Chapter 2: America as a Chosen People

The Broken Covenant: American Civil Religion in Time of Trial
by Robert N. Bellah

Chapter 2: America as a Chosen People

America, like Canaan, was not uninhabited when God’s new Israel arrived on these shores. Yet in the last chapter we described "America’s Myth of Origin" without ever mentioning the fact that the American Indians were rich in origin myths and that many Indian peoples had elaborate ritual cycles deriving from those origin myths, cycles such as are still being performed by the Navaho and Pueblo Indians today. The great dream in which the early settlers lived had entirely Middle Eastern and European roots and had nothing whatever to do with native American culture except insofar as man’s mythic life everywhere shares certain general themes.

For a long time, indeed for centuries, the new settlers failed to appreciate the fact that the people they found here lived in a different dream. Whether the Indian was seen as noble or as horrid savage, he was treated as if he were a character in the European’s dream, as if he had no dream of his own. Only recently has the vast archaic symbolism of Indian mythology begun to be appreciated, and lately even perceived as a source of spiritual life for all Americans. This failure to see the Indians in their own terms was only the cultural side of a denial of humanity that was also expressed in economic and even biological terms. The Indians were deprived by the new settlers, not only of the inherent human right to have one’s culture understood and respected, but they were ruthlessly deprived of land and livelihood and all too often of life itself. This was the primal crime on which American society is based.

In the first decades of settlement the primal crime was compounded with another enormity. Still other peoples living outside the European dream -- Africans, with their own immense cosmological symbolism -- were forced to become actors in the European dream under the most tragic circumstances possible. To the expropriation and extermination of the Indian was added the forcible transportation of the African Negro out of his own land and his enslavement in America. Thus at the very beginning of American society there was a double crime, the incalculable consequences of which still stalk the land. We must ask what in the dream of white America kept so many for so long, so many even at this day, from seeing any crime at all. For that we need to consider the ambiguities of chosenness.


An extreme example will put the issue sharply. Senator Albert J. Beveridge delivered a speech on the floor of the United States Senate shortly after his return from a tour of the Philippines in January 1900. He referred to the wealth of the islands and their importance to the United States, to the indolence of the natives and their incapacity for self-government, and to the war of subjugation which the United States Army was then waging against the Filipino independence movement. The American opposition to that war, he said, in terms we have become familiar with in late years, was "the chief factor in prolonging it." Warming to his subject he laid down the justification for annexation in the following words:

God has not been preparing the English-speaking and Teutonic peoples for a thousand years for nothing but vain and idle self-contemplation and self-admiration. No. He made us master organizers of the world to establish system where chaos reigned. He has given us the spirit of progress to overwhelm the forces of reaction throughout the earth. He has made us adept in government that we may administer government among savage and senile peoples. Were it not for such a force as this the world would relapse into barbarism and night. And of all our race He has marked the American people as His chosen nation to finally lead in the redemption of the world.1

Even though the biblical imagery has been muddied over with 19th-century racism, a subject to which we will return, we can see in grotesquely heightened form precisely the arguments used to justify American treatment of Indians and blacks from the very beginning.

Senator Beveridge was no ignorant "red neck." As United States Senators go he was rather better educated and more intellectual than most. But similar sentiments are to be found in Americans of far greater capacity than he. Fifty years earlier Herman Melville, one of the handful of writers of the first magnitude that America has produced, could write as follows:

Escaped from the house of bondage, Israel of old did not follow after the ways of the Egyptians. To her was given an express dispensation; to her were given new things under the sun. And we Americans are the peculiar, chosen people -- the Israel of our time: we hear the ark of the liberties of the world. Seventy years ago we escaped from thrall; and, besides our first birthright -- embracing one continent of earth -- God has given to us, for a future inheritance, the broad domains of the political pagans, that shall yet come and lie down under the shade of our ark, without bloody hands being lifted. God has predestined, mankind expects, great things from our race; and great things we feel in our souls. The rest of the nations must soon be in our rear. We are the pioneers of the world; the advance-guard, sent on through the wilderness of untried things, to break a new path in the New World that is ours. In our youth is our strength; in our inexperience, our wisdom. At a period when other nations have but lisped, our deep voice is heard afar. Long enough have we been skeptics with regard to ourselves, and doubted whether, indeed, the political Messiah had come. But he has come in us, if we would but give utterance to his promptings. And let us always remember that with ourselves, almost for the first time in the history of earth, national selfishness is unbounded philanthropy; for we cannot do a good to America, but we give alms to the world.2

Not many years ago we had a Secretary of Defense who believed that what is good for General Motors is good for America. Melville seemed to believe that what is good for America is good for the world. In such a passage we can see the link between the notion of the American Israel, which was already in the mind of John Winthrop in the early 17th century, and Henry Luce’s recent idea of "the American Century," or John Foster Dulles’s easy identification of the "free world" with those nations willing to do the bidding of the American government.


