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additional testimony to the quantity and the popularity of American idealism in those months. The tone of the press at that crucial time was evidence of the tone of the people that read and responded. And while many a sounding speech and impassioned editorial are now, as one reads them, a little faded, faintly absurd, like tattered war posters on a rural billl-board, yet no one can doubt the flood of patriotic idealism that created them, few will doubt that our war idealism was a virtue in 1914-18.
It seemed a virtue then, but was it not already diseased? When we entered the war, the vast majority of Americans publicly and privately committed themselves to certain general principles, and, whatever else they fought for, believed that they were fighting for them. A square deal all around was one, the consent of the governed to their government was another, a third was the substitution, at all costs, of justice for violence in the ruling of the world. We all assented to these principles, most of us assumed them voluntarily as an article of faith, and the average man took them as seriously as he is able to take abstractions. Peace came, the armistice, the stages of the treaty. Nothing could be clearer or more to be expected than that sometimes in spirit, often in detail, and most seriously in ultimate purpose, the treaty in scores of instances ran counter to the faiths we had accepted and made commonplaces of speech and thinking.
I am neither criticizing nor justifying the treaty and its included covenant. No one, I suppose, but a sentimental optimist could have expected a work of logical art in exact conformity with the principles and conditions of a new epoch that has scarcely begun, no one at least who had ever read history, or studied the politics of Sonnino, Clemenceau, and the Unionist party. was bound to have inconsistencies; to reflect as many views as there were strong minds in the conference, to be experimental, to be a compromise. This is not what is astonishing; it is the attitude of the typical American mind toward the treaty negotiations.
In the winter and spring of 1919,
while the world was burning, while the principles we had shouted for were at last in actual settlement, this enormous American idealism slept, forgot its fine phrases, forgot its pledges to see the thing through, was bored because some Americans felt that it was our duty to see the thing through. We are an uncritical nation despite our occasional vehemence of criticism, but we have never been so uncritical of major issues as in 1919, when the terms of world settlement were of acute interest to all but Americans. We are an easygoing nation, but we have never been so easy-going as in 1919, when not one man in a thousand as much as read the abstract of the treaty to see whether the things he had said he fought for were safeguarded in it. The only real fire-spitting fervor struck out in this country since the armistice has been in defense of our right to let Europe stew in her own juice, and our privilege to tell general principles to go hang. And this is an emotion almost too narrow to be attributed, even by the generous minded, to idealism.
One answers, of course, that such a decline from overheated virtue into indifferentism is only human nature at its old tricks, the collapse after the New Year's resolution, the weariness of being too good, symptoms, in short, of content with having "licked the Hun," and a desire to get back to work. the reply is, of course this is true. But Europe is not thus functioning. The most striking contrast in 1919 has been the contrast between British and American attitudes toward treaty negotiations. In England, exhausted by war as we never were, deep in the lassitude of rest after struggle, men and women have leaped into criticism and defense of the ideals embodied in the settlement. 'Peace has seemed to them as vital a battle-ground of ideas as war. By and large, the plodding mass of us who make money and public opinion have been cold to the contest, uninterested. The press of Great Britian has fiercely attacked and fiercely defended the morale of the treaty; ours has reported it with little real criticism and little interest except where the league was concerned. Their universities have sup
plied men and parties to fight through the principles for which we fought; ours have been intent upon how much scholastic credit should be given returned soldiers and who should get an honorary degree. They forced an easygoing premier to stand for a victory that was more than conquest; we grudged our President the attempt to carry through in Paris what in 1917 we were all agreed upon; let our dislike of his methods outweigh our deep interest in his ends. If it had not been for the great issue of the League of Nations, which, forcing Americans to act, forced them to remember (some with difficulty) what they had believed in and what they had learned in 1917 of the dangers of selfish aloofness from world problems, if it had not been for the fight over the league, the politics of 1919 would have been as local, as trivial, as wearisome, as in the year after a Presidential election. Some scholar in the next decade will place side by side the files of a New York daily in its moral-idealistic stage of 1917 and its cynical back-to-business mood of 1919; will compare the fantastic pledges never again to trade with Germany, which were circulating in 1918, with the export statistics of 1919; will marvel, and perhaps draw conclusions.
