John Lukacs and the Problem of American History

A Lukacs Symposium

Soon now we shall go out of the house and go into the convulsion of the world, out of history into history and the awful responsibility of Time.

Robert Penn Warren, All the King’s Men (1946)

Throughout its brief existence, the United States for many Americans has seemed the nearest approximation to the Kingdom of God on earth. The New Zion, the New Jerusalem, the New Canaan, the City upon a Hill, America has been a messianic nation—“a country with the soul of a church” as Chesterton described it—the last, best hope of man. This crusading zeal, John Lukacs argues, this sense that America is a nation set apart, has been inseparable from the religion of Progress. Arising less from Christianity, even in its evangelical Protestant idiom, this faith in, this addiction to, Progress, Lukacs maintains, is among the principal consequences of the Enlightenment. At the heart of the American experiment was a vast delusion about the nature of man and history. It had originated in the Enlightenment conception of Americans as New Men and New Women who, invincibly committed to Progress, transcended the limits that nature, history, and Providence imposed upon all human beings. Although the mechanical philosophy of the Enlightenment is now hopelessly antiquated, the emergence of an American Gnosticism remains its most important and enduring legacy: the belief that society is perfectible, that original sin is non-existent, and that humanity, especially the New Men and New Women who inhabit the New World, can, though their own agency, alter the nature of being.[1]

The redemption from history and the regeneration of man became the very ethos of America to which all Americans were obliged to give unconditional assent. Together these ideas became providential and assumed the force of revealed truth. As a result, the main impetus of American thought has long been utopian. Philip Freneau’s and Hugh Henry Brackenridge’s “Poem on the Rising Glory of America,” published in 1772, early affirmed the character of this progressive doctrine. Imagining “paradise anew” in America, where the Fall would be reversed, and “by no second Adam lost,” Freneau and Brackenridge speculated that:

No dangerous tree with deadly fruit shall grow
No tempting serpent to allure the soul
From native innocence. A Canaan here,
Another Canaan shall excel the old. . . .

This “new Jerusalem, sent down from heaven” promised freedom from toil, illness, and death. Here the bounty of nature would be restored and the violence of nature quelled. The destructive human passions would be calmed; war and crime would end. A beacon to all mankind, America was destined to lead the rest of world into a radiant future millennium:

Such days the world,
And such, AMERICA, thou first shall have,
When ages, yet to come, have run their round,

     And future years of bliss alone remain. [2]

The Americanmyth that Freneau and Brackenridge expounded offered humanity a new beginning. They proposed that in America mankind would have a second chance, escaping the corruption and sinfulness of the darkening Old World and thus revitalizing a civilization that elsewhere perched on the threshold of collapse.

It ought to be no surprise then that the hero of much early American literature was the American Adam, a wise innocent fortunate to dwell in this timeless earthly paradise. “The new habits to be engendered on the new American scene,” observed R. W. B. Lewis, “were suggested by the image of a radically new personality . . . : an individual untouched and undefiled by the usual inheritances of family and race; an individual standing alone, self-reliant and self-propelling. . . . The new hero (in praise or disapproval) was most easily identified with Adam before the Fall.”[3] Pure and sinless, innocent in word and deed, the American Adam is also, in terms essential to Lukacs’s interpretation of the American past, irresponsible and anti-, or at least, a-historical. Since he does not know the difference between good and evil, since he has no moral sense, the American Adam is beyond judgment, guilt, and remorse. He may think, say, and do as he pleases; it is impossible for him to do wrong. Transcending nature, culture, and history, the American Adam is free, and such radical freedom is the promise of America.

“A vast republic of escaped slaves,” wrote D. H. Lawrence, America originally represented an alternative to Europe, a land in which the free, rational individual supplanted an imperious culture, tradition, community, and faith as the source of virtue, order, and meaning.[4] In “black revulsion” against the dominion of popes, kings, and fathers, the authors not only of tradition but also of history, Europeans, Lawrence argued, had come to the New World not in search of mere religious or political freedom, but rather to escape the past and themselves, and henceforth to be “masterless.”

