about the inequalities and harm caused by free market economies, which moves Hadley to counsel the Pope to consult next time with Michael Novak. The upshot—be as brief as the Gettysburg Address in matters pertaining to economics, and loquacious as Edward Everett when it comes to erotics.

On the brash side there is Larry Kudlow, who nearly hyperventilates when it comes to his disagreement with Pope Francis, accusing him of harboring sympathies with Communist Russia and not sufficiently appreciating Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, and Pope John Paul II. (R. R. Reno, who is briefly allowed to get a word in edgewise, wisely counseled Kudlow not to fight the last war—or, the one fought three wars ago, for that matter.) Revealingly, Kudlow counsels the Pope to concentrate on “moral and religious reform,” and that he should “harp” instead on “morality, spiritualism and religiosity,” while ceasing to speak about matters economic. Similarly, Judge Napolitano, responding to a challenge from Stuart Varney on why the Pope is talking about economics, responded: “I wish he would stick to faith and morals, on which he is very sound and traditional.”

These commentators all but come and out say: we embrace Catholic teaching when it concerns itself with “faith and morals”—when it denounces abortion, opposes gay marriage, and urges personal charity. This is the Catholicism that has been acceptable in polite conversation. This is a stripped-down Catholicism that doesn’t challenge fundamental articles of economic faith. Read More…

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Common Core and the American Republic

On September 9, 2013, a conference entitled “The Changing Role of Education in America: Consequences of the Common Core” was held at the University of Notre Dame.  I was invited to deliver an introductory set of remarks on the first panel of that conference. I post those comments here in full.

(Following the conference, a first-rate letter opposing the adoption of the Common Core in Catholic schools, composed by ND Law Professor Gerard Bradley, was circulated widely to Catholic faculty. I was proud to sign this letter, which stresses especially the profound insufficiency the narrowly utilitarian aims of the Common Core curriculum).

The Purpose of Education in American Society

Remarks Delivered at the Common Core Conference

September 9, 2013

University of Notre Dame

I have been teaching a freshman seminar for about eight years that is entitled “The End of Education.” In the seminar we study about ten different authors, ranging from Plato and Aristotle to John Dewey and Allan Bloom, all with an eye to exploring the questions “what is education for?” “What end does it seek to achieve?” The aim of the course is not necessarily to give my students the answer to that question but to make them aware of the intense debate that has taken place over the history of Western Civilization over the ends and purpose of education. As I begin my first class by explaining, if you want to know the commitments of a civilization, look at what it aims to teach its young. If one of the main marks of a civilization is its effort to perpetuate itself over successive generations, then its deepest and ultimate cares will be reflected in its educational commitments.

So I must acknowledge that at first glance the question that I’ve been asked to address for this session—“The Purpose of Education in America”—is exceedingly difficult, since there has been no national educational system in America, current efforts notwithstanding. This might be a sign or indication that America, as a civilization, has no civilizational commitments to its young, that it is a uniquely peculiar nation for not having long had a strong national curriculum like that of England or Germany or Japan. Many look at the patchwork, state- and local-controlled variety of education in America and conclude that it is time to standardize and modernize, time to adopt an American set of educational commitments. Read More…

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Mobility and the Rise of Progressive Nationalism

One of the landmark studies of America, published 120 years ago, is Fredrick Jackson Turner’s essay “The Significance of the Frontier in American History.” Turner’s essay was inspired by a line that appeared in the Census report of 1890:

Up to and including 1880 the country had a frontier of settlement, but at present the unsettled area has been so broken into by isolated bodies of settlement that there can hardly be said to be a frontier line. In the discussion of its extent, its westward movement, etc., it can not therefore any longer have a place in the census reports.

Turner recognized that contained within this small passage of officialese was a momentous turning point in American history. The official announcement of the end of the existence of the American frontier marked “the closing of a great historic moment.” In Turner’s view, the existence of the frontier, and all that it entailed, constituted the deepest source of the American character—more than any other explanation, including even the Constitution.

Turner was a fervent Progressive during the years when Progressivism was gaining steam—indeed, he receives top billing in Richard Hofstadter’s study The Progressive Historians: Turner, Beard, Parrington. In Turner’s view, the role played by the frontier—and the type of values and attributes it fostered in Americans—was the root of the progressive thrust in American history, including, importantly in his view, the rise of the sense of American nationalism.

The wilderness has been interpenetrated by lines of civilization growing ever more numerous. It is like the steady growth of a complex nervous system for the originally simple, inert continent. If one would understand why we are to-day one nation, rather than a collection of isolated states, he must study this economic and social consolidation of the country.

What is striking in these and similar passages is how closely Turner’s analysis echoes the hopes and intentions of the Founders of whom the Progressives were often fervent critics. He particularly echoes the Hamiltonians who envisioned a “national system” that would draw the allegiances of people away from local and parochial identities through the soft but persistent pressure of a nationalizing economic and political order. Turner recognized that this thrust toward an increasing national identity would be achieved through the encouragement of the individualistic spirit of the American frontiersman. The John Wayne, Daniel Boone spirit of the self-standing, self-made, independent, free individual would, ironically, forge the conditions for a national identity and usher in the possibility and even necessity of the Progressive stage.

Read More…

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