And one wonders, meeting everywhere an interest in world affairs that seems dying, a national morale that is forgetting its moral impulses, a hatred of the professional idealist, a weariness of general principles, and a cynical distrust of ideas-one wonders whether this flaming American idealism 80called was not even in 1918 flushed with disease, a virtue already dying.
Were we indeed ever really idealistic? Consider the case of the ablest of our manufacturers, who, when the emotional fit was on him, proposed to increase the production of idealism until every American home should own an ideal of the latest model. He gives the order, draws the checks, and, naïvely surprised at the discovery that you cannot make ideals without understanding them, hangs up philosophy, and goes back to the motor business. Consider the case of our radical papers who fought our entrance into a
war where American ideals were not properly safeguarded, and then preferred to risk a treaty without the League of Nations, to a league which, though it expressed American idealism, was not perfect by their judging. Consider the flaming desire to make the universe and one's home safe for democracy, in contrast with the current contempt for the ideals of industrial democracy. Perforce one wonders whether American idealism, healthy or diseased, is not a mere emotion, easily roused, never lasting; whether, as a valuable part of our national character, it is not an illusion.
So much needs to be said by way of charge and speculation in order to clear the air. If I write with some excitement, it is no more than the sight of the tumble from great-worded, great deeded 1918 to indifferent, self-regarding, and a little cynical 1919 may account for. Certainly in our national past idealism has not been an illusion, although it was often emotional. Nor, in sober fact, do I doubt the essential idealism of the normal American mind, especially that American mind which inherits the optimism and the liberal instincts of our forefathers. I am merely curious as to the exact nature of that idealism as it exists, and plays strange tricks, to-day. It seems to be a quality more resembling energy than a moral characteristic like virtue or vice. It seems, as one thinks over these recent manifestations, to be a blend of physical virility and nervous sensitiveness, good or bad, active or inactive, according to the condition and environment of the patient. Stir him, and it becomes active, beneficent, altruistic. Stir him further, and it may become sentimental, with symptoms of hysteria. Relax the pressure, and it drops into desuetude. These are the habits of American idealism, and I doubt whether more can be said of them except by the way of further description. But there must be some thoughts, some ideas behind to account for these vagaries. There must be reasons why Americans idealize more readily than other nations, and why, just now at least, they so easily tire of their idealizing.
Neither the scope of these pages nor my knowledge permits me to trace the history of American thinking and feeling, to say, as the historians some day must, what elements came from Europe, what modifications are due to pioneer environment, racial mixture, and centuries of unchecked material development. But tentatively, and with all modesty, one may at least seek for light. I find that two great figures of our national youth and the ways of thinking they represented most help me to understand the strengths and the weaknesses of American idealism, help to an understanding of the phenomena of 1917-19.
The first is Jonathan Edwards, theologian of internationsal importance, leader of the great spiritual revival of mid-eighteenth century New England, missionary to the Indians, president of Princeton, author of works so widely read that even now no farm-house garret in New England but will yield a sermon or two, a treatise on original sin, or his epochal essay on the freedom of the will.
Alas for human reputation! This tireless thinker, whose logic built up in entirety an impregnable argument worthy of Aquinas, is now chiefly remembered as a preacher of infant damnation and a thunderer of hell-fire over frightened Northampton congregations. But, as all wiser critics know, the influence of a great mind is distinct and often different from its reputation. What it does, works on and on after death, transmuting, transforming; what it was in popular repute, soon becomes legend and supposed historical fact. Compare the reputation of Machiavelli with his achievements and influence as described in Macaulay's famous essay.
