Character in the American Experience: An Unruly People
By Bruce P. Frohnen and Ted V. McAllister.
Lexington Books, 2022.
Hardcover, 208 pages, $95.
Reviewed by Ryan R. Holston.
Truth-telling with regard to historical life is never a question of laying bare “the facts” that the historian, like the natural scientist, must simply uncover and disclose in a disinterested manner to the reading public. For there is no value-free observation of human affairs and were there the possibility of such understanding, the very import of history to its present interpreters would be lost. Indeed, all who study history—historians, political theorists, lawyers and judges, and lay persons—must do so with an eye to present circumstances and the way in which the past may serve as a guide in what matters. Cicero’s pithy formulation, “Historia magistra vitae est,” expresses this notion that history is a source of wisdom for the present: it informs not only prudential decision-making but also a sense of who we are and the models from whom we take our bearings as we continually confront new circumstances with old truths.
In Character in the American Experience: An Unruly People, Bruce P. Frohnen and Ted V. McAllister show history to be more than mere facts and themselves more than mere neutral observers as they weave together a rich narrative of who we are, capturing the truth of America’s past in its moral and spiritual dimensions. For the idea of character is precisely that—a concept that penetrates into the depths of the human soul as it pertains to a particular people, in a particular place in time, describing the types of choices they have made and the traits or features of personality that they embody. A historical account of a people’s character is thus a different kind of history from that of the positivist who insists on bare “facts.” For it acknowledges that there are truths about us as a people that transcend our brute, material nature—but that an account thereof may nonetheless qualify as historical reality and not mere fabrication. In short, the work Frohnen and McAllister do in this book is, in the noblest sense, historical myth-making—as it might be conceived by Eric Voegelin or Alasdair MacIntyre—an exercise in self-interpretation which both binds and elucidates the existence of a people and its ethical experience over time.
The prominent character trait or feature of American personality which Frohnen and McAllister aim to highlight is our people’s history of “unruliness.” In the conceptual continuum of order and anarchy, why prioritize this somewhat unusual quality, rather than focusing on the familiar predisposition toward “ordered liberty,” which many have seen as the hallmark of the American Founding? The answer may be seen as the leitmotif of this subtly thoughtful work, whose tacit normative purpose is the revival of a robust republican vitality, now enervated by a managerial state and consumerist culture that has rendered Tocqueville’s admonitions regarding citizen docility a frightening reality. Unruliness, in short, is what is needed in the present moment—a resource latent in the history of the American people, one often forgotten or neglected as a defining feature of our personality, but which may be re-awakened or re-collected as part of our self-understanding. An unusual combination of circumstances forged our earliest, unruly proclivities toward public life: the punishing circumstances of the new world, benign neglect by the British crown, and a moral diversity broadly grounded in religious dissent. All of these motivated an attentiveness to social cooperation and self-governance, lest one perish to the elements or succumb to the influence and interests of other groups. Still, as Frohnen and McAllister make clear, such vigilance toward the potential coercion of others was unlike the diffidence of Hobbesian individuals, but involved morally purposeful political assertions by groups with distinct interpretations of a shared religious patrimony. Consequently, the unruliness that emerged was hardly anarchical or hedonistic but was informed by each of these unique groups’ commitments to ancient religious convictions and their attendant moral codes. A century and half of such experience thus formed the foundation of a republican spirit that was based on commitment to the dictates of virtue. As such, American unruliness as Frohnen and McAllister see it was not (as the word itself might indicate) about non-rule but self-rule; it was about submission to morality on one’s own terms as opposed to another’s. For early Americans, theirs was an ornery, moral republicanism. The American Revolution thus centered around a patrimony, the English constitutional tradition, that both belonged to this people and was that to which they belonged. It entailed preexisting, ancient norms to which colonials saw themselves as bound and was an inheritance they would not be denied. The American Constitution that followed thus reclaimed this heritage and, though a document of order and process, was designed to preserve a “peaceful, low-level conflict” for a government of rival interests and a society of plural moral commitments. The real work of this fundamental law was thus to facilitate the exercise of these commitments at lower levels of social life, close to the lives of the citizens.
The complex machinery of national government constituted a set of rules for distributing and limiting powers but, more fundamentally, protecting spiritual and organic relationships in the localities. … The powers of self-government exercised in the townships—and in families, churches, and voluntary associations—was [sic] great. In brief, the real action and the substance of life were neither national nor specifically political, but local.