Near the beginning of the Modern Age, Descartes had embarked on his philosophical inquiry by conceiving the existence of the self thinking as the one truth he could not doubt. The self thinking became for him a fixed and certain identity amid a varied and fluctuating reality. The masterless American self, by contrast, was from the outset less unitary and more variable, confronting new situations, adapting to new circumstances, and taking advantage of new opportunities by reconstituting and, as was the hope, improving, its essential nature and being. The limitless malleability of the self afforded unrivaled possibilities for advancement and success to men of intelligence, perseverance, cunning, and ambition. Inconceivable in Europe, such a transformation of self and world could take place this side of heaven only in America.[5]

Lukacs has taken special pains to expose the many inconsistencies, distortions, and untruths that have issued from the fable of American exceptionalism and the apparent American triumph over the human condition.[6] Once the United States had differed from Europe. Unencumbered by an extensive, centralized bureaucracy, nineteenth-century America was “ahead of Europe . . . because it was behind Europe.” The persistent effort to spread American political, economic, and cultural influence around the world, which began during the last quarter of the nineteenth century, effected a convergence that ironically compromised or ended American distinctiveness. The move toward global dominance also prompted a critical transformation of American ideas, values, and ideals.

During the twentieth century, which was in Lukacs’s estimation the American Century, the similarities between the United States and Europe grew apace as “Americans caught up with the worst habits of Europeans.”[7] Few at the time, or since, noticed this devolution, or appreciated its significance. Instead, Lukacs asserts, by the mid-1950s, most Americans, including many American conservatives, espoused a version of the optimistic, progressive world view that cast the United States as the greatest and most virtuous nation in history. Was not America, after all, the most radiant beacon to shine forth in all the long, dark, sorrowful history ofthe world? Americans liked to think so, and could not, or, in any event did not, resist the temptation to consider what was good for America as good for the rest of the world. Europe was debased. After 1948 China was lost. The Soviet Union was evil. According to the national rhetoric of American exceptionalism, the United States alone embodied goodness and truth, thereby confirming the supremacy of the New World over the Old.

Assuming the inevitability of secular progress, Americans projected the image of millennial perfection onto the national existence of the Untied States. The rational, egalitarian, beneficent social and political order of America, they vowed, would negate the uncertainties of history and the vicissitudes of nature, handsomely rewarding their confidence in the “fresh, green breast of the new world.”[8] Yet, the bravado with which Americans so often extolled their accomplishments, their institutions, their mission, and their destiny concealed a fatalism in American thought that at times approached despair. For if the advent of the United States had marked the culmination of history, Lukacs discerns that it has also meant

the opening of the last—and not merely the most recent—phase of the very existence of mankind, indeed, of the great globe itself. If the United States were to decline, the entire world would decline with it; and after the passing of the United States nothing would follow. . . . Whether Americans still think this is a moot question, but by no means a theoretical one: for the fate of mankind indeed seems catastrophic if Americans do not liberate themselves from the thought that they are the last hope of earth—from the vision of an American Götterdämmerung, especially in the nuclear age.[9]

Even as Americans inscribed their own variant of the Edenic myth, even as they bore witness to the expansion of a prosperous and moral civilization across a continent and around the world, they could not suppress the fear that they would one day lose their purity, innocence, and power, and have to face the disappointments of history, the sorrows of the human condition, and the sinfulness of man, which would place them beyond the pale of hope.

Lukacs has challenged the American gospel of progress by emphasizing the historical dimension—“the historicity”—of human life, a condition, he admits, that “not many Americans [have been] willing to accept.”[10] History has compromised, if it has not discredited, the transcendent meaning and the moral authority of America. The American is not the epitome of innocence any more than America is the City of God. At the same time, an evolving historical consciousness, Lukacs suggests, means that Americans cannot forever neglect their European inheritance or deny that, like Europeans, they are subject to the perennial afflictions and mysteries of the human condition.

