AMERICAN BELIEFS: WHAT KEEPS A BIG COUNTRY AND A DIVERSE PEOPLE UNITED
By John Harmon McElroy
Ivan R. Dee, Chicago. $25, 260 pages
Editor’s note: This review revives the “Lost Word,” a column periodically recognizing books published in the past that remain influential.
“Seminal” is not a word that fits many books, but it fits this one, for “American Beliefs” is both creative and original. It rests on a simple conclusion: This nation became one different from all others because of the nature of its earliest arrivals from Europe.
This is not a new book (it came out in 1999), but it will remain fresh as long as there are readers who care about the sources of our nation’s particular qualities. The author sums it up as “culture,” which he writes, “may be thought of as a set of beliefs expressed in behavior.” He says, “it is acquired by successive generations of a people through imitating the behaviors of their elders that express certain beliefs. Culture in this sense is the possession of a whole people.”
America became independent from Europe more rapidly than the other Western Hemisphere “colonies,” he says, for five reasons: (1) It had a mix of Christian faiths; (2) it did not restrict the number of incoming immigrants, and those who came had a high birthrate; (3) it was the only ethnically mixed immigrant population; (4) most the people worked for themselves and their families; and (5) the majority was free and not held in subjugation.
As for the other parts of the Americas, Portugal, in colonizing Brazil, populated it primarily with slaves from Africa, overseen by a small cadre of Portuguese. French Canada had a small population (after 150 years it was only 60,000), nearly all French and Roman Catholic. In the 16th century, the Spanish conquered the four indigenous populations of North and South America: the Aztecs in much of Mexico, the Mayan descendants in Yucatan and Central America, and Inca and Chibca lands on the West Coast of South America. They created two kingdoms, north and south, with Spanish viceroys to reign over them. Professional soldiers were often given grants of large amounts of land and the peasants who had worked it for their native lords. One hierarchical system was succeeded by another. Author John McElroy thinks that the modern difficulty of creating stable elected governments there may be traced to the colonial period when authority was associated with military rank and prowess.
The earliest colonists in what became the United States were, for the most part, self-selected, desiring to be free of religious and other restrictions. In this wild land, they realized that everyone must work, people must benefit from their work, and manual work was respectable. There was no place for straw bosses.
When the colonists encountered native tribes, the relationships were largely live-and-let-live. There was a huge amount of land — enough for all. Gradually, the Europeans tamed the land of the Atlantic coastal plain to create farms, then towns to serve the farm population. Land ownership became widespread — much more so than in the other European colonies. The author asserts, “This general ownership of land proved fatal to the European conception of colonies as places that should remain subordinate to the interest of the monarchy that authorized them.” From this the seeds of independence were sown.
From early days, labor-for-hire was scarce and land was cheap, which gave rise to the widespread property ownership and the concept of working for oneself (the roots of the American trait of self-reliance).
As immigration increased and became more and more diverse, three principles seemed to grip each new arrival: improvement is possible; opportunities must be imagined; freedom of movement is needed for success.
Among Mr. McElroy’s insights is a cluster of religious and moral beliefs that he says became nearly universal. Example: “Doing what is right is necessary for happiness,” and “God gave all persons the same birthrights.” As to widely shared social beliefs, he says there are three: “Society is a collection of individuals; every person’s success improves society; and achievement determines social rank.” He concludes with American beliefs about “human nature”: Almost all human beings want to do what is right; and human beings will abuse power when they have it.” One would argue that the last “will” should have been “may.” We see enough examples of it in government, but it isn’t foreordained.
Let us hope that most Americans want to put the emphasis on the first of his two statements about human nature.
In sum, this is a refreshing, straightforward account of what makes America exceptional among nations; and the beliefs that give us unity, regardless of where we or our ancestors came from.
• Peter Hannaford was closely associated with the late President Reagan for a number of years. His latest book is, “Presidential Retreats” (Threshold Editions).