As with the British constitution, plurality and unity could thus coexist if concrete ways of living were allowed to develop on their own, organically. But this was a situation which, on occasion, had to be defended or claimed by citizens themselves, when faced with threats from above.
Through much of the nineteenth century, this delicate balance between conflict and order, diversity and unity, remained intact. Although Tocqueville’s own analysis tends to focus on the township, Frohnen and McAllister show, interestingly, how even frontier life—though more commonly associated with “rugged individualism”—seemed to nourish these associational qualities. For withdrawal from social life meant vulnerability to wild animals and Indian attack, while cooperation or pragmatic deal-making accustomed Americans to the “rough-and-tumble” of negotiation and compromise. One of the shining virtues of this book is that Frohnen and McAllister do not romanticize public life and engagement with others; on the contrary, they show the messy and even ugly side of politics and political liberty, while recognizing its importance for long-term well-being. Thus, it is with no illusions that they highlight early nineteenth century hostility and bigotry toward waves of Catholic immigrants, resulting in public battles over the funding of parochial schools. While damaging to social relations and even contributing to centralization and the loss of local control, overlapping loyalties and multiple sites of authority fostered low-level conflict in this area. True pluralism, on this understanding, can withstand corruption and demagoguery, mitigating rather than eliminating conflict, in the knowledge that no “final” victories will ever be had.
Still, there are intimations throughout the book that unruliness has its proper limits and excesses, as when its conflict is no longer “low-level,” but boils over into a disorder that threatens self-rule. The paradigmatic case, of course, is the American Civil War, and the authors’ focus with respect to this large topic is the effect that the polarizing institution of slavery engendered on the character of the American people. As Frohnen and McAllister are careful to note, this institution, imported from the Caribbean, was actually a violation of the English Common law inheritance that defined the people of the colonies, but which a corrupt bargain in the Constitution—itself a product of self rule—had enshrined. The authors thus recognize a paradox of self-rule, which is that its inherent freedom can and has had self-undermining consequences. The examples in the present instance are numerous. Most obviously, the institution of slavery denied such English liberties to its most direct victims in human bondage. But also, less conspicuously, it sparked Congressional “gag” rules and state suppressions of free speech regarding the morality of its practice. Also notable here is the well-known fact that the Supreme Court decision of Dred Scott v. Sandford was an exercise of judicial fiat over the republican Missouri Compromise, which sparked the outbreak of the war. And even after the war, Southern legislatures were forced to ratify the Civil War Amendments at gunpoint. The Reconstruction that followed was disastrous, as much due to racist resistance (that is, excessive unruliness) to racial equality as the corruption supporting its political implementation. Once again, Frohnen and McAllister are clear-eyed and unromantic in their analysis: there simply was no “magic bullet” that would have fixed the problems associated with slavery—the War, Reconstruction, and their social and economic fallout entailed large-scale human suffering for both blacks and whites, whose recovery took generations of community-building. The problematic paradox of republican liberty—allowing choices that undermine its own foundations—is exhibited again, most prominently, in the early twentieth century embrace of progressivism. Only here, the contradictions or tensions with self-rule are more subtle than with slavery and thus more easily incorporated into the peoples’ character. The progressive instinct, Frohnen and McAllister explain, was to think about social reform in much broader terms than one’s township or locality, aiming instead to address large-scale societal problems through fundamental institutional change. Moreover, the ideological underpinnings of progressivism comprehended not a multiplicity of communities as both agents and objects of reform but one monolithic culture, thus lending itself to promises of political reform in the name of “the people,” accompanied by the centralization of power. The long term consequence, they explain, was the justification of a vast administrative state, which in the name of “democracy” and increased material well-being assumed the functions of local associations. The delicate balance between plurality and unity thus tilted in the direction of the latter and began sapping formerly vital communities of their moral energies.