The principal task confronting Americans in the twenty-first century is thus the need to reconsider the worth and viability of a global American order and to rethink the value and meaning of progress. Although some Americans have begun to raise such questions, more than once, Lukcas shows, American benevolence and generosity have been undone by the absence of American magnanimity. It has perhaps become a characteristicAmerican defect to presume that the nations and peoples to which the United States gives aid are inferior and owe gratitude and obedience to their benefactor.[11] This arrogance emerged because, contrary to the hopes and expectations of the founding generation, during the second half of the twentieth century America became the wealthiest and most powerful country on earth, making it, in Lukacs’s words, the “dictatress of the world.”[12]

Bewildered, unenlightened, shallow, immature, even puerile, complacent, and self-satisfied, Americans, in Lukacs’s judgment, are also hardworking, unselfish, trusting, and humane. Many, though, have embraced a defiant, bellicose, and, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, resurgent and intractable nationalism to accompany their uncritical belief in everlasting progress. In so doing, they have come to see themselves as “the Chosen People of the Universe.”[13] This false and superficial understanding of history and human nature has convinced many that, notwithstanding recent economic distress, American power is, or ought to be, unassailable, and that the continued application of technology will produce neither military nor environmental disaster. Writing not as a prophet but as a historian, Lukacs demurs. He urges the American people and their leaders to temper the ambition to dominate nature and to rule the world, if only so they can once more learn to govern themselves.  

[1] John Lukacs, A New Republic: A History of the United States in the Twentieth Century (New Haven: Yale University Books, 2004), 7.

[2] Philip Freneau and Hugh Henry Brackenridge, “A Poem on the Rising Glory of America,” in Harry Hayden Clark, ed., Major American Poets (New York: American Book Company, 1936), 2-8, lines 441-446, 467-470. The poem is also available at Early Americas Digital Archives, Compare Genesis 3: 16-19. See also Edwin H. Cady, “Philip Freneau as Archetypal American Poet,” in Robert Falk, ed., Literature and Ideas in America: Essays in Memory of Harry Hayden Clark (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1975), 1-19.

[3] R. W. B. Lewis, The American Adam: Innocence, Tragedy, and Tradition in the Nineteenth Century (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1955), 5.

[4] D. H. Lawrence, Studies in Classic American Literature (New York: Penguin Books, 1978), 9-11.

[5] See Lawrence, Studies, 15-27. On the American self, see Sacvan Bercovitch, The Puritan Origins of the American Self (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1975); Daniel Walker Howe, Making the American Self: Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997), Wilfred M. McClay, The Masterless: Self and Society in Modern America (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1994), Barry Alan Shain, The Myth of American Individualism: The Protestant Origins of American Political Thought (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1994), and Charles Taylor, Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1992).

[6] See, for example, John Lukacs, “American History: The Terminological Problem,” in Mark G. Malvasi and Jeffrey O. Nelson, eds., Remembered Past: John Lukacs on History, Historians, and Historical Knowledge (Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2005), 104.

[7] Lukacs, A New Republic, 7.

[8] F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1925), 227.

[9] Lukacs, A New Republic, 6, 25.

[10] Ibid., 329.

[11] See, for example, Lukacs’s discussion of Woodrow Wilson’s failures at the Paris Peace Conference in A New Republic, 31-32 and “Richard M. Gamble” in Remembered Past, 305-307.

[12] Lukacs, A New Republic, 407, 434-35. Secretary of State and future president John Quincy Adams coined the phrase in 1821.

[13] Ibid., 436, 407. “. . . What we must recognize,” writes Lukacs, “is that the nationalism of the Republican Party had been the main element in its popularity, surely ever since the Reagan years—and this has been especially evident since September 2001 as well as before, during, and after the Iraq War.” (Ibid, 425)

Mark G. Malvasi is professor of history at Randolph-Macon College in Ashland, Virginia. Among his other publications, he is co-editor of Remembered Past, a Lukacs reader (ISI Books 2005).
John Lukacs and the Problem of American History.
A Lukacs Symposium.