A Lie, a Mistake, or a Miracle
When John James Audubon’s collected Birds of America appeared in print form in the late 1830s it became an instant sensation. His magnificent paintings of North America’s birds presented an artistic and scientific spectacle to the reading public. Readers commented on the lifelike nature of the paintings. The bald eagle already featured commonly in emblems of the United States, and many American readers feverishly flipped to the paintings of the raptors they saw as the symbol of the American republic. The book’s plate placed just before the supremely popular bald eagle entry, however, featured a sea eagle larger and more magnificent than even the national bird: Washington’s eagle. In the painting this starkly colored brown-black bird of prey sat perched upon a rock majestically overlooking the sea—probably one of the Great Lakes—while a sailing ship passed beneath its noble gaze. Its size matched its regal appearance. This bird was perhaps 40 to 50 percent larger than a bald eagle, approaching the size of the California condor. The eagle clearly impressed Audubon.
Audubon reportedly saw the eagle twice. The first time he sighted it on the upper reaches of the Mississippi River in 1814. He saw it again near the confluence of the Green River with the Ohio River in northwestern Kentucky. As magnificent as Washington’s eagle appeared, no one knew anything about it. Audubon never collected a live specimen, and no one else ever observed it. The painting of the eagle became a mystery or a scandal, depending on who was asked. One theory, which has scholarly support, is that it was a hoax perpetrated by Audubon to help raise money with fascinated but credulous Europeans. Another theory is that Audubon mistook a juvenile bald eagle or a golden eagle for this new magnificent bird. A third theory—surely the most fantastic one for we skeptical moderns—is that Audubon saw a bird of prey that has either gone extinct or is so rare it remains unknown to modern science. Washington’s eagle was either a lie, a mistake, or a miracle.
The North American republic that Audubon explored has increasingly been seen in the early 21st century as likewise a lie, a mistake, or a miracle.
Progressives point to the history of racism and slavery in the early Republic and argue that any articulation of the United States as a polity devoted to liberty and justice is a fabrication, and more particularly a fabrication done in the service of maintaining white supremacy in the modern American order. Hundreds if not thousands of pieces of media have invoked the notion that the United States committed an unforgivable original sin in racism and slavery and that anything associated with the American constitution or its founding documents must therefore also be tainted with the unforgivable legacy of racism and slavery. In this view the notion that the United States was or has ever been devoted to freedom is at least a fabrication, if not an untenable lie.
The most immediate consequence of treating United States and its constitutional regime as based on lies is that it is has bred and continues to breed a form of anarchism among a sizable population of American youth. Like the iconoclasts of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Earth’s Holocaust,” modern American radicals have decided that everything imperfect and inconsistent with the new order they seek to establish—American literature, art, and law—must be fed to the flames, violently if necessary. Neo-Puritans of the 21st century cannot abide the lie they perceive the United States to be.
A second group of people view America’s traditional order as a well-intentioned but anachronistic mistake. Traditions, or anything that stands in the way of a more modern societal mores, might be beautiful, like Washington’s eagle, but they can’t be defended according to modern scientific or social standards. The supposed unreliability of traditions and the empirically unverifiable nature of their benefits to society mean that they can and must be negotiated. Surely there is something new, more efficient, and more free that could be offered to society instead of ossified and antiquated tradition. Customs and traditions are all well and good, we may be told, but they must inevitably give way to the progress offered to society by liberal capitalism and changing social norms. Constitutional government, said Woodrow Wilson, does “not remain fixed in any unchanging form, but grows with the growth and is altered with the change of the nation’s needs and purposes.” Latter-day Wilsonians don’t hate the history of the American constitutional order, but they think it retains mistaken traditions and customs that modern theories must correct according to the needs and purposes of the societal moment.
A third group of Americans view the republic as something supremely unparalleled. Audubon’s magnificent eagle and the unique natural law regime founded by the American Republic had no equivalents. They were miraculous, only able to be created in a unique moment by unique legal and political talents. Like Audubon capturing in a painting the image of an almost extinct eagle, the founders were at the right place in the right time and placed the right ideals into the American constitutional order to create the most perfect regime human history had ever seen. In his book America’s Revolutionary Mind, political theorist C. Bradley Thompson wrote that the American Revolution was “the most important event in American history” and that it “created a new kind of society unlike any other that had ever existed.” Modern “beliefs in equality, freedom, rights justice, the rule of law, were born during the revolutionary era expressed in its noblest symbol, the Declaration of Independence.” Thompson argued that “in countless ways the world in which we live was shaped by the ideas and actions of 1776.” Any doubts about the perfection of the American regime, therefore, cannot be tolerated.
When I think of Audubon’s portrait of Washington’s eagle, whether it was a lie, mistake, or scientific miracle seems less important than the fact that I hope it was real. I want it to be real, and maybe more importantly I want it to somehow still be out there, roosting on the rocks of the shores of the Great Lakes or the Upper Mississippi. There is something seemingly silly, perhaps even childish, in this desire for Washington’s eagle to be real. After all, Audubon, while talented, was not above stretching truths to further his reputation as a naturalist. Barring an actual miracle, the most charitable explanation of Audubon’s claim is that it was a case of mistaken identity. What are the chances that the finest wildlife painter in the world happened the be the only person to see the last few living examples of a now extinct eagle? It is unlikely.
I’m a trained historian; my vocation tells me to treat cautiously sensational claims. I trust official processes, verifiable sources, and the scientific method. But those things are not enough to create the true story of American life. That which is fantastic, mystical, and sublime needs its place in the American story just as much as so-called authentic or real history. Chesterton once wrote of Americans that they had “a certain spirit that is childish in the good sense of the word; something that is innocent, and easily pleased.” Perhaps if we today were more easily pleased with a good childishness, we might as a nation spend less time torching our society for its sins and imperfections, or desperately clinging to every passing capitalistic comfort multinational corporations enslave us with, or trying to convince ourselves that we’re somehow “the best” or “the greatest” people or regime that has ever lived or existed. We would be a better people if we spent more time hoping that great mysterious eagles once swept across the waters of the Midwest, and hoping that someday they might again.
Miles Smith is visiting assistant professor of History at Hillsdale College. His main research interests are 19th-century intellectual and religious history in the United States and in the Atlantic World. You can follow him on Twitter at @IVMiles.