The story of the mid-twentieth century, on their account, has been the continued and dangerous expansion of these promises and intrusions upon local life. To be sure, they recognize, addressing the problem of Jim Crow through the Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was essential to ending the morally corrupt vestiges of slavery. However, the legacy of these once justified assertions of federal power has been an expansion of governmental authority beyond all reasonable limits in areas of life that far exceed matters of race. The ambitious social agenda of the Warren Court, along with broad provisions contained in the Civil Rights Act, helped fuel the practice and presupposition among the people that addressing social problems was the province of a vigilant federal government. “Over ensuing years, the federal government empowered its own agencies to police private associations and conduct. Federal agents would now decide what was fair and equal in American businesses, communities, voluntary associations, and, eventually churches.” Such expansions of federal power were increasingly justified in the imaginations of a population feeling disempowered by the problems and scale of modern life. The paradoxes, well-observed by the book’s authors, abound here, as the progressive theory of social change took hold in the post-war generation to address such problems, while the growth of the state that this justified further alienated Americans from social reform, contributing to moral and political lassitude and frustrated appeals for more government action. The attenuated relevance of particular identities and communities, together with the theory that only fundamental institutional change could ensure justice and individual freedom, was a crucible for the identity politics of subsequent decades.
This brings us to the all-important last two chapters of the book where the present crisis, an insidious variety of soft-despotism, is made explicit. American character—indeed, its unruliness—has changed. A managerial class, justified by its address of large-scale societal problems and the ultimate aim of achieving “social justice,” has through the continuous growth of the administrative state made increasing numbers of citizens dependent on its programs. Its goods are delivered not through self-governing associations but a bureaucratic apparatus that demands pliant or passive obedience. The character of America’s citizens, far different from their forebears, has come to value individual “self-expression” and the radical equality implicit in “inclusion.” In short, Tocqueville’s warnings regarding individualism, the excesses of democratic equality, and the slavish bargain for relative material comfort have been realized. The peoples’ unruliness, once a potent force for checking authority, has become muted or channeled into more acceptable forms—e.g. “crime, riots, and the occasional demonstration”—that do not disrupt the existing order. Only the “bullies” of identity politics (e.g., antifa, BLM), appear capable of making demands on political and administrative authorities, serving their interests and further intruding upon the lives of ordinary Americans.
These chapters require careful reading, for the examination of character concerns questions of a moral or spiritual nature. Therefore, one should treat any call to arms with the utmost caution, and that is certainly true of the present work. Fore Frohnen and McAllister are explicit at the end of their penultimate chapter that Americans must “rediscover” their unruly character, and it becomes clear that their efforts to mine the historical roots of this defiant, ornery nature are grounded in a concern to push back and save the American way of life—that is, restore the proper balance of organic plurality and unity—from the forces of progressive ideology. The reader, to whom they often speak directly, is thus explicitly encouraged: “Perhaps it is not too late to remember that our democratic culture and its politics are rooted as much in hard cider, tar, and feathers as in grand statements and appeasement masked as compromise.” Such fiery rhetoric, along with a call to “set aside notions of civility that involve kid gloves and perpetual defeat” lay bare the explicit normative message of this work that, though highly nuanced and scholarly, is clearly meant for a wide readership beyond merely academics. Even amidst such lines—which carefully include the caveat “peacefully to be sure”—there is an awareness that the present conflict, though between “two Americas,” is largely of a spiritual nature in the breast of the individual citizen. This Tocquevillian sensibility recognizes, in other words, that the struggle for republican liberty is as much one of overcoming present habits and “moeurs” than of confronting external forces, oppressive though these might be. Hence the authors’ emphasis on memory and showing us not a distant tradition, alien and removed from current circumstances, but that which embodies who we are as a people when we have been at our most vigilant and free. For this is the story of our moral experience, which furnishes lessons for the present, not merely relics of a museum or history book of mere antiquarian interest. Instead, Frohnen and McAllister have awakened us to new models—or more accurately, new old models—showing us through concrete examples not only who we are, but who we might be.
The ultimate question, of course, is whether this spiritual restitution and resistance will be enough. For though Frohnen and McAllister advocate peaceful behavior, their models often are not, leaving the reader with important, lingering questions regarding how conflictual or confrontational this unruliness might be pushed before becoming violent. At a minimum, it is hoped that their provocative study may inspire further, needed reflection on the uniqueness of our present docility, which, though keenly anticipated by the great French sociologist, also seems reinforced in ways he could not have anticipated by the pervasiveness and seductiveness of new commercial and technological powers. It will thus take additional creative insights, building on the powerful promptings of Frohnen and McAllister, to confront the sense that our collective character is continually being enfeebled with respect to the spirit of what once made it free.
Ryan R. Holston is Professor of Political Science and Jonathan Myric Daniels ’61 Chair for Academic Excellence at Virginia Military Institute. He is author of Tradition and the Deliberative Turn (SUNY Press, 2023).
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