To speak of the ambiguities of chosenness is to indicate that the image is complex, that it accounts for much of the best in America as well as the worst. To begin to see some of the positive implications of chosenness we may consider an address entitled "Our Country’s Place in History" given by Rabbi Isaac M. Wise in Cincinnati in 1869 some 20 years after the passage from Melville was written and 30 years before the speech of Senator Beveridge. While it has echoes of both it also sounds other notes, some of which we discerned in the last chapter. After briefly describing the history of liberty in Europe and its practice by the Puritans he came to the American Revolution:

Glory to the memory of the heroes of the revolution, to the generous godfathers of liberty. Glory to the memory of George Washington and his heroic compatriots. They were the chosen instruments in the hands of Providence, to turn the wheel of events in favor of liberty forever; and they proved worthy of their great mission, of their immortal work. . . . The millions of oppressed men and women in all countries, whose chains have been broken and whose prisons have been razed, are the grand chorus, who sing the praise of the American revolution. . . . The framers of the Constitution were wise enough to confront the destiny of the nation, and honest enough to express their full conviction in the paragraphs of the Constitution and its immortal preamble. The people of the United States, on accepting this Constitution, had formally and solemnly chosen its destiny, to be now and forever the palladium of liberty and its divinely appointed banner-bearer, for the progress and redemption of mankind.3

While in these lines Rabbi Wise accepts the redemptive role of America that both Melville and Beveridge asserted, he does not see it as taking effect through political sway over pagans or over savage and senile races, but through an example set for "the millions of oppressed men and women in all countries."

Again, like Melville and Beveridge, Rabbi Wise sees Americans as a "peculiar people," but their peculiarity does not rest in their being of Anglo-Saxon race but rather, in his words, because they are a "conflux of the various families of man." "We are," he said, "originally English, Irish, French, Dutch, German, Polish, Spanish, or Scandinavian; but we are neither. We are Americans. Every child born on this soil is Americanized. Our country has a peculiar people to work out a new and peculiar destiny."4 The notion of Americanization, that Rabbi Wise is already using in 1869, will require further examination, but it is not obvious that he means by it the domination of one American group over all the others.

Finally, near the end of his talk, Rabbi Wise sounds another note that was not evident in the passages from Melville and Beveridge, though we will see that Melville in this respect later changed his mind. Rabbi Wise said:

Nothing can arrest our progress, nothing drag our country down from her high place in history, except our own wickedness working a willful desertion of our destiny, the desertion from the ideal of liberty. As long as we cling to this ideal, we will be in honor. glory, wealth and prosperity.5

In Rabbi Wise’s version of the old idea of covenant there is the notion that our chosenness is not absolute but conditional, that it involves a choice on our part. Remaining faithful to the ideal of liberty is his version of John Winthrop’s Deuteronomic injunction, "Let us choose life."


The notion that the Americans are an especially choice and chosen people can be found from the earliest times. In early 17th-century Virginia John Rolfe could refer to the colonists as "a peculiar people, marked and chosen by the hand of God,"6 and in late 7th century William Stoughton of Massachusetts could say, "God sifted a whole nation that he might send choice grain over into the wilderness." 7 This way of thinking reached a perfect crescendo at the time of the Revolution when America was referred to as God’s "first-born nation," and speculation on the special world-historical meaning of American independence became almost a national obsession. But although elements of self-congratulation and self-righteousness were never missing they were usually muted by the conditional covenant context of the assertions. The "choice seed" in the Wilderness was from the beginning felt to be subject to "wilderness temptations."8 The jeremiad or denunciation of the sins of the people was an integral part of early New England culture, as Perry Miller has pointed out.9 The sins denounced were, for the most part, the conventional sins of Protestantism; sabbath-breaking and profanity were more apt to be mentioned, than anything to do with the treatment of Indians and blacks. Denunciations of acquisitiveness, sharply observant of current practices, were not lacking. Increase Mather, for example, could write in 1676:

