Chapter 3: Salvation and Success in America

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

Chapter 3: Salvation and Success in America

Up to this point we have considered a number of the organizing symbols and mythic elements of American national consciousness as it developed in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. We saw how deeply rooted the European colonists were in biblical symbolism and how time and again they interpreted their experiences on this continent in terms of biblical archetypes. The pristine newness of the "new world" seemed to be heavy with an even more radical newness: the coming of the millennium, the fullness of times, when God would create a new heaven and a new earth beginning right here in North America.

A foretaste of that radical Consummation was already attained by those who underwent the experience of conversion that has been so central to every generation of Protestant Christians in America from the early 17th century to the present. But conversion was not only a reward -- rebirth into eternal life. It also entailed an obligation -- to walk in the ways of the Lord. Those ways were summed up in the notion of the covenant which linked the converted men and women, which is to say "new" men and women, to God. The experience of conversion and covenant was one of great joy and confirmed a sense of the early Americans that they were an especially choice and chosen people. The boundless energy that has always characterized this people undoubtedly stems in part from this feeling which is similar to that of a child who has been especially favored by its parents. But already in the 17th century the precariousness of the covenant and the blessings flowing from it was sharply experienced. The tendency of the people to walk not in the ways of the Lord but in their own ways, to think not of the general good but of their own private interests, was discerned and condemned by the Puritan ministers. But, even more than they were aware, the colonists had failed the covenant almost before it had been made, for they had founded their new commonwealth on a great crime -- the bondage and genocide of other races. The very exclusiveness of their understanding of the covenant had perverted it. Of this we shall have more to say in the next chapter.

The Revolution of the 1770s was preceded by the first great wave of revivals that swept across the colonies in the 1740s. Once again an experience of conversion led into the formation of a covenant, this time the covenant of the new republic. A second great wave of revivals in the early 19th century preceded the Civil War. A renewed experience of divine salvation led to a heightened sense of the imperfections of the national covenant and demanded a nation purged and renewed after the long travail of slavery. Both the Constitution and the Civil War amendments are thoroughly secular documents, but they embody the moral commitment of a covenant people to order its life by the highest standards of which it is capable. As usual their application always fell far short of the aspirations of their drafters. If we are to understand either those aspirations or the failure to attain them, we must continue our effort to understand the nature of this covenant-making people with its deep need for newness and for liberation from oldness in religion, in politics, and in personal life, as well as the moral predicaments the search for newness and liberation so often generated. In the first two chapters we have had much to say of the religious and political nature of our central themes. In this chapter we must look at their personal implications.

We have seen how easily national aggrandizement could slip out of the control of the covenant and become imperialism. We will have to consider how personal aggrandizement could take an analogous route and become aggressive dominance over others in society. In dealing with the perversions of moralism it is easy to become moralistic ourselves. We must remember that the best and the worst in a society or an individual are often closely related. The energy of creation and the energy of aggression are often only a hair’s breadth apart. Energy and vitality, which Americans have always had in abundance, are essential in a healthy personality. But that energy, what psychoanalysts sometimes call impulse, must have form, must attain some balance with control, if there is to be maturity of character. It is the role of symbols and myths at the level of personal life both to stimulate and mobilize psychic energy and to provide form and control for it. We will still be talking in this chapter about conversion and covenant, liberation and constitution, but now at the level of personal lives and life histories.


Every national character, as Erik Erikson has pointed out, is constructed out of polarities.1 In America the polarities have been so extreme that they have often seemed impossible to reconcile in a single picture. Americans have been extravagantly praised and blamed as idealists or materialists, anarchists or conformists the world’s most openhanded philanthropists or the world’s most efficient killers. These apparent contradictions may be rooted in the basically different motives that brought individuals to America in the first place. They came to find salvation or they came to get rich, or, often enough, for both reasons in some combination not even clear to the individuals themselves. However sharply contradictory these motives might appear, and they have often seemed utterly contradictory, a choice between God and Mammon, or God and the devil, they are at some deep level not unrelated. They can both be considered versions of the same mythic archetype: the quest for paradise; one for an earthy paradise in which impulses are gratified here and now, one for a heavenly paradise at some future time. This dichotomy may be too simple, since in some versions salvation can occur with ecstatic immediacy and the paradise of riches often recedes into a never-never land. But there is little doubt that in the religious culture which is the chrysalis of American myth, the tension between the two motives was conceived as one between worldly pleasures and the hereafter. Perhaps we should begin then with the Puritan version of the problem, since American culture and even American counterculture remain Puritan and moralistic to this day in curious and often disavowed continuity with the 17th century.