In actual achievement Edwards, whose mind was of unusual lucidity and endurance, crystallized for Americans the Calvinistic ethics of life which were the backbone of Puritan civilization. Man, by the unarguable might of God, is born with a will whose nature may be either bad or good. Henceforth his reason is free, his choice is free, within the limits that his character permits. It becomes therefore of inimitable importance that he shall
choose and reason virtuously, for there is no way to be sure that he has a good will, that he is among the "elect" except by virtuous action leading to a sense of salvation. Thus in every condition of life, without excuse or palliation, the Christian must daily, hourly strive to prove that he is one of the elect of God, saved from hell-fire by the character God has given him. Good intentions count for nothing. Good works, if unaccompanied by the sense of spiritual salvation, count for nothing. God, Himself blameless, has willed sin and sinful men. It is for us to prove that we are not among the damned.
That the system is incredible most moderns now believe; that it is logical, more logical perhaps than any later attempt to justify the ways of God to man, the student must admit. My desire is naturally not to argue, but to emphasize, what can never be too much emphasized, the effect of such thinking upon the intellectual life of America. It was believed in powerfully and well understood by perhaps a majority of one formative generation. Later it was not believed in so powerfully, and it was but little understood, especially outside of New England. But a conviction of the great necessity of willing the right became a mental habit in American morality that persists and becomes a trait and a chief factor, as any reader may see, in so-called American idealism.
Benjamin Franklin was almost the exact contemporary of Jonathan Edwards, but he had the inestimable advantage of living longer and seeing more; two continents and two ages, in fact, were his familiars, and learned from him as well as taught him. Franklin, it is clear, was strongly influenced by that French eighteenth century that he loved, with all its praise of reason and its trust in common sense. But he was even more a product of the new America. America, as Edwards and Cotton Mather saw it, was an experiment in godliness. When the Puritan scheme should have proved its efficacy by an abnormal increase in the number of earthly saints, the colonies would have served their chief end, and would, so Mather thought, decline. The hell
breathing vehemence of Edwards was chiefly due to his fear that the scheme was failing. He was fighting a spiritual decline.
But Franklin was a member of the worldly, not the spiritual, body of America; he was a citizen of a country visibly growing in wealth and population. He looked outward, not inward; forward, not backward. Like Edwards, he hated sin; but sin for him was not sin because it was forbidden, but forbidden because it was sin. Franklin's was a practical morality, which was cut to fit life, not to compress it. His firm character and the clarity of his reason kept his morals high. His ethics were admirable, but they were based upon the principle that honesty is the best policy, not upon the fear of God. To be "reasonable" was his highest good. "So convenient it is to be a reasonable creature," he remarks whimsically, "since it enables one to find or make a reason for everything one has a mind to do." As long as one is a Franklin, with the will to virtue, honesty, industry, and thrift that is bred from a good inheritance, in a new and developing country, such ethics make for idealism. No one was more idealistic in his day than the practical Franklin, who wished to form a league of virtue of all nations to be governed by rules, and supported by the reason of virtuous mankind.
And here is another palpable strain of Americanism, differing from that necessity which Edwards trumpeted, but, like it, a stiffener of idealistic impulses. Here one places the love of a square deal, the desire to do what is right because it is "fair," the sense of the reasonableness of justice that freed the slaves, gave Cuba self-government, determined our policy toward the Philippines, and was horror-struck by the invasion of Belgium. It is the idealism of good common sense, and together with the mental habit of willing the right has been a main cause of American idealism.
tic and perverted, and the common sense of Franklin's school has degenerated. Here, as I shall endeavor to show, are two chief causes for the vagaries of the American mind in the years that ended the war.