Land! Land! bath been the Idol of many in New-England: whereas the first Planters here that they might keep themselves together were satisfied with one Acre for each person, as his propriety, and after that with twenty Acres for a Family, how have Men since coveted after the earth, that many hundreds, nay thousands of Acres, have been engrossed by one man, and they that profess themselves Christians, have forsaken Churches, and Ordinances, and all for land and elbow-room enough in the world. Lot would forsake the Land of Canaan, and the Church, . . . that he might have better worldly accommodations in Sodome.10

But Increase was equally scandalized by vanity of hair style or dress, loitering in taverns, and early departure from public worship. Whether the sins denounced seem trivial to us or not the continuous denunciation of them by the Puritan ministers and their insistence that God’s blessing could become a curse unless the people reformed kept alive the idea that divine judgment hangs over even an elect people and helped to prevent national self-worship. It will become apparent in the next chapter that such Puritan moralism, even at its best, exacted a heavy price.

It was inevitable that the religious fervor about liberty, which reached a climax at the time of the Revolution, would raise doubts about slavery. Well before the Revolution, Quakers had begun the first systematic opposition to slavery with an effort to abolish it within their own ranks. By the time of the Revolution, evangelicals and Calvinists generally shared these views. A feeling began to develop that slavery was so serious a sin that divine retribution of a peculiarly appropriate kind might ensue. Already in 1768 the Reverend Francis Alison in Philadelphia wrote to Ezra Stiles, "I am assured the Common father of all men will severely plead a Controversy against these Colonies for Enslaving Negroes, and keeping their children, born British subjects, in perpetual slavery -- and possibly for this wickedness God threatens us with slavery." In 1774, with war already at hand, the Danbury town meeting in Connecticut declared that " . . . we have great reason to apprehend the enslaving the Africans is one of the crying sins of our land, for which Heaven is now chastising us."" The whole issue is beautifully summed up by Dr. Benjamin Rush who, in his Address upon Slave-keeping advised the clergy to "Remember that national crimes require national punishments, and without declaring what punishment awaits this evil, you may venture to assure them, that it cannot pass with impunity, unless God shall cease to be just or merciful.12

In spite of these sentiments, the will to liberate the slaves, part of the general revolutionary impulse toward liberation, faltered during the Constitutional Convention. Outside the South abolition was rather quickly enacted at the state level, but in the federal Constitution all that could be gained in the compromises leading to the final draft was the prohibition of the importation of slaves after 1808. Even though to many the toleration of slavery in the Constitution was sure evidence that it was but an external covenant, the creation of a viable national structure and its defense against foreign Incursion so preoccupied the new nation that it was not until nearly forty years after the Constitution was adopted that the Issue of slavery would once again come to the fore.


The Roman facade of the new republic was singularly cold and unhomelike to the great majority of the American population. There was a brief flurry of republican religion, a stoic, rational deism conforming to the limits of pure reason and advocating civic virtue. But outside an assortment of upper-class Virginia and New England aristocrats, and avant-garde radicals like Tom Paine, it had no appeal. Jefferson’s prediction that Unitarianism would soon become the American religion could not have been more wrong. Even he turned to biblical imagery when he wished to invoke powerful symbols to express the national experience, and he was himself embraced as a symbol by those whose religious fervor he could never understand. When that second American revolution, inward and spiritual broke in 1800 it was evangelical and revivalist. It was the beginning of the Second Great Awakening aid it carried all before it, determining the direction of the popular consciousness for the rest of the century. It is essential that we understand the relation between a renewed Protestant piety and a gradually clarifying American national consciousness if we are to grasp the meaning of American myth and symbol in the 19th century and our inheritance from it.

In a sense the deistic symbolism remained embalmed at the level of the civil religion, since it was above all Washington, Adams, Jefferson, and Madison who set the tone of the national cult. Public proclamation tended even to avoid the word God, referring instead to Providence," "that Infinite Power which rules the destinies of the universe." "that being in whose hands we are, and so forth. Above all every hint of sectarian specificity was avoided in the religious symbolism that was so evident in American political life from the earliest days of the republic. That this symbolism could survive the passing of those whose private religious and philosophical mood it expressed can be explained only by the deeply held doctrine of religious liberty, enshrined in the First Amendment prohibition of the establishment of religion. Americans were a religious people and their public life ever gave expression to that fact, but they avoided any hint of establishment by opting for a neutral religious language that could give offense to none.