We have already seen that John Winthrop in his shipboard sermon of 1630 posed the issue to his congregation as the choice between adhering to God’s covenant or pursuing "our carnal intentions seeking great things for ourselves and our posterity," seeking "our pleasures and profits." Clearly stated and often repeated though these alternatives were, there were aspects of Puritanism that made the contrast between them hard to maintain. As everybody knows, the Puritans placed a high value on work in a calling. Building up the waste places of the wilderness and creating a city on a hill were definitely seen as part of God’s commandment to the Massachusetts Bay colonists. Good Christian work it was believed would not go unrewarded. The Reverend William Corbin promised his people that it would "cause the Heavens to drop Fatness round about your Habitations, and the Earth to bring forth Plenty; and you shall not fail of abundance of all things for the maintenance of your Grandeur and comfort of your Lives . . ." 2 And many substantial New Englanders found that the promises were fulfilled. As it was said of the Quakers in Pennsylvania, they came to do good and did well. Nevertheless the tension between the two motives was maintained in principle as the following set of admonitions from Cotton Mather’s sermon "A Christian at his Calling" indicates:

A Christian should with PIETY follow his Occupation. . . . Oh, let every Christian Walk with God, when he Works at his Calling, and Act in his Occupation with an Eye to God, Act as under the Eye of God. Syrs, ‘Tis a wondrous thing that I am going to say! A poor man, that minds the Business of his Calling, and weaves a Thread of Holiness into all his Business, may arrive to some of the highest Glories in Heaven at the last. . . .

But now, these things call for your Attention.

First; Let not the Business of your Personal Calling swallow up the Business of your GENERAL CALLING. Man, Be jealous lest the Fate of Corah‘s Company be thy Fate; even to be Swallowed up of the Earth. . . . Forget not, O Mortal man, That thou hast an Immortal Soul to be provided for. Let not that care, What shall I Eat or Drink, and wherewithal shall I be Clothed? make you forgetful of that care, What shall I do to be Saved? It may be said to many a man, who is drown’d in the Encumbrances of his Occupation; as Luke 10:41,42. Thou art careful and troubled about many Things; But one thing is Needful. Thus, thou art careful to do the Business, that must be done for the Relief of thy Bodily Wants; It is well: Do it, Do it. But, thy Soul, thy Soul, the Salvation of thy Soul, an Acquaintance with Christ and an Union with Christ, the only Saviour of thy Soul; This is the ONE THING that is Needful. Be not so Foolish and Unwise, as to Neglect That, whatever thou doest! Oh, try and see if you don’t upon trial find, besides the vast Blessings of Eternity, the Fulfillment of that word, Mat. 6.33. Seek first the Kingdom of God, & all these things shall be added unto you.3

John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress provided one of the most influential patterns of the Christian life in American history. The book was already a best seller in 17th-century New England and continued to hold a place second only to the Bible in pious American families for many decades. It was widely read down through the 19th and even into the 20th centuries. It is the story of Christian who, entering the way of salvation through the straight and narrow wicket of Christ, who relieves him of his burden of sin, proceeds to pass through the temptations and persecutions of the world until finally reaching the Heavenly City. For Mather excessive attention to the business of our personal calling or our bodily wants were just such temptations diverting us from the Way leading to the Heavenly City even though in their own subordinate place such things are not wrong.


It has become fashionable to argue that the Puritans were not puritanical, that they had a naturalistic view of the body, accepted its natural functioning, and could talk about it without the hushed prudery of the Victorians. That may be true, but the Puritans still had a profound suspicion of the body, a suspicion that has by no means ceased to operate in American culture, and felt that of all things creaturely it was most "prone to degeneration and extraordinarily susceptible to corruption." The adjectives they commonly applied to it were "vile," "filthy," and "unclean." Jonathan Mitchell epitomized the Puritan view when he called it "the old Crazy Rotten house of the body."4 And of the various corruptions to which the body was prone the sexual was undoubtedly the one most emphasized. To understand the Puritan suspicion of sex and the body we must ask about its broader meaning in the great economy of the relation of God and man. The body and especially sex were dangerous because they had the power to pull man away from his dependence on God and make him find his principle in himself. To the Calvinists the condition of man is total depravity. He can do nothing without the grace of God. To imagine that one can accomplish one’s own salvation is evident proof of one’s damnation. As Cotton Mather said, "They trust in their own Hearts, and they are Fools." 5 The body is feared then not for itself but because it is the source of rebellion against God. Blinded by our lusts we fail to see the divine plan for our own salvation, and so, blinded, we go to our eternal doom.

