From the author of the immensely influential and best-selling Of Paradise and Power—a major reevaluation of America’s place in the world from the colonial era to the turn of the twentieth century.
Robert Kagan strips away the myth of America’s isolationist tradition and reveals a more complicated reality: that Americans have been increasing their global power and influence steadily for the past four centuries. Even from the time of the Puritans, he reveals, America was no shining “city up on a hill” but an engine of commercial and territorial expansion that drove Native Americans, as well as French, Spanish, Russian, and ultimately even British power, from the North American continent. Even before the birth of the nation, Americans believed they were destined for global leadership. Underlying their ambitions, Kagan argues, was a set of ideas and ideals about the world and human nature. He focuses on the Declaration of Independence as the document that firmly established the American conviction that the inalienable rights of all mankind transcended territorial borders and blood ties. American nationalism, he shows, was always internationalist at its core. He also makes a startling discovery: that the Civil War and the abolition of slavery—the fulfillment of the ideals of the Declaration—were the decisive turning point in the history of American foreign policy as well. Kagan's brilliant and comprehensive reexamination of early American foreign policy makes clear why America, from its very beginning, has been viewed worldwide not only as a wellspring of political, cultural, and social revolution, but as an ambitious and, at times, dangerous nation.
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Robert Kagan is senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, transatlantic fellow at the German Marshall Fund, and a columnist for The Washington Post. He is also the author of A Twilight Struggle: American Power and Nicaragua, 1977–1990, and editor, with William Kristol, of Present Dangers: Crisis and Opportunity in American Foreign and Defense Policy. Kagan served in the U.S. State Department from 1984 to 1988. He lives in Brussels with his family.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
The First Imperialists
This is a commonwealth of the fabric that hath an open ear, and a public concernment. She is not made for herself only, but given as a magistrate of God unto mankind, for the vindication of common right and the law of nature. Wherefore saith Cicero of the . . . Romans, Nos magis patronatum orbis terrarrum suscepimus quam imperium, we have rather undertaken the patronage than the empire of the world. —James Harrington, The Commonwealth of Oceana, 1656
The Myth of the “City upon a Hill”: The Americanization of the Puritan Mission
Misperceptions about the history, traditions, and nature of American foreign policy begin with the popular image of the Puritans who settled in New England in the 1630s. John Winthrop’s hopeful description of the Massachusetts Bay theocracy as a “city upon a hill” is emblazoned in the American self-image, a vivid symbol of what are widely seen as dominant isolationist and “exceptionalist” tendencies in American foreign policy. The Puritan “mission,” as the historian Frederick Merk once put it, was “to redeem the Old World by high example,” and generations of Americans have considered this “exemplarist” purpose the country’s original mission in its pure, uncorrupted form: the desire to set an example to the world, but from a safe distance.1 Felix Gilbert argued that the unique combination of idealism and isolationism in American thought derived from the Puritans’ “utopian” aspirations, which required “separation” from Europe and the severing of “ties which might spread the diseases of Europe to America.”2 The true American “mission,” therefore, was inherently isolationist, passive, and restrained; it was, as Merk put it, both “idealistic” and “self-denying . . . a force that fought to curb expansionism of the aggressive variety.”3
This picture of Puritan America as a pious Greta Garbo, wanting only to be left alone in her self-contained world, is misleading. For one thing, Winthrop’s Puritans were not isolationists. They were global revolutionaries.4 They escaped persecution in the Old World to establish the ideal religious commonwealth in America, their “new Jerusalem.” But unlike the biblical Jews, they looked forward to the day, they hoped not far off, when they might return to a reformed Egypt. Far from seeking permanent separation from the Old World, the Puritans’ “errand into the wilderness” aimed to establish a base from which to launch a counteroffensive across the Atlantic. Their special covenant with God was not tied to the soil of the North American continent.5 America was not the Puritans’ promised land but a temporary refuge.6 God had “peopled New England in order that the reformation of England and Scotland may be hastened.”7 As the great scholar of Puritan thought Perry Miller explained many years ago, the Puritan migration “was no retreat from Europe: it was a flank attack.” The “large unspoken assumption in the errand of 1630” was that success in New England would mean a return to old England.8
The Massachusetts Bay colonists neither sought isolation from the Old World nor considered themselves isolated.9 The Puritan leaders did not even believe they were establishing a “new” world distinct from the old. In their minds New England and Old England were the same world, spiritually if not geographically. A hundred years after Winthrop’s settlement, when the Puritan evangelist Jonathan Edwards spoke of “our nation,” he meant both Britain and the British North American colonies. It was a measure of how little the New England Puritans sought isolation from the Old World that their greatest disappointment came when England’s Puritan revolution in the mid-seventeenth century abandoned rigid Calvinism, the Puritans’ model, thus leaving the Puritans theologically isolated in their American wilderness.10