By the same token that neutral deistic language warmed the hearts of none and by itself and unaided, it could hardly have provided the imaginative basis of a national consciousness without which the new nation could easily have shattered into the divisions and fragments that continually threatened it. What civil religion unaided could not accomplish became possible with the help of a burgeoning revivalism. Cold external forms could be filled with a warm inner life, appropriated and impressed into the imaginative life of the people. It is precisely this dynamic combination of public form and private meaning that makes the American civil religion so difficult to understand and analyze. Its severe formal limits have made it difficult to manipulate by public officials. Only the greatest presidents have given it a personal impress: Washington by his role as liberator and his great refusal to exercise the role of Caesar: Lincoln by his martyrdom; Jefferson through language, more in the Declaration of Independence than in any of his state papers; and Lincoln again, especially in the Second Inaugural and the Gettysburg Address. But behind those great gestures and proclamations there is no orthodox interpreter, no government-supported school of civil theology, no censor with power to forbid what does not conform. The meaning, the inner meaning, is left to private interpretation, to the speech of any man -- preacher, politician, or poet -- who has the power to persuade.13 The result was not consensus -- there have always been sharp cleavages as to the deepest meaning of America -- but not anarchy either.

On the great issues of the 19th century -- slavery or freedom, public good or private gain -- it was the churches that spoke with the combined voice of believers and citizens, even when deeply divided among themselves. Perry Miller begins his history of The Life of the Mind in America with a 90-page section entitled "The Evangelical Basis," and William McLoughlin has written: "The history of American Evangelicalism is then more than a history of a religious movement. To understand it is to understand the whole temper of American life in the nineteenth century."’4 There is no other way to understand the American sense of chosenness and the American sense of judgment, even though long before 1900 other voices were beginning to make themselves heard.


There are linear continuities between the churches of the colonial period and those of the early 19th century but the mood is undeniably different. In the colonial period whole communities and churches often came over from Europe together. Religious community, whatever it might be lacking in actuality, was at least potentially present. The First Great Awakening took the parish as its basic unit. The preaching of Edwards was addressed to individuals within an established communal framework: it was his job to help in the conversion and transformation of men, not in the establishment of institutions. In the period of enormous expansion to the West after independence the situation was quite different. It was the role of evangelists in the Second Great Awakening after 1800 not only to convert individuals but to inspire communities so that they might establish and transform institutions.

Out of the flotsam and jetsam of the pious and the reprobate who filled the cities and towns of the West there had to be woven an entire associational life capable of carrying on the daily social functions, and social institutions had not merely to be established but uplifted and improved. Ultimately the aim of the revival was not local at all. A writer in the Christian Spectator in 1829 said that the Gospel not only can rescue individuals, "it can renew the face of communities and nations. The same heavenly influence which, in revivals of religion, descends on families and villages... may in like manner, when it shall please him who hath the residue of the Spirit, descend to refresh and beautify a whole land."15 The increasingly elaborated techniques of the revivalists for reaching into the deepest level of unconscious motivation in the common man were to be used not only as an aid to open him to the infusion of divine grace, but to make him a citizen. To quote the Christian Spectator again: " ‘What has religion to do with the State?’ you ask. In the form of ecclesiastical alliances, nothing; but in its operation as a controlling, purifying power in the consciences of the people, we answer, it has everything to do, it is the last hope of republics."16

Tocqueville and other Europeans were quick to notice how difficult it was to discern the machinery of government in much of America. Even bureaucrats, not to mention army and police, were seldom visible. As a student of Montesquieu, Tocqueville was aware that where the inner control of religious discipline operates the external compulsion of the state is not necessary. But Tocqueville was also aware that the political operation of religion in America was different from that conceived by many 18th-century philosophers, for here religion was not controlled by a hierarchy of priests monopolizing the dispensing of sacraments and the interpretation of dogma. Rather religion itself was democratic and republican," submitting "the truths of the other world to private judgement."17 What he did not see so well is that the great engine for maintaining the effectiveness of religion in national life was not dogma at all but revivalism intense, immediate and personal.