There was, nonetheless, a preoccupation with a few symbolic sins that must strike the modern observer as nearly pathological, and we will see in the next chapter how such preoccupations could lead to aggression against others. When Mather established his "Society to Suppress Disorders" the chief "Disorders" to be suppressed were drunkenness, profanity, and fornication.6 Members of the society were to observe instances of such behavior and report to the group. When one of the members of the society collected a list of young men who frequented whorehouses in Boston, Mather set the society to "writing reproving letters to each of the fornicators." 7 But if these particular strayings from the straight and narrow path seem to have taken up an inordinate amount of the energy of Mather and his colleagues, they were aware of and frequently reproved the deeper social sins of absorption in the pursuit of private gain and lack of charity to one’s brothers. With classic terminology but with an emotional insistence not common in the earlier generations of New England Puritans, Cotton Mather preached that the only hope of reform from these various forms of wickedness was to be born again in Christ, to rise again, not with one’s own strength but with his.8 As Mather began to despair that any general reformation of this sort would occur -- it would not until Jonathan Edwards’ Great Awakening of 1740, 12 years after Cotton Mather’s death -- he dwelt more and more on prophecies of the end of times. If this generation is sunk in its own wickedness, he thought, perhaps God will soon act to bring about a new heaven and a new earth, to effect drastically the reform that Mather could not bring about by his own preaching. With his succession of rejected schemes for the improvement of his fellows, with his deep suspicion of his own motives and those of others with an increasingly unbalanced third wife shouting violent imprecations on him, Cotton Mather in his last years is a tragic figure. But unlike so many in the generations to follow, he knew who he was, why he was here and where he was going. That precious cup of meaning, which has been draining away in America ever since, was, for him, still full.


If, for our purposes, Cotton Mather can stand as a kind of archetype of Puritanism, with his very considerable impulsive energy kept in tight control and consecrated with meaning by its service to the divine plan, Benjamin Franklin may serve, as he has for so many others, as an archetype of the worldly American. Actually the distance between the two men was in some ways not very great. Though he satirized Mather in an early piece, Franklin was deeply influenced by Mather’s "Essays To Do Good"; they provided the scaffolding for his own philosophy. Furthermore Franklin’s first reading was Pilgrim’s Progress and Bunyan was his favorite author. Charles Sanford argues persuasively that Franklin’s famous Autobiography was indeed modeled on Pilgrim’s Progress. It was a story of Franklin’s trials and tribulations on the road to worldly success parallel to Christian’s trials and tribulations on the road to the Heavenly City.9 Franklin’s scheme of moral perfection, though Mather would have abhorred it as a work of the self entirely devoid of grace, was clearly Puritan in content.

And yet, though every element is familiarly Puritan, the pattern in the kaleidoscope has altered radically and we are clearly in a different world from that of Cotton Mather. Mather’s divine plan has not disappeared but it has become thin, abstract, and attenuated. There is no biblical God but there is still a deistic Supreme Being. There is no Last Judgment but there is still an afterlife where good will be rewarded and evil punished. But there is no conversion, no rebirth in Christ, and no covenant. Instead there is the pursuit of private secular advancement and public secular good without any concern such as Mather would have show, as to how much the latter was really a form of the former. Piety has been replaced by prudence. And yet for all that enormous change, the balance between impulse and control has scarcely altered. That is what drove D. H. Lawrence to a frenzy in his chapter on Franklin where he tears the Autobiography apart to display the anatomy of the essential American. Franklin may allow himself a few more slips or a little less guilt about the slips than Mather did but what Lawrence called the "barbed-wire of shalt-not ideals" is still up.10 Though now we cannot tell for sure whether virtue is pursued for its own good or for the public seeming of good ("Honesty is the best policy" clearly illustrates the problem) the impulse life is still tightly reined in. Perhaps it is even more diminished, for the ends to which the impulses are controlled are so much less heroic and intense than were Mather’s.

We should not forget, of course, that Franklin was far from devoted to mere private gain. He was one of the great actors of the Revolution and he genuinely participated in the dialectic of liberation and the constitution of liberty there enacted. But in the end, the atmosphere of the Boston apprentice who made good in Philadelphia overcomes the noble stance of the Founding Father, and we remember his calculated prudence far better than his republican virtue. Yet for all his worldliness compared to Mather -- and it would be hard to imagine Mather more out of his depth than he would have been had he tried to take Franklin’s place at the court of Versailles -- Franklin has a kind of moral innocence that Mather did not share. Laurence says that there is in Franklin something of a child or of an old man or of a child wiser than its grandfather. But there is not the moral complexity of adult experience. There is an emotional and imaginative constriction about Franklin that is again essentially American, and because of it he seems somehow to escape the ravages of guilt and despair, and he never cries "What must I do to be saved?" He is the first of a long and illustrious line of American once-born men -- men with no deep need for spiritual rebirth -- devoted indistinguishably to themselves and their duties, childishly pleased with their own success, and only very occasionally tasting the bitter savor of ashes.


