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Quite a Character

The roots of the American remain.

Davy Crockett Stamp
(Getty Images)

Character in the American Experience: An Unruly People, by Bruce P. Frohnen and Ted V. McAllister, Lexington Books, 208 pages.

What makes Americans American? It’s a question that, explicitly or implicitly, lies at the core of many of our current national debates. Some have argued that America is an idea and to be American is simply to assent to the ideas in our founding documents, especially the Declaration of Independence. Others contend that America is nothing more than a geographical place, such that all who live in her borders can be considered Americans. Still others hold that it is our shared history, language, and culture that defines what it means to be American.

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Each of these answers has something to recommend it. But none satisfactorily answers the question of what is the American character. The question matters, as is demonstrated by the many factions in American political life constantly clamoring to define what, exactly, it means to be an American. Witness the frequent use of the phrase “That’s not who we are” by Barack Obama during his presidency. 

In their new book Character in the American Experience: An Unruly People, Bruce P. Frohnen and Ted V. McAllister argue that Americans have an intelligible nature that distinguishes them from other peoples and nations. Frohnen is a professor of law at Ohio Northern University, and McAllister was, until his death earlier this year, the Edward L. Gaylord Chair and professor of public policy at Pepperdine University. Both have written and edited numerous books on American political thought and public policy, and they co-wrote a previous volume entitled Coming Home: Reclaiming America’s Conservative Soul (2019), in which they explore the failures of 20th century “movement conservatism” and consider ways that a genuine American conservatism can be recovered.

Compared with their previous book, Character in the American Experience takes the reader much deeper into American history, beginning with the Pilgrims and moving through to the current moment. Their purpose in mining history is to answer the question they pose at the outset: “What makes us American?” 

To get at this question the authors choose their historical episodes deliberately, presenting chronological chapters honing in on events illustrative of various aspects of the American character. They place particular emphasis on how the stories we tell about ourselves shapes our understanding of who we are. They also emphasize the way that relationships have served to shape the distinctive American character, in keeping with their observation at the outset of the book: “Neither blood nor ideology but human relationships have made us who we are. To fully understand ourselves we must look at how we relate to one another—how we come together, how we argue, and why.”  

As the subtitle indicates, Frohnen and McAllister’s general assessment of the basic American disposition is what they call “unruly.” This does not equate to unlawful. Rather, they mean the distinctive tendency of Americans to be self-ruling, both as individuals and as communities. This is, broadly speaking, the tendency of Americans to strive for self-improvement to achieve their highest versions of themselves, and to form social institutions—rather than looking to the government—to address problems that arise in communities. In short, the authors argue that traditional American culture is defined by “its emphasis on self-government under God,” a formulation that echoes Willmoore Kendall and George Carey’s classic work Basic Symbols of the American Political Tradition.

Early in the book, the authors discuss in some detail a cultural artifact that illustrates how the stories we tell ourselves shape the way we think about ourselves. In 1954, early 19th century frontiersman and congressman Davey Crockett became an unlikely pop-culture phenomenon when Walt Disney produced a made-for-TV movie entitled Davey Crockett, Indian Fighter. In the movie and subsequent TV series, Crockett is portrayed as a quintessential American: self-reliant, self-governing, honorable, loyal, and tough but fair to the Cherokee Indians that he fought. In essence, Crockett is depicted as the ideal American, imbued with republican virtue and an independent cast of mind, who nevertheless views it as a matter of honor and duty to engage in service to the country, both military and political.

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To get at the roots of the American culture, the authors rely on David Hackett Fischer’s seminal study Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America (1989). As the title suggests, Fischer posits that traditional American culture can be largely traced to four distinctive “folkways” that have their origins in Britain culture and history.  These folkways were brought to the New World by immigrants and stamped different regions with their distinctive mark: Puritans/Yankee in New England, with their moralistic communitarianism; Cavaliers in Virginia, who brought a taste for refined aristocracy; Quakers in Pennsylvania, who added religious freedom and toleration, and the Scotch-Irish “Borderlanders” in Appalachia, with their rebellious suspicion of elites and individualist ethic.  

While Frohnen and McAllister admit that the sources of American culture are tangled and complicated, they apply this schema as a useful heuristic, and suggest that it is the clash and combination of these elements that gives shape to the abiding American character. It is, the authors contend, this character on which the formal legal structures of the United States—including the Constitution itself—depend.