It is easy for those educated in the 20th century to believe that religion is a form of ideology in Mannheim’s classic sense of the term, that it operates as a support for an existing order rather than as a utopia to undercut it. But the total applicability of that analysis is doubtful at any period of American history and never more doubtful than in the first half of the i9th century. The millennialism of the American Protestant tradition again and again spawned movements for social change and social reform, held forth a utopia of the Kingdom of God on earth that undercut any simple commitment to the status quo. evangelical religion contributed to the growth of a national consciousness that cannot be understood wholly in terms of classic liberal theory. America was not simply a neutral legal state within which the individual could rationally pursue his self-interest. Nor was the questioning of existing institutional arrangements only the protest of those whose interests were violated. The motivation of those who initiated the great antislavery crusade that we are about to consider, was far less any direct or indirect economic self-interest than it was millennial republican idealism. I do not wish to imply that self-interest, any more than naked political force, was ever absent in American society. Where voluntary participation in the social process was barred -- as among the slaves in the South, among the Indians along the frontiers, and later in the 19th century among the urban poor -- the application of police, quasi-police, and military force was often violent and brutal. And among the majority population self-interest was intertwined with idealism in deep and complex ways as we shall see further in the next chapter. But the meaning of the American experience will remain forever opaque to those who, once they see through the most simple-minded version of American idealism, can find only violence and self-interest in its stead.


However intertwined with other issues it gradually became, the antislavery movement in the 19th century came primarily out of the religious and national energies that we have been discussing. Carried on even in the relatively quiet early years of the republic by Quakers, antislavery agitation became intense after 1830 among such groups as the Baptists in New England and a wide assortment of evangelical Churches west of the Alleghenies. The two great spokesmen of the movement, William Lloyd Garrison in New England and Theodore Dwight Weld in Ohio, were almost archetypal combinations of revivalist preacher and Old Testament prophet. The tensions between the two men reveal much about the cultural life of the day.

William Lloyd Garrison was the most stalwart and uncompromising, if sometimes sectarian and isolated, of the abolitionists. He is important for his unrelenting propaganda and for his remorseless unmasking of American pretentions. Unwilling to accept the arguments of the more moderate -- that slavery was a mere blot on an otherwise noble American countenance, a blemish that was not indicative of its essential quality -- Garrison found slavery an evil so profound that it called all American self-conceptions in question. Ridiculing Washington’s notion that the establishment of America was an "experiment" on which the fate of the world depends, in 1837 Garrison wrote,

As if God had suspended the fate of all nations, and hazarded the fulfillment of his glorious promises, upon the result of a wild and cruel "experiment" by a land-stealing, blood-thirsty, man-slaying and slave-trading people in one corner of the globe! As if God could not easily dash this nation in pieces, as a potter’s vessel is broken, and thereby vindicate his eternal justice. . . .18

Working entirely within the symbolism and rhetoric of the civil religion, he yet turned it into an instrument of searing denunciation of national pride when finally he was driven to denounce the Constitution itself, because it allowed slavery to continue, as "a covenant with death and an agreement with hell,"19 In 1854, in a gesture with which we have latterly become familiar, he publicly burned a copy of it, and later withdrew into bitter aloofness. In the last years before the Civil War, Garrison’s splinter of the antislavery movement was almost without direct political effect, but the witness of radical intransigence made its own contribution.

Theodore Weld, coming out of the turbulent West, was a convert of Charles Grandison Finney, the greatest of all American evangelists. Keeping considerably closer to the main stream than Garrison, Weld’s great contribution to the antislavery movement was his transformation of revivalist techniques into instruments of the abolitionist cause. His appeal was neither to interest nor even to duty but to warm emotional conversion. Speaking in 1834 to those he hoped would join his band of young men battling for the abolitionist cause, he asked for "hearts and heads and tongues -- for faith and works." The tone of his appeal can be glimpsed in the following words:

If your hearts ache and bleed, we want you, you will help us; but if you merely adopt our principles as dry theories, do let us alone: we have millstones enough swinging at our necks already. Further, if you join us merely out of a sense of duty, we pray you keep aloof and give place to those who leap into our ranks because they can not keep themselves out; who instead of whining about duty, shout ‘privilege,’ ‘delight’!20

Time and again in the years 1835 and 1836 Weld went into towns seething with antiabolitionist mobs. Often bruised and injured, often having to stand before a howling mass night after night until, out of exhaustion, he was allowed to speak. One of the great public speakers of his day, Weld many times won over a doubtful or hostile audience. At the end of a passionate exposition of the necessity of immediate abolition he said, in good revivalist fashion: "Friends, will all of you who believe please rise to your feet?" The entire audience rose.21 While Weld himself moved on, patient coworkers stayed to organize local societies that would continue the work. Even more important, Weld and his associates developed a constitutional argument that even as early as 1835 described the treatment in the North of free Negroes and abolitionists as "denials of rights to the equal protection of the laws, the safeguards of due process, and the privileges and immunities of citizens," the very language that would eventually be enshrined in the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution. Unlike Garrison the group around Weld believed that emancipation was implicit in the Constitution and that what that document needed was not burning but clarification and enforcement. Their efforts contributed much to that eventual outcome.