It would not be at all correct to assume that the transition from Cotton Mather to Benjamin Franklin is some kind of shift from the religious to the secular irreversibly accomplished once and for all. We should remember that Jonathan Edwards, a hero of piety who far outshone Mather and a quintessential twice-born man, was almost Franklin’s exact contemporary, being only three years older, and would exert an influence that, if less spectacular, was no less persistent than Franklin’s to the present day. And Franklin’s Autobiography, though modeled after Pilgrim’s Progress, did not replace it. Indeed generations of Americans would read both books, feel the pull of both images of the path of life, and not always be able to distinguish very clearly between them.

And yet it is also true that Jonathan Edwards was the last Protestant theologian before the 20th century to have in his control the entire imaginative resources of the Christian tradition.11 Edwards’s use of imagery was unparalleled and he stood at the beginning of the American tradition of revivalist preaching. He was also at home in the architectonic structure of Christian thought, the system of implications of the Christian myth. After him such a union of persuasion and thought tends to fall apart. There were vivid preachers by the score and dry as dust systematic theologians by the dozen, but there was no American again who was sufficiently at home with the structure of Christian symbolism to mold it creatively to present need until quite recently, when new impulses from secular culture and European thought have opened up new possibilities.

I do not pretend to understand all the reasons for this gradual drying up of the Protestant imagination in America -- and the failure of creativity at the symbolic level should not blind us to the continuing power of the Protestant impulse in personal character and social movements. But surely one cause that cannot he overlooked was the growing dominance in America from the middle of the 18th century of what William Blake called "single vision" and the entire social and cultural complex that went with it. Single vision was that view of the world, propagated by what Blake saw as the infernal trio-- Bacon and Newton and Locke -- which depended on reason alone and felt no need of the imaginative vision long nurtured in the religious and poetic traditions, of the West. Twofold vision of Blake is the awareness that there is always more than what appears, that behind every evident literal fact is an unfathomable depth of implication and meaning. And Blake, who thought much about America and whose insights are deeply relevant to the American experience -- though it took a century for Americans to discover him -- believed that the cutting off of that depth of meaning, which for him, is what single vision does, is a kind of sleep or death. When we remember that Jefferson’s three intellectual heroes were Bacon and Newton and Locke, and that Jefferson was, like most of the founding Fathers, a once-born man, we will begin to understand the growing prevalence of single vision in the early decades of the republic. The great religious revivals of the first half of the 19th century preached a twice-born religion and converted a higher percentage of the population than in any other country. But because they led to no rebirth of twofold vision, no new mythic or symbolic creation, they could not stem the tide of single vision nor, in the end, halt the erosion of twice-born religion.

Of course we cannot account for the drying up of the Protestant imagination or the rise of single vision solely in terms of the persuasiveness of the practical utilitarianism, the unconscious Lockianism, that was so appealing to American common sense. Nor can we account for it entirely in terms of the rising prestige of experimental science that the names Bacon and Newton symbolized, important though this was. The fundamental appeal of the practical rationalism that was the grassroots basis for pragmatism. the most American of philosophies, was its fit with an expansive commercial industrial economy and the technical advances needed to exploit the wealth of a virgin continent. The tension between building the city set on a hill and the land fever noted by Increase Mather had not diminished by the time of the Revolution. Many of the lawgivers of the republic, the framers of the Constitution were large-scale land speculators. Neither Franklin nor Jefferson were averse to extending their property, though the latter was aware of the dangers inherent in putting money-making ahead of civic virtue. Both Franklin and Jefferson were deeply interested in scientific and technical advances that could be of benefit to the American farmer and artisan. Much that is most characteristically American -- our flair for mechanics, our dynamism, our urge to build -- has its context in this long experience of economic and technical growth.

But the price of concentrating so heavily on the realm of worldly practical achievement was a thinning out of other dimensions of human experience. The end result, which was not evident until the late decades of the 19th century and the early decades of the 20th, was a conception of the meaning of human life, summed up in the word "success," so narrow that Franklin and Jefferson seem giants of complexity in comparison. For with the dominance of industrial capitalism after the Civil War, success in America became a singularly literal goal – it meant success in business, or more crassly, money. As John C. Van Dyke said in 1908, "Every one knows that success with the great masses spells money."12


For the man of twofold vision nothing could be more illusory than the goal of success, nothing more false than money, and a long line of Protestant preachers in the 19th century continued to say so, though, by the end of the century some of their voices began to quaver.