Both of these American characteristics are operative to-day. Both are now factors and dangerous factors in our idealism, for the strong will of the Calvinists to do right has become erra
The mental discipline which the Puritans learned from the fear of a wrathful God remained a discipline long after it had lost its theological basis, and is responsible in no small measure for the disciplined will of nineteenth-century America to succeed in material endeavors as well as in philanthropic or moral purpose. But, divorced from the belief in a speedy damnation which had given it cause, it was bound to become, and it did become, a mere mental habit, a kind of aimless necessity of being virtuous. Bolted no longer to a belief in a revengeful God Who demanded virtue, loosed, like an engine from its flywheel, this ancestral sense of necessity whirled on by its own momentum. It became will without thinking behind it, which was driven by material circumstance instead of religious belief. It became a restless energy whose aim, as a foreign observer had said, seemed to be "mere acceleration." It became unreasonable, often absurd, sometimes hysterical. I find its manifestations in the insistence that America must always be described as sweet, lovely, and virtuous in disregard of the facts, in our "boosting" of prosperity and success by proclaiming them. I find them in the determination to be good and happy and prosperous immediately and without regard to circumstance which has created the American magazine story and brought about national prohibition by constitutional amendment. This hand-me-down will is responsible for much progress, good and bad, in America; it is also responsible for American sentimentalism. It has been a driving force in our idealism; but because it is not so much reasoned purpose as a mental habit inherited, it has run wild, become hysterical and erratic. It led us to propose to reform the world and to advertise our intention before our brains were ready for the task. It makes our idealism feverish and uncertain.
As for Franklin's rule of common
sense, it has become a positive deterrent to idealism. His idea of conduct reasonably shaped according to the needs of environment was, and is today, the most solid trait of Americans. It is the ethics of modern business, and American business has become, and for a little while yet will remain, the fundamental America. Nevertheless, every candid observer will admit, no matter how great his faith in the future of his country, that the reasonable good sense of the Franklin tradition suffered a progressive dilution or degeneration throughout the nineteenth century. Rational ethics became for the most of us materialistic rationalism, still reasonable, still ethical in its way, still backed and restrained by common sense (our profiteers have also been philanthropists), but an enemy, nevertheless, to all idealism that could not be made from steel, brick, rubber, or oil. We have been too reasonable to be sordid; too materialistic to remain in the best sense reasonable. Far from advocating a league of the virtues, our business common sense has been fighting a League of Nations. The contrast between our moral code and our business code has already been overwritten in muck-raking literature. Nevertheless, despite exaggeration, it exists. Our national life is dual. We can stand on our moral foot and our business foot, but usually we alternate. In 1918 we rested entirely on one; in 1919 we swung with relief to the other. Franklin's rule of common sense as a stimulus to idealism has broken down.
What reasonable sense of proportion I myself possess as a descendant of the compatriots of Franklin urges me to protest instantly that all this is not to be taken as a picture of contemporary America. Rather it is a plucking out merely of two strains of experience that all must recognize. But these are perilously interwoven in our national character. They affect the validity of our idealism.
The hysterical will drives us into professions of virtue we cannot make good. It drove us to "boost" the war; and then, being a restless energy sprung from habit rather than from conviction, left us exhausted in spirit and cynical
in mind when the moral profits were ready for the gathering. It stirred a passion for the League of Nations, rights of small countries, democracy, justice, and the rest, and then collapsed like the second day of "clean-up" week. It set the will going and left the brain unmoved.
And our common sense, diluted through millions, obsessed by the problems of manufacture and construction, is in ever greater danger of losing that basis of character and enlightened reason that alone can make common sense anything but common. It dreads ideas, distrusts theories, is made uncomfortable by altruism that extends beyond the home. As a nation, we have not degenerated, for our virile energy, our will, our adaptiveness are all as strong as ever, stronger perhaps than elsewhere in the world. But, as compared with Franklin's, our common sense has lost character. It pulled back in the great moral and intellectual problems of the war; it did not lead. As manifested in the present struggle over international policies, it falls below the ethical standards of the nation, whether you tap it in clubs and offices or in Congress. In a time of crisis it rallies to encounter material problems and is invaluable; but morally and intellectually its vision is short, its endurance weak.
The trouble with the American reformer, as has often been said, is that he has more energy than reason; and this is because he incarnates the instinctive, irrational will of which I have been writing. The trouble with the American materialist is that he has kept his common sense while losing his vision.
Both, in short, lack an adequate spiritual and moral basis; and so does the American idealism that is functioning nobly, but so irregularly, to-day. With an irresponsible will driving it forward and a matter-of-fact common sense holding it back, it suffers too frequently from the weakness of all qualities that spring from custom rather than from conviction. Its leafage has spread; its roots have contracted.
I am not so unhumorous as to propose that the remedy is once again to believe in Jonathan Edwards's God and