America, in turn, became not a promised land but a burial ground for the kind of Puritan theocracy Winthrop and his followers had hoped to establish. Puritanism died in part because the American wilderness, like the biblical Israel, was a land of milk and honey. The New World was too vast for the Puritans’ worldly asceticism. Their rigid theocracy required control and obedience and self-restraint, but the expansive North American wilderness created freedom, dissent, independence, and the lust for land. The abundance of land and economic opportunities for men and women of all social stations diverted too many minds from godly to worldly pursuits. It undermined patriarchal hierarchy and shattered orthodoxy. Those who did not like the way the doctrines of Calvinism were construed and enforced in the Massachusetts Bay Colony had only to move up the Connecticut Valley. Within a dozen years after Winthrop’s arrival, Puritan divines were decrying their parishioners’ sinful desire for ever more “elbow-room” in their New World. “Land! Land! hath been the Idol of many in New-England,” cried Increase Mather. “They that profess themselves Christians, have foresaken Churches, and Ordinances, and all for land and elbow-room enough in the World.”11
The rich lands of North America also helped unleash liberal, materialist forces within Protestantism that overwhelmed the Puritan fathers’ original godly vision and brought New England onto the path on which the rest of British-American civilization was already traveling: toward individualism, progress, and modernity. With so many opportunities for personal enrichment available in the New World, the “Protestant ethic,” as Max Weber called it, which countenanced the rewards of labor as a sign of God’s favor and which demanded hard work in one’s “calling” as a sign of election, became a powerful engine of material progress. In a short time, settlers, plantation owners, and the increasingly prosperous and powerful merchants of Boston—the so-called River Gods—came to worship at altars other than those of their Calvinist fathers and grandfathers. The liberal, commercial ethos of these new mercantile groups represented the spirit of a new age, whose “guiding principles were not social stability, order, and the discipline of the senses, but mobility, growth, and the enjoyment of life.”12
By the early eighteenth century Puritan New England had entered “the emerging secular and commercial culture” of Anglo-America. The New Englanders “relinquished their grand vision of building a city upon a hill,” and Puritanism itself melted into the new, modernizing society.13 The burst of religious revivalism in the early to mid-eighteenth century, termed the Great Awakening, was a monument to Puritanism’s failure, a worried response to the increasing secularization of American society and to the spread of Christian rationalism and Deism among colonial elites. From its original pious ambitions, Jonathan Edwards lamented, the Puritans’ America had fallen into sin. History had never witnessed “such a casting off [of] the Christian religion,” nor “so much scoffing at and ridiculing the gospel of Christ by those that have been brought up under gospel light.”14 Even Edwards’s own reactionary revivalism was shaped by the new realities of life in an expansive, modernizing, and free America, for his was a democratized, antihierarchical Puritanism that conformed to the increasingly fluid nature of colonial American society. His effort to stem the tide of liberalism and modernity was futile. As Edwards wrote his treatises on faith and salvation and obedience to God, his fellow British colonials were “beginning to think of themselves as having individual rights that were self-evidently endowments of nature.”15 By the last quarter of the eighteenth century a foreign observer like the French immigrant Michel-Guillaume-Jean de Crèvecoeur could write of Americans that they “think more of the affairs of this world than of those of the next.”16
Not only has the original Puritan mission often been misunderstood, therefore, but the rapid absorption and dissipation of Puritanism within the mainstream of colonial American society meant that the Puritan influence in shaping the character of that society, and its foreign policies, was not as great as has sometimes been imagined. Most of America outside of New England had never been under Puritan influence, and by the early eighteenth century even New England was no Puritan commonwealth but a rising center of liberalism and commercialism. In the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries it was the southern and middle colonies, not New England, that “epitomized what was arguably the most important element in the emerging British-American culture: the conception of America as a place in which free people could pursue their own individual happiness in safety and with a fair prospect that they might be successful in their several quests.”17
The society and culture that took root in the Chesapeake Bay region had far greater influence on the evolution of American society, and therefore on American foreign policy, than did Puritanism. This colonial America was characterized not by isolationism and utopianism, not by cities upon hills and covenants with God, but by aggressive expansionism, acquisitive materialism, and an overarching ideology of civilization that encouraged and justified both. In Virginia and the other settlements along the Chesapeake Bay that predated the Puritans’ arrival in New England, the dreams that drew Englishmen to a rough and untamed country were of wealth and opportunity, not...
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