The majority of the book consists in an episodic tracing of the history of the American experience through short chapters focused on various formative events, from the drafting of the Constitution to the evangelical revival of Cane Ridge, to the waves of immigration in the 19th century, westward expansion, and the Civil War.  Despite these changes in circumstance, Frohnen and McAllister argue that the basic character of the people remained effectively the same: jealous for self-rule and liberty under law.

But what happens if the American character were to change? Could the American social and legal order be sustained?

As the authors recount, in the aftermath of the Civil War there began the beginnings of consolidation, first through the military and war effort and later through the monopolization of the economy by massive corporations. This consolidation was later mirrored in the growth of the federal bureaucracy through the activism of the Progressive movement, which sought impersonal, “scientific” governance. The result was an undermining of the moral and governing authority once exercised by localities, imposing an ever-increasing conformity on the country.  This shift in authority, the authors contend, led to a loss of the ability for self-governance, as well as a sense of stifling mass-produced conformity in the 1950s.

These developments resulted in two reactions during the 1960s. The first was the rise of the civil rights movement, culminating in the Civil Rights Act of 1964. While this issue had been simmering since the end of the Civil War, the reaction to the conformity of the ’50s presented an opportune time to push for equal civil rights. But the Civil Rights Act, “while putting an end to many morally corrupt practices…included several provisions that helped establish increased federal control over Americans’ private, commercial, and social lives.”

The second was the rise of a counterculture that stressed a kind of Rousseauian “authenticity” instead of the traditional virtues associated with liberty under law. The thrust of this movement aimed to free individuals from the community standards that once constrained and channeled the underlying unruliness of American character. To effect this liberation, activists appealed to the Supreme Court and the federal government, further undermining the local institutions that once provided the means for self-rule.

In both cases, centralization placed the institutional mechanisms of governance beyond the reach of ordinary citizens, due to a suspicion that ordinary citizens cannot be trusted with self-rule given their proclivity toward serving as instruments of oppression.

Still, the authors contend, the old American character has not been eradicated entirely. Instead, these changes caused two distinct kinds of Americans to be formed: those who prefer the old unruly self-governance, and those who acquiesce to the new model of American—atomized and reliant on the federal government to enforce their so-called liberation. This, they argue, is the source of the much-bemoaned polarization in American social, cultural, and political life.

Can the American capacity for self-government be recovered? Only if we resist the seduction of centralization and bureaucratic rule, and only if we learn to deliberate about our differences rather than relying on the legal regime to resolve every conflict. In short “only a people with the character of a free people—the habits and determination to be free—can in fact be self-governing. What is needed is a specific kind of self-governing, republican virtue.”

But how? Frohnen and McAllister offer several suggestions: 

Devoting ourselves to self-rule at the local level. Refusing to comply with administrative systems and rules that compel us to act, believe, assert, or merely comply against our standards of judgement. Resisting both the bland administrative apparatus and the vocal mobs and choosing self-respect and honor over a servile and comfortable life. These are the acts of a free, honorable, self-governing people.

Unfortunately, while these acts are easy to recommend, they would require an unusual amount of courage to actually undertake given the substantial social, legal, and political pressure that would militate against any who dare. Moreover, there is a substantial collective action problem: any single individual or small group acting alone in these matters is unlikely to effect sufficient change to salvage the constitutional order. If the authors are correct that the Constitution presumes a broadly virtuous, self-reliant, and honorable people, it seems unlikely that small pockets of resistance can restore it.

This is not to say that living one’s own life in order is not worthwhile, and even obligatory. As political philosopher Eric Voegelin once put it: “No one is obliged to take part in the spiritual crisis of a society; on the contrary, everyone is obliged to avoid the folly and live his life in order.” But the recovery of an entire constitutional order—which implies an entire way of life—requires more than a few dissidents living at odds with the prevailing culture (assuming that such resistance even continues to be allowed).

The good news is that, as the authors suggest, there does seem to be a broad remnant of those who still cling to the older American character, however disbursed and weakened they are by the dominant trends. The first step toward any such change is articulating the problems and uncovering the sources of renewal, and perhaps most importantly, the stories that have underpinned American culture.  And it is certainly true that small remnants (what historian Arnold Toynbee called "creative minorities") can serve as salutary examples that can effect broader cultural restoration.

In their account of the American character and how it has shaped and been shaped by the American experience, Frohnen and McAllister have done a service to the cause of constitutional renewal.

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