I do not deny that there were economic and political causes of the Civil War and of emancipation or insist that cultural and religious motives were alone important. I do claim that without those cultural and religious motives it is not possible to understand what has been called the Second American Revolution and its outcome in a new birth of freedom, partial and incomplete though that outcome, like the first one, was. Sidney Mead has argued that Abraham Lincoln is "the spiritual center of American history." 22 Certainly in terms of the dialectic of covenant and chosenness that we have been discussing in these first two chapters, the Civil War, the event with which Lincoln is most closely identified, was a kind of culmination.


During the American Revolution, as we have seen, the traditions of Protestant covenant theology and republican liberty were joined together, but the seam was still highly visible. By the time of the Civil War the fusion was complete, the garment seamless. There were few forms of public expression in early America that could communicate a deeply imaginative symbolism. We never had a tradition of a national theater; and poetry, fiction, and the fine arts were but uncertainly institutionalized by the mid-19th century.23 Almost the only popular forms with a deep American tradition behind them were the sermon (along with the related form of the political oration) and the hymn. In Lincoln’s greatest public statements the tradition of American public oratory, infused with biblical imagery and expressed in an almost Puritan "plain style," attained a classic form. In Julia Ward Howe’s "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" the hymn tradition culminated in an almost perfect expression of the national spirit.

The "Battle Hymn" imagery, drawn largely from the Book of Revelation, brings home the apocalyptic character of that moment in the nation’s history. It is a time of testing: "He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored"; and a time of judgment: "He is sifting out the hearts of men before His judgment seat." Christian holiness and republican liberty are finally conjoined: "As he died to make men holy, let us die to make men free." It is not an accident that one of the 20th century’s greatest American novels of social protest, The Grapes of Wrath, took its title from the second line of the "Battle Hymn" or that the old words took on apocalyptic meaning once again as a rallying cry in the great civil rights demonstrations of the late 1950s and early 1960s. A powerful fusion of imagery and feeling like that in the "Battle Hymn" goes on working down through history.

It is in Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address that we find perhaps the greatest expression of the theme of covenant and judgment in the entire course of American history. It is the final statement on slavery as sin:

If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled up by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said "the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether."

And even more significant is Lincoln’s insistence in the Gettysburg Address that out of all the blood and the suffering there must come "a new birth of freedom."

The Civil War, like the Revolution, moved from liberation, in this case emancipation of the slaves, to the institution of liberty in the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments. The most important provisions are contained in the 14th Amendment where Section 1 guaranteed the natural rights of man and equal protection of the laws and Section 5 authorized Congress to enforce these rights. Even though the radical meaning of these clauses was undermined for many decades by narrow court interpretations and a regressive political situation, their meaning can hardly be exaggerated. They are the charter under which many of the advances of the last 20 years have been made. They are the mandate for many more. They altered the role of the national government from one of largely passive observation in the field of individual rights to one of active intervention and responsibility. They give the constitutional legitimation for much that is still to be realized politically.


For all the vitality of the antislavery movement and the living heritage that it bequeathed us, its success was only partial and much of what was gained legally was quickly lost socially and politically. The antislavery movement was a drama in the white soul. The black American scarcely emerged on the public stage. With a few exceptions like Frederick Douglass, most of the leaders, even the most radical -- Weld, Garrison, John Brown -- were white. Ex-slaves wrote of their own experiences but the account of slave life that electrified the country was Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The whole epic struggle, as far as most white Americans were concerned, was one of sin, judgment, and redemption in the white soul. There was indeed a black epic, and it is now being recovered. But the black man does not really emerge as part of the imaginative understanding of white Americans until at least the time of W. E. B. Du Bois, if not Richard Wright or Malcolm X. Thus fundamental aspects of the American self-picture went unchallenged. For 50 years after the Civil War that picture was more self-congratulatory than it had ever been before, its self-satisfaction reinforced by the image of Lincoln freeing the slaves, a gesture most magnanimously shared with black Americans by the practice of naming public schools in black ghettos after the Great Emancipator.

