When America passes away (as she must) in a hundred or a thousand years, how will she be remembered?
Most conservatives suspect we’re living in the twilight of a new Rome. Like the old Rome, we got our start as a cultural backwater. We came to flourish, against all odds, by embracing certain high-minded ideals: an equal citizenry, representative government, the rule of law, and so on. We traversed the known world, bringing one barbarian horde after the next to heel beneath the mantle of civilization.
Now our empire, too, is faltering under the weight of its own hegemony. The United States has invaded practically every country in the Middle East, and not a single one has been successfully assimilated into Pax Americana. Many suspect President Donald Trump will play the role of Caesar. He’ll destroy the republic in the republic’s name. He’ll drag her lower and lower as he tries to make her great again.
Where the New Rome thesis may fail is that it overestimates America. After all, we’re enchanted by the memory of Rome’s cultural exploits as much as her military ones. Do we have anything that can compare? The little wooden congregational churches that our fathers built won’t leave majestic ruins like the Pantheon. Our greatest philosopher—Ralph Waldo Emerson, say, or even Henry James—can’t compare to Seneca or Marcus Aurelius. George Washington probably won’t go down as a new Romulus and it’s doubtful Honest Abe will be invoked alongside Cato the Younger.
For all we know, we’ll be remembered more like the Goths or the Mongolians: fierce conquerors, but little more.
The answer, I think, will fall somewhere in the middle. America seems to me a modern Troy—noble, strong, and tragic. As the Greeks razed Troy to the ground, they, too, thought they would be remembered for their greatness. Remember Prince Hector’s swan-song:
Tis true, I perish, yet I perish great:
Yet in a mighty deed I shall expire,
Let future ages hear it, and admire!
What do we remember the Trojans for, really? Being duped by a bunch of Greeks in a wooden horse. So while I hope Trump gets his wall, he should remember that Troy’s were razed from the inside.
“Fate gives the wound, and man is born to bear,” Apollo said, dismissing Achilles’ blasphemous rage at the death of Patroclus. Maybe it was America’s fate to follow Troy. English lore once supposed that Britain was first settled by Felix Brutus, a direct descendant of the Trojan hero Aeneas. (Romulus and Remus were also born of Aeneas’s line, which makes Britain and Rome cousins.) Because America is a former British colony, that would make us great-grandsons of Ilium…despite our Founding Fathers’ best efforts, which came to fruition on this day some 243 years ago.
Independence Day is like Christmas in the mythological arc of Founderism, America’s civic religion. It’s the Nativity of our republic. Our love of country (and countrymen) hinges on this single day. We must believe the Fourth of July is the day Providence stretched out its hand and brought into existence a new city on a hill, a light unto the nations. Feudalism, fascism, communism—all were doomed the moment Jefferson set down those words, “We hold these truths to be self-evident…”
But doesn’t it seem like our celebrations become less heartfelt with each passing Fourth? Our patriotic holidays are going the way of our religious feasts. Corporations stock up with American/Christmas/Hanukkah-themed rubbish made by overseas wage-slaves. And people buy it. But when the day rolls around, it’s just another excuse to get snockered and hook up with strangers.
Founderism seems to be going the way of Christianity. We’re losing faith in, well, faith.
The “illiberal conservatives” (Patrick Deneen, Matthew Schmitz, Sohrab Ahmari) would lay the blame on Founderism itself. And they have a point. Put aside the question of whether a single ideology can encompass the thought of both Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, which is doubtful. Every few decades, incisive critics are apt to claim the republic has taken a fatal turn. Henry Adams believed that the America his great-grandfather helped establish had perished upon the election of Andrew Jackson. M.E. Bradford argued that Abraham Lincoln “played a central role in transforming [the Union] forever into a unitary structure based on a claim to power in its own right.”
But that shouldn’t trouble us overmuch. The idea that America is a unique, world-historic agent of Divine Providence only makes sense, so to speak, if one is a Mormon. The rest of us are setting ourselves up for disappointment. Worse than that, when America’s lights no longer seem to burn as brightly, we immediately begin to turn on one another. Half of Troy suspects the other half of sympathizing with the Greeks.
Let me ask you this. Say that America will never be “great” again—never the richest country, nor the strongest, nor the freest. For the sake of argument, let’s say she was never great to begin with. Would any patriotic sentiment stir in our hearts? Could we love our country the way Mexicans, Jordanians, Bahamians, and Sri Lankans love theirs—simply because it’s ours?
Even some conservatives would say, “no.” But we should answer “yes” without hesitation. Loyalty—the essence of patriotism—is a matter not of the intellect or the will, but of the heart. Our love for our country, for our countrymen, must be unconditional. Otherwise, it’s perfectly cynical.
Of course, there are many reasons to love America besides the fact that she’s our home. But to understand why, we have to go back further than July 4, 1776.
The story of America began, as Russell Kirk pointed out, “thirteen centuries before the birth of Jesus of Nazareth” with “a wandering people of obscure origin, the Hebrews.” To them, God first revealed that all of mankind is watched by “an all-powerful intelligence or spirit which gave them their moral nature.” God not only told the Children of Israel how to be good, he told them that there was such a thing as the Good.
The Israelites, in turn, taught the West. Then from the Greeks, we learned freedom and wisdom. From the Romans, we took our ideas of virtue and order. England gave us our language, our culture, our customs, and the foundation of our laws.
But our most important inheritance is Christianity. The Faith perfects our freedom, increases our wisdom, strengthens our virtue, and justifies our order. It sanctifies our genius and consecrates our institutions. It directs all our thoughts and actions to their proper objects—that is, the True, the Good, and the Beautiful.
Adams himself declared: “The general principles on which the fathers achieved independence were the general principles of Christianity. I will avow that I then believed, and now believe, that those general principles of Christianity are as eternal and immutable as the existence and attributes of God.”
That’s the most important lesson our countrymen have passed down through the generations, from the stately auditoriums of Harvard College to the one-room schoolhouses on the plains of Oklahoma.
It was also, incidentally, the first.
When the Arbella set out for the New World in 1630, its leader, John Winthrop, vowed to build a new society, “a model of Christian charity”:
These we see are extraordinary, therefore we must not content ourselves with usual ordinary means. Whatsoever we did, or ought to have done, when we lived in England, the same must we do, and more also, where we go…. As in this duty of love, we must love brotherly without dissimulation, we must love one another with a pure heart fervently. We must bear one another’s burdens. We must not look only on our own things, but also on the things of our brethren.
This is the high ideal that lies at the heart of our nation’s founding: not wealth or strength or freedom, but charity. This is the divine purpose for which America was founded: that we might love as ought to love.
Love her, too, while you’re at it. Love America the way we mortals can only love when we’ve grown old enough to accept that our mother is flawed, as we are. Love her all the more because she won’t be around forever.
From the woodlands of Maine to the mountains of Virginia, from the golden shores of California to the black sands of Hawaii, from the lakes of Michigan to the endless ranges of Kansas—every last one of us has a chance to be as wise as Greeks, as virtuous as Romans, as cultured as Englishmen, and as loving as Christians. That’s worth celebrating.
“Men did not love Rome because she was great,” Chesterton observed. “She was great because they had loved her.” But don’t worry too much about whether or not America is great. First, take care that she is good.
Michael Warren Davis is associate editor of the Catholic Herald. See more at www.michaelwarrendavis.com.