In 1830 George Cookman addressed the Methodists and said that the most formidable adversaries of Christianity were "your cool, prudent, calculating, common sense men, who would reduce the question to a mere sale of profit and loss." And in 1857 Joseph Thompson said, "Commerce cannot be entrusted with the moral interests of mankind. She has no principle that can withstand a strong temptation to her insatiable cupidity." 13 And even Josiah Strong, in the 1885 book already quoted about the Anglo-Saxonizing of mankind, had a moment or two of doubt whether every characteristic of those very Anglo-Saxons whom he celebrated was compatible with Christianity. He wrote:

The tendency of human nature, intensified by our commercial activity, is to make the life a whirlpool -- a great maelstrom which draws everything into itself. What is needed to-day is a grand reversal of the movement, a transformation of the life into a fountain. And in an exceptional degree is this the need of Anglo-Saxons. Their strong love of liberty, and their acquisitiveness, afford a powerful temptation to offer some substitute for self-abnegation. We would call no man master; we must take Christ as master. We would possess all things; we must surrender all things.14

But for many of the most widely known of the 19th-century preachers admonitions of the dangers of wealth became ever more perfunctory. Religion and wealth, religion and business, were seen more and more as part of a single enterprise. Matthew H. Smith wrote in 1854, "Adam was created and placed in the Garden of Eden for business purposes; it would have been better for the race if he had attended closely to the occupation for which he was made."15 The great Puritans -- Winthrop, Mather, Edwards -- much as they emphasized the value of hard work, were deeply sensitive to the tension between religion and the world, between God and Mammon. But in the late 19th century the tension in many quarters was almost gone. D. S. Gregory, in an ethics textbook widely used in the 1880s, was able to write: "By the proper use of wealth man may greatly elevate and extend his moral work. . . . The Moral Governor has placed the power of acquisitiveness in man for a good and noble purpose. . . ." 16 And finally, in 1901 William Lawrence, Episcopal Bishop of Massachusetts, wrote:

In the long run, it is only to the man of morality that wealth comes. We believe in the harmony of God’s Universe. We know that it is only by working along His laws natural and spiritual that we can work with efficiency. Only by working along the lines of right thinking and right living can the Secrets and wealth of nature be revealed. . . . Godliness is in league with riches . . . . Material prosperity is helping to make the national character sweeter, more joyous, more unselfish, more Christlike. That is my answer to the question as to the relation of material prosperity to morality.17

Clearly in such a harmonious universe there is no need for twofold vision. Single vision reveals a single truth in religion and business. As Arminian doctrine or Arminian attitudes spread among many of the popular revivalists, the stress was on a change of will rather than a radical rebirth, on man’s capacity to reform himself rather than the need for death to self and new birth in Christ. Such teachings turned the Calvinist view of the sinful nature of man almost into its opposite. Both man and the world, at least in America, are essentially innocent. There are pitfalls and temptations to be avoided but they are incidental rather than of the essence of the human condition. And in this simple and harmonious view of human existence worldly success is clear evidence of moral virtue and religious salvation. The last cultural barriers to the glorification of business success as the chief end of man were just about down by the end of the 19th century. But just as in the case of Benjamin Franklin this new and more innocent view of man did not lead to a liberation of the impulse life. If drunkenness, fornication, and so forth, no longer seemed quite so hellish as they did a century before, they were still to be avoided as impediments to business success. The emotional and imaginative constriction of the American personality in a world of common sense and plain fact became ever more evident and ever more painful to that minority of Americans who sought a larger human ideal.


It was Anglo-Saxon Protestants who created the gospel of wealth and the ideal of success. From that group, even as late as 1900, came over 90 percent of the men of great wealth in the society. But the gospel of wealth was disseminated to the millions, including the millions of immigrants who were seldom Anglo-Saxon or Protestant. As Ralph Gabriel has said, "This faith and philosophy became the most persuasive siren in American life. It filled the highways with farm boys trekking to the city. It drained the towns and countryside of Europe." But in the 20th century, as is always the case in America, prophets have arisen to point out the hellish side of this national ideal. Even Jonathan Edwards would have admired their rhetoric, though in the 20th century they seldom came from the church. Henry Miller has exposed the almost maniacal quality of the quest for success. In the 1920s Miller worked as personnel manager for the telegraph company in New York City and his main job was the hiring of telegraph messengers. One day the vice-president was bawling him out and said he would like to see someone write a sort of Horatio Alger book about the messengers. Of this event Miller writes:

