The Land was ours before we were the Land’s.
--Robert Frost, “The Gift Outright” (1923)—recited by him at JFK’s Inauguration, 1960
How did we become Americans? Whence came America? By reading the words of famous, and some infamous, American writers, we manage somehow to explain the meaning of America to ourselves. This is the gist of what I tell every American Literature Survey class I begin to teach, as I did this week. And somehow, Politics creeps in; one cannot understand an entire nation without seeking to fathom its politics: Democrats on the Left, Republicans on the Right, Independents, Libertarians, and Undecided fiercely in the—well, who knows? “The only cure for Democracy is more Democracy,” I tell my students, quoting Gov. Al Smith, who lost a bid for the Presidency ‘way back in the 1930s, partly for the sin of being Catholic in the hey day of bigotry, prejudice and racism (and we all know what they resulted in).
Each of my students has a magnificent tale to tell: Hispanic-Americans (and don’t stereotype them, either; they come from dozens of countries, from Central and South America, and why is it that only we nordamericanos qualify to call ourselves “Americans,” while they receive the qualifier, “south”?), Haitian-Americans, African-Americans; various whites, Native Americans, Asians (including Trinidadians, Indians, Vietnamese, dozens of others), and others I cannot recall, many from interracial or intercultural origins, but all, all proudly American—including some young children of the Dream Act, who fiercely desire to stay here, and why not? This is their country, the only Home they know. (Stop deporting them, Mr. President!)
All, all of these are Americans, and I, a liberal Jewish-American (Polish-Austro-Hungarian, whatever those mean), am privileged and honored to be their teacher.
This past week, the first in a month(!) of full-immersion AmLit, we tackled the Age of Puritanism (after disposing of Columbus, that explorer-turned-administrator-turned-mass murderer, in just two short evenings), and segued into the Age of Reason, the blessed Age of Enlightenment, during which, among other events, England and France fought the Seven Years’ War, in which our American Revolution was but a sideshow, quickly lost by Britain, despite its possessing the Royal Navy, the first superpower fighting force on earth.
And we encountered examples of the two poles of civilization: the Rev. Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758) of Connecticut Colony, representing the darkness of Calvinistic Puritanism through his keynote sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” (1741), and Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790), owner of the early 18th-Century equivalent of Facebook, Google, or Twitter: the Printing Press—he was first in the colonies, and possibly on earth, to franchise a series of them throughout the colonies—the literacy rate among white men was extremely high, and people were hungry for news and knowledge: they passed his newspapers and almanacs from hand-to-hand until they literally crumbled in their fingers—and by this enterprise, among other inventions, he secured a tidy enough income to allow him to retire at the age of 42, a remarkable achievement in his or any historical period, becoming a Man of Property, after arising from poverty (his father was a soapmaker, a filthy profession, and Ben was tenth in a family of fifteen(!) children).
As a thoroughgoing Puritan, Edwards followed Calvinism, which posited a simple theology: humankind is divided into two classes: the Elect, or the Saints, and the Damned. God decided long ago into which category each of us will fall. Despite our beliefs or activities, we will, following our deaths, spend Eternity in either Heaven or Hell, and the majority opinion leans Hellward. That’s it: deal with it. Here is a short taste of that best-known sermon:
The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked: his wrath towards you burns like fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the fire; he is of purer eyes than to bear to have you in his sight; you are ten thousand times more abominable in his eyes, than the most hateful venomous serpent is in ours. You have offended him infinitely more than ever a stubborn rebel did his prince; and yet it is nothing but his hand that holds you from falling into the fire every moment. It is to be ascribed to nothing else, that you did not go to hell the last night; that you was suffered to awake again in this world, after you closed your eyes to sleep. And there is no other reason to be given, why you have not dropped into hell since you arose in the morning, but that God's hand has held you up. There is no other reason to be given why you have not gone to hell, since you have sat here in the house of God, provoking his pure eyes by your sinful wicked manner of attending his solemn worship. Yea, there is nothing else that is to be given as a reason why you do not this very moment drop down into hell.
This is the one pole of American belief, and there is no escaping it. It is, I posit, why we Americans require our public servants to be as Pure as the Driven Snow. It is why the Republicans bayed for Pres. Clinton’s head via impeachment proceedings after he was found guilty of adultery with Monica Lewinsky, all those years ago (1995-7), although there is no explaining why the charge was led by then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who has himself been married four times, and can hardly be called a paragon of “family values.” This is the most base hypocrisy. I would point out that Pres. Clinton’s adultery had no effect whatsoever upon his activities, behavior, or performance as Chief Executive of the US, and that it was, in fact, no one’s business but his wife’s, who chose to ignore it, for reasons both public (she wanted, and still wants, to become President, and requires his political counsel and savvy) and private.
It is likewise true that, while the entire impeachment buffoonery progressed, the European democracies were having a collective laugh at us, the nominal Leading Nation of the Free World. It is common knowledge in Europe that politicians cheat on their wives, and, while hardly excusable (since adultery is a sin), it is common practice. Only in America, as I stated earlier, do we require our politicians to be sinless.
Indeed, I suggest that it is the Shadow of Puritanism hanging over our society that drives the Right Wing of Politics today, from the church to the Republican Party. This includes the debate over Women’s Reproductive Rights, Gay Rights, the Definition of Family, Scientific Evolution vs. “Creationism” (a sorry waste of paper and brain matter if ever there was one), Education, and other issues of morality which hardly belong in the public political forum.
At the other extreme, we find the Age of Enlightenment, with its representative being our own Dr. Benjamin Franklin, fellow of the Royal Society, champion of what was then called “Natural Philosophy” and is today called Science. He benefited humanity by his inventions of the Franklin Stove, bifocals, the lightning rod, the glass armonica musical instrument, a reading chair with a built-in fan, mapping the Gulf Stream, a flexible urinary catheter, the odometer, and others (“The Electric Ben Franklin,” retrieved from http://www.ushistory.org/franklin/info/inventions.htm).
Despite Bible fundamentalists’ cries that the Founders were all church members, I state that yes, they were, but only to go on holiday occasions for social reasons, or to hear lectures on matters of state or public interest, as was customary. Theologically (if we may call freethinking such a thing), they were all Deists, believing in a form of Gnosticism, in which the unreasoning powers of Nature held sway over the Universe, not a benevolent or judgmental anthropomorphized God. Thomas Jefferson, for example, edited his own Bible, out of which he carefully excised all mention of miracles (ax-heads floating for Elijah? An octogenarian Moses surviving atop a mountain for forty days and nights, without food or sanitary facilities? Please.).
Franklin was a generous philanthropist and donor in the Public Interest: he helped to found a Fire Company, a Lending Library, and gave money to different faith communities to help them build their houses of worship, including the Catholics and the Jews. He was, indeed, the first auto-, or self-made, American, and we liberals (excuse me, Progressives) may well claim him as one of our first (Roger Williams may have predated him, but his not-so-secret agenda was a strong desire to convert the Narragansett Indians to Christianity, along with the Jews and the “Turks”—Muslims.).
Oh, and Franklin, through his “Poor Richard,” was also the first Advice Columnist, writing long before Ann Landers or Dear Abby. I queried my students, and they had heard of neither, but they did admit to consulting the Web for solutions regarding etiquette and other conundrums of Modern Life.
We Americans of today are faced with a dilemma: whom shall we follow: the hellbent Edwards (who did turn out to be a quasi-scientist, in his ill-fated smallpox vaccine experiment, leading to his own early death), or the long-lived, patient, welcoming Franklin? For me, the choice is clear.