Far from shaking white Anglo-Saxon self-confidence the Civil War merely confirmed it and rhetoric of the kind I quoted from Senator Beveridge at the beginning of this chapter was all too common in the late years of the 19th century. In 1885 a Protestant minister, Josiah Strong, later to become one of the founders of the social gospel movement, published a book that became a best seller. Even within this book there is ample evidence of social conscience and yet Strong wrote:

The unoccupied arable lands of the earth are limited and will soon be taken. . . . Then will the world enter upon a new stage of its history – the final competition of races, for which the Anglo-Saxon is being schooled. . . . .Then this race of unequaled energy. with all the majesty of numbers and the might of wealth behind it -- the representative, let us hope, of the largest liberty, the purest Christianity, the highest civilization -- having developed peculiarly aggressive traits calculated to impress its institutions upon mankind will spread itself over the earth. . . . Can anyone doubt that the result of this competition of races will be "the survival of the fittest"? . . . Nothing can save the inferior race but a ready and pliant assimilation. . . . The contest is not one of arms, but of vitality and civilization. . . . Is there reasonable room for doubt that this race . . . is destined to dispossess many weaker races, assimilate others, and mold the remainder, until in a very true and important sense it has Anglo-Saxonized mankind.24

It is interesting to note how long the Protestant clergy-man remains a central spokesman for American culture. Long after Josiah Strong, he would continue to be heard and, in the accents of Bryan and Wilson, the American politician would continue to echo him. Even up to the present day, through men such as Reinhold Niebuhr and Martin Luther King, the tradition continues, although in recent time voices from other quarters are to be heard as well and the Protestant clergyman is less representative. Even before the Civil War, tentatively and often with small audiences, American culture was finding a voice independent of the clergy, beginning to articulate the national consciousness. If we take what D. H. Lawrence referred to as classic American literature or F.O. Matthiessen as the American Renaissance, the first impression may be of how close rather than how far the secular culture was from the Protestant cultural form. Emerson, the fountainhead of the movement, began as a minister and continued to use as his main form the lecture, a transparently secularized version of the sermon. Even in writers such as Thoreau, Melville, and Whitman the influence of the spoken word, the chief idiom of cultivated American literature, is still very strong, but what was being said in that spoken word increasingly contained things that could not be delivered from the Protestant pulpit. After delivering his address to the Harvard Divinity School in 1838 Emerson was not asked to speak again at Harvard for thirty years because his free religious views were so offensive. Thoreau in his essay "Civil Disobedience" could say what all but the most intrepid ministers would hesitate to say: "This people must cease to hold slaves and to make war on Mexico, though it cost them their existence as a people."25

Many of the spokesmen of secular culture uttered versions of the doctrine of America as a chosen people that would make a theologian blush, as in the passage from Melville quoted above. But Melville changed his mind and, in a period when he was all but ignored in America, offered one of the most trenchant analyses of the kind of thing Josiah Strong was preaching that has ever been delivered. In his long poem Clarel, published in 1876, Melville wrote:

As cruel as a Turk: Whence came

That proverb old as the crusades!

From Anglo-Saxons. What are they?

The Anglo-Saxons -- lacking grace

To win the love of any race;

Hated by myriads dispossessed

Of rights -- the Indians East and West,

These pirates of the sphere! grave looters –

Grave, canting Mammonite freebooters,

Who in the name of Christ and Trade

(Oh, bucklered forehead of the brass!)

Deflower the world’s last sylvan glade!

Melville is still enough within the main religious tradition to meditate on the consequences of what seemed to be the new American version of the covenant, without condition or judgment. He says:


If be a people which began

Without impediment, or let

From any ruling where foreran;

Even striving all things to forget

But this -- the excellence of man

Left to himself, his natural bent,

His own devices and intent;

And if, in satire of the heaven,

A world, a new world have been given

For stage whereon to deploy the event;

If such a people be -- well, well,

One hears the kettledrums of hell!

Finally such a people will foreswear all covenants and speak to God as follows:

How profits it? And who are Thou

That we should serve Thee? Of Thy ways

No knowledge we desire; new ways

We have found out, and better. Go –

Depart from us . . .