I thought to myself -- you poor old futzer, you, just wait until I get it off my chest II give you an Horatio Alger book. . . . My head was in a whirl to leave his office. I saw the army of men, women and children that had passed through my hands, saw them weeping, begging, beseeching, imploring, cursing, spitting, fuming, threatening. I saw the tracks they left on the highways, lying on the floor of freight trains, the parents in rags, the coal box empty, the sink running over, the walls sweating and between the cold beads of sweat the cockroaches running like mad; I saw them hobbling along like twisted gnomes or falling backwards in the epileptic frenzy. . . . I saw the walls giving way and the pest pouring out like a winged fluid, and the men higher up with their iron-clad logic, waiting for it to blow over, waiting for everything to be patched up, waiting, waiting contentedly. . . saying that things were temporarily out of order. I saw the Horatio Alger hero, the dream of a sick America, mounting higher and higher, first messenger, then operator, then manager, then chief, then superintendent, then vice-president, then president, then trust magnate, then beer baron, then Lord of all the Americas, the money god, the god of gods, the clay of clay, nullity on high, zero with ninety seven thousand decimals for and aft. . . . I will give you Horatio Alger as he looks the day after the Apocalypse, when all the stink has cleared away.18

More recently James Baldwin described the effect of the dream of success on that one group of Americans who have been most systematically prevented from ever realizing it:

Now I think there is a very good reason why the Negro in this country has been treated for such a long time in such a cruel way, and some of the reasons are economic and some of them are political.... Some of them are social, and these reasons are somewhat more important because they have to do with our social panic, with our fear of losing status. This really amounts sometimes to a kind of social paranoia. One cannot afford to lose status on this peculiar kind of ladder, for the prevailing notion of American life seems to involve a kind of rung-by-rung ascension to some hideously desirable state. If this is one’s concept of life, obviously one cannot afford to slip back one rung. When one slips, one slips back not a rung but back into chaos and no longer knows who he is. And this reason, this fear, suggests to me one of the real reasons for the status of the Negro in this country. In a way, the Negro tells us where the bottom is: because he is there, and where he is, beneath us, we know where the limits are and how far we must not fall. We must not fall beneath him. We must never allow ourselves to fall that low, and I am not trying to be cynical or sardonic. I think if one examines the myths which have proliferated in this country concerning the Negro, one discovers beneath these myths a kind of sleeping terror of some condition which we refuse to imagine. In a way, if the Negro were not there, we might be forced to deal within ourselves and our own personalities, with all those vices, all those conundrums and all those mysteries with which we have invested the Negro race. 19


It has been argued that the quest for success has become more modest in the 20th century, after the great concentrations of economic power have made the more sensational kinds of upward mobility less likely, and especially after the great depression. Certainly in the adolescent boys that Erik Erikson studied in the late 1940s and whom he took as in some sense typical of the American character, the success ideal seems peculiarly muted. The outstanding characteristics of these tall, slim, muscular boys, mostly Anglo-Saxon and, in Erikson’s words, "mildly Protestant,"20 were autonomy, efficiency, and decency. They had personalities well-geared to enter the American occupational sphere and attain a modest success. Autonomous, efficient, and decent young men are obviously not something any society needs to apologize for. The enormous productive achievements of just such men have made America the richest and most powerful nation in the world.

And yet Erikson noticed certain things about these young men that worried him. They avoided neurotic conflict by a certain emotional self-restriction: they did not want to talk or think too much but felt more comfortable in action, in sports or work. Indeed Erikson says, "Our boy is anti-intellectual. Anybody who thinks or feels too much seems ‘queer’ to him. This objection to feeling and thinking is, to some extent derived from an early mistrust of sensuality."21 The mistrust of sensuality comes largely from experience of a mother who was apt to be somewhat frigid and moralistic, and who deliberately under-gratified him or under-mothered him as an infant. His father too, though friendly and not a threat was shy and remote and there was no intimacy with him. Such boys, Erikson found, though healthy and outgoing, were somewhat alienated from their bodies, found it hard to believe that their genitals were really part of themselves. And what worried Erikson the most and seems today the most ironic, was that these young men seemed incapable of rebellion, incapable of questioning anything basic about their own society. He could not know then that he was witnessing perhaps the last generation of all-American boys.

It is clear from the above description that though we have come a long way from Cotton Mather, the under-ground connections are still very strong. Perhaps we might celebrate Erikson’s typical American youth as a rapidly vanishing type with great accomplishments in his past. But it might be more instructive to consider what it cost to create him. One of the costs involves the role of women in American life. American women have been required to play a special kind of auxiliary role. Somehow women in the Protestant tradition have come almost to replace the clergyman as the guardian of the American conscience. In the 19th-century romantic novel it was the virtuous -- and, let us admit it, rather frigid -- blond-haired beauty that the hero married after some careless adventures with a dark-haired, often non-Anglo-Saxon temptress. The Western movie continues the stereotype split between the good woman whom one marries and the bar-girl whom one doesn’t. It was one of the chief functions of the good woman not only to uphold a moral ideal for her husband but to effectively starve her son emotionally so that he would be diverted from any temptations toward sensuality into the proper course of decency and efficiency. The strong silent pioneer woman who looked on stoically as her husband and son went into action had at least the satisfaction of being the moral center of her little world even though she was not only the source, but the chief victim of its emotional starvation. The guilt this woman was able to generate in her men should not be underestimated. It was the guilt that, more than all the coal or electricity or even atomic power, turned the huge and countless wheels of American industry. But the woman, with some remarkable exceptions, was kept too busy in her role as prime producer of the chief energy supply in American society, male motivation, to have time to play a role herself on the public stage. Therefore we have many heroes but few heroines -- though that, too, is changing.

I think this same syndrome helps us understand the cult of youth in American society. The American ideal, as it increasingly came to be stated in the 19th century as a tensionless harmony of moral and religious idealism and the quest for economic success, required a peculiarly innocent conception of human life. In order to keep this harmonious ideal intact Americans have had to brush aside the darker moral ambiguities of life, the tragic dimension of human existence, and maintain stalwart optimism and "positive thinking." But the middle years of life treat no man kindly and forever sow the seeds of cynicism and despair. For the last century or more, one of the great tactics for keeping the ideal of shining innocence alive even in later years is to concentrate it on the young. Thoreau said, "Every child begins the world again." The sense that each young man is a new unfallen Adam is deep in 19th-century American consciousness, abhorrent as this is to religious orthodoxy. But what a burden the idolization of golden youth has always placed on the young! For it is not youth as such but our ideal of youth that we demand in them. To save our fading illusions and defend us from our deepening cynicism they must be trim, fair-haired, clean in mind and body, ambitious. (I am reminded of the injunction of the American missionary to Japan whose words, "Boys, be ambitious," is the motto of Hokkaido University, a worthy gift from one nation of compulsive achievers to another.) In other words they must be all that we want to be and fear we are not. And generation after generation with only an occasional murmur, youth did what they were bidden to do, took up the burden of guilt, and tried to realize the ideals that the fathers had failed to attain.

I wonder how many of the thousands of commencement speakers, who have over the years magnanimously informed the graduating class that it is now up to them to solve the problems of the world, have realized that they included the implicit proviso: to solve those problems according to our ideals and our methods, to succeed where we have failed, to take the weight of guilt that we can no longer bear. It seems to me that one of the many things this present generation means to say by its appearance and actions is, "no we are not clean-cut, we are not ambitious, we are not even good as you mean good, and we will not take your burden of guilt and we will not solve your problems the way you want them solved, and we will not protect you from your fears nor bolster your illusions." But this generation too is still deeply American, in both the best and the worst meaning of the word.

We have seen how the American success ideal has taken its toll on women, on youth, on all groups who do not approximate the Anglo-Saxon Protestant ideal of character -- above all on blacks. I have heard it said by some of our younger radicals that the real oppressors in American society and the only beneficiaries of the American system are the white, male, Anglo-Saxon Protestants. It is true that many of the chief rewards of the system do go to such men, and many of them seem to derive great satisfaction from them. Of course one should not forget the millions of poor whites, not only in Appalachia but in the city slums, who are Anglo-Saxon and Protestant and get few rewards of any kind. But even within the more favored section of that group, what of the white Anglo-Saxon boy who thinks or feels too much, who hears a different drummer, or sees a different vision? We should not forget the history of those who tried to revive the life of the imagination in America after life began to drain out of the Protestant Churches; how America virtually ignored a Thoreau, a Melville, and a Whitman during their lifetimes; how Poe was driven insane, Henry James into exile, and Hart Crane into suicide. (The problem for creative women was, if anything, worse. Think of Emily Dickinson.) And if those names seem somehow too atypical and it is said that genius has a difficult time in any society, then we should remember the "lives of quiet desperation" of the successful or almost successful, the double martinis that become triple martinis in the effort to wash out the taste of ashes, as well as the despair of those who have failed in their effort to climb the barbaric ladder.

All of these considerations do not change the fact that for a long time American society has been organized around the image of the successful white Anglo-Saxon man, nor assuage the bitterness of those excluded from the central rewards of the society because of the fact of sex or race or age.22 Plato long ago pointed out that the tyrant who can gratify every whim is the greatest slave of all, because he is completely at the mercy of his own desires, but he did not mean that argument as an excuse for tyrants. There is no point in overlooking the price that white male Americans have paid for their rewards, for they have much to contribute and much to gain from a conception of the meaning of life different from the late American preoccupation with success. But the rewards, tarnished though they are, must begin to be shared more widely now.