And as a result there would follow what Melville calls the hideous "Dark Ages of Democracy."26

The issue of Anglo-Saxon superiority and American imperial destiny came to full public consciousness at the time of the Spanish-American War, especially in the great debate over the annexation of the Philippines. Many, like Senator Beveridge, argued that it was our obligation as a chosen people to bring our blessings to the Filipinos by annexing them. But as the New York Presbyterian minister Henry Van Dyke replied, "If that were true, our whole duty would not be done . . . until we had annexed the misgoverned Spaniards of Spain also. . . . Does the . . . treatment of the Indians in... the United States give us a comfortable sense of pride? . . . Is our success in treating the Chinese problem and the Negro problem so notorious that we must attempt to repeat it on a magnified scale eight thousand miles away?" Rather he said we should return to "our unsolved problems staring us in the face, our cities misgoverned and our territories neglected. . . ." 27

William Vaughn Moody recognized the curse consequent to the broken covenant when he wrote of the same event:

For save we let the island men go free,

Those baffled and dislaureled ghosts

Will curse us from the lamentable coasts

Where walk the frustrate dead.

The cup of trembling shall be drainéd quite,

Even the sour bread of astonishment,

With ashes of the hearth shall be made white

Our hair, and wailing shall be in the tent. . . .28

And perhaps most succinctly of all, David Starr Jordan, President of Stanford, scoffed at the slogan "The free can conquer but to save" by saying in 1899 that if the Anglo-Saxon "has a destiny incompatible with morality and which cannot be carried out in peace, if he is bound by no pledges and must ride rough shod over the rights and wills of weaker peoples, the sooner he is exterminated the better for the world."29

For Garrison. Thoreau. Melville, Moody, and Jordan, and for those Americans for whom they spoke, a conception of chosenness that slips away from controlling obligations of the covenant is a signpost to hell.


1. Cherry. op. cit., p. 16

2. Ernest Lee Tuveson, Redeemer Nation. University of Chicago Press, 1968. pp. 156-157.

3. Cherry, 0p. cit., pp. 224-225.

4. Ibid., p. 227.

5. Ibid., p. 228.

6. Ibid., p. 26.

7. Williams. op. cit., p. 107.

8. Ibid., p. 102.

9. Perry Miller, The New England Mind: From Colony to Province. Harvard University Press. 1953, chapter 2.

10. Increase Mather, An Earnest Exhortation to the Inhabitants of New-England, Boston, 1776, p. 4. as quoted in Anne Kusener Nelson, "King Philip’s War and the Hubbard-Mather Rivalry." The William and Mary Quarterly. 3rd Series, Vol. 27. No.4. 1970. p. 624. This quotation is concrete evidence for what is implied in a recent New Yorker cartoon. Two pilgrims are depicted on board ship, one saying to the other, "Religious freedom is my immediate goal, but my long-range plan is to go into real estate."

11. Winthrop D. Jordan. White over Black, University of North Carolina Press, 1968. p. 299.

12. Ibid., pp. 300-301.

13. What is from one point of view "private." in that it is not official and does not speak for the state, is from another point of view "public," in that it represents not the tradition of particular persons or groups in isolation from the general society but applies those particular traditions to the problems of the whole society. In this context we can understand how many Church leaders engaged in what Martin Marty has called "public theology." They spoke genuinely out of their own religious traditions but to the problems of the society as a whole.

14. Perry Miller, The Life of the Mind in America, Harcourt, Brace and World, 1965. William G. McLoughlin. The American Evangelicals 1800-1900. Harper Torchbooks, 1968. p. 26.

15. Miller. Life of the Mind. p. 11.

16. Ibid., p. 71.

17. Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, Vintage Books, 1954, Vol. I, 436.

18. Staughton Lynd, Intellectual Origins of American Radicalism, Vintage, 1968. p. 132.

19. Seymour Martin Lipset, The First New Nation, Basic Books, 1963, p. 34.

20. Gilbert Hobbs Barnes, The Anti-Slavery Impulse 1830 -- 1849, Harbinger, 1964, p. 79.

21. Ibid., p. 82.

22. Sidney E. Mead, The Lively Experiment, Harper and Row, 1963, p. 73.

23. Conrad Cherry has pointed out to me that it was precisely in the Civil War poetry of Melville and Whitman that American poetry reached a new level of maturity.

24. Winthrop S. Hudson (ed.), Nationalism and Religion in America, Harper and Row, 1970, pp. 115-116.

25. Henry David Thoreau, Walden and Civil Disobedience, Signet New American Library, 1960, p. 225.

26. Herman Melville, Clarel, Hendricks House, 1960, pp. 434, 481 483.

27. Hudson, op. cit., p. 122.

28. F. O. Matthiessen (ed.), Oxford Book of American Verse, Oxford, 1950, p. 462.

29. Ralph Henry Gabriel, The Course of American Democratic Thought, The Ronald Press, l956, p. 385.