Let me return to our central theme, the dialectic between liberation and liberty, revolution and constitution, conversion and covenant. In the pattern of individual life this dialectic takes the form of impulse and control. We have seen how what began as the great Puritan cosmic drama of sin and salvation, conversion, birth and new life, became domestication into the production of just the right amount of autonomy and guilt, decency, and efficiency to run a vast industrial economy. One of the distinctive issues of the third time of trial that we have now entered is that the existing balance in this sphere is being questioned. The question is being asked whether the price for the present pattern is not too high, whether we could not, without losing me many good things in our society, have a freer impulse life, a richer imaginative consciousness, be less alienated from our bodies, be capable of more profound intimacy with a few and more community with many others. It is also being asked whether women and youth and minority groups and even white men have to play just the roles they have been assigned in the past in order to maintain just the right balance of energy and repression in an industrial society.

The issues are vexed, and we will be returning to them in the last chapter. But a few things are sufficiently clear to say now. To those who say the answer to our present need is no control at all, let the impulses run free, natural man is at heart innocent and good, I would with Melville reply: "Well, well, one hears the kettledrums of hell." The great antinomies of human life are never solved by grasping one polarity and forgetting the other. Our problem is not to get rid of control in any absolute sense but to find a new kind of control that will allow a wider freedom. It is hard for this generation to understand a phrase like "those wise restraints that make men free," perhaps because such phrases too often have been used as part of a con game to get youth to buy the illusions of middle age. But short of the Apocalypse, there is no freedom without constraint. The great urge at the moment, and rightly so in my opinion, is liberation. But without a new order, without a new system of control, liberation cannot become liberty and quickly becomes despotism. As when some superliberated youth jumps into the arms of a totalitarian religious or political sect.

With respect to the human personality, the deepest ordering of impulse is cultural, is religious, occurs in myth and ritual. America began when the great new mythic ordering of the Protestant Reformation was still vital and alive. That pattern combined with the newer myth of republican liberty sustained and reinvigorated us in our first and second times of trial. But now our cultural crisis is deeper. The single vision that has been on the rise since the 18th century is now more than ever the dominant cultural orientation. A profound experience of conversion, of the reordering of the deepest levels of the personality in the light of a transcendent vision, is not absent in America, but it is harder than ever to integrate with the dominant cultural mood. The established structures of economic and political power seem perversely set on maximizing wealth and power regardless of the cost to the society or the natural environment. Under these circumstances we should not be surprised if efforts at liberation, revolution, and counterculture seem fragmented and chaotic. Anarchy and antinomianism are always present in the effort to change a social order that has become too constricting.

But the dominant American cultural and social system can put up with a certain amount of anarchy and antinomianism, can even encourage it. A highly private "freedom" in certain restricted spheres can go together with the dominance of purely technical control at the center of social power. From this point of view the mere rejection of the established order, even if flamboyantly symbolized, has a strictly limited utility. If we are to transcend the limitations of American culture and society it can only be on the basis of an imaginative vision that can generate an experience of inner conversion and lead to a new form of covenant. Liberation without any sense of constitution will surely be self-defeating. The perils of late 20th-century America will not be overcome by everyone doing his or her "own thing," but through the discovery of cultural and social forms that can give the disciplined basis for a new degree of moral freedom.



1. Erik H. Erikson, Childhood and Society, Norton, 1963, p z85.

2. Howard Mumford Jones, The Pursuit of Happiness, Cornell University Press, 1966, p. 1.

3. Moses Rischin (ed.), The American Gospel of Success, Quadrangle Books, 1965, p. 29.

4. Middlekauff, op. cit., p. 202.

5. Ibid., p. 257.

6. Ibid., p. 271.

7. Ibid., p. 272.

8. Ibid., pp. 255, 257.

9. Charles L. Sanford, The Quest for Paradise, University of Illinois Press, 1961, p. 125.

10. D. H. Lawrence, Studies in Classic American Literature, Doubleday Anchor, 1953, p. 31.

11. Conrad Cherry suggests that I have overlooked Horace Bushnell (1802-1876) as a major 19th-century theologian worthy to rank with Edwards and the Niebuhrs. Also on Bushnell see the interesting comments of Philip Rieff in the Preface to his On Intellectuals, Doubleday Anchor. 1970, pp. ix-x.

12. Irvin G. Wyllie, The Self-Made Man in America, Free Press, 1966, p. 4.

13. Miller, The Life of the Mind, p. 53.

14. McLoughlin, The American Evangelicals, p. 208.

15. Wyllie, op. cit., p. 61.

16. Gabriel, op. cit., p. 157.

17. Ibid., p. 158.

18. Quoted in K. Shapiro, Introduction, in Henry Miller, Tropic of Cancer, Grove Press, 1961, p. viii.

19. James Baldwin, Nobody Knows My Name, Dell, 1963, pp. 111-112.

20. Erikson, Childhood and Society, p. 308.

21. Ibid., p. 319.

22. For some wise comments on this problem see Erikson, Dimensions of a New Identity, pp. 113-119.