Ideas Didn't Build America

The concept of American Exceptionalism is one that on its face would seem to be a healthy one, which is what makes it so pernicious. In practice, American Exceptionalism is a favourite idea of the Glenn Beck crowd. Often what this belief comes down to is that the rules that apply to every country on the planet don't apply to America, because there's a piece of paper with ink on it in Washington that claims so.

America isn't bound by blood like every other nation on the planet. Ethnicity and race may matter everywhere from England to China, but not in America. America, you see, is an exception to these rules, because America was a country created by ideas put forward by the founders. America is a proposition nation, they will tell you. Ideas built America.

This seems to me to be quite the concept! I wonder what it would look like to see Liberty and Equality running around Boston in 1750. How would the Declaration of Independence have managed to push further and further westward, trekking through miles of dense forest, weathering the rain and the snow and the hail, civilizing what was in in effect barren wilderness? What a sight it would be to see ideas clearing forest, laying down railroads, and building canals! I can't say I have ever seen anything so incredible, but perhaps I would if I took a trip to the propositional nation to the south of me.

Yet, somehow, I doubt it. What mainstream conservatives have largely forgotten is that ideas can shape societies and peoples, but they don't create them.

America wasn't built by the ideas of John Locke, or the ideas of Thomas Jefferson, or by the ink in the Constitution. Jamestown wasn't settled by books, or words, or philosophies; Jamestown was settled by the English. America's cities, roads, towns, literature, industry, and, yes, even her form of government, were built by people.

When the first English settlers arrived, the country we now call the United States was practically empty. The population of the tribes within the United States was, in comparison to the size of the country, rather small. The people already present lived as hunter-gatherers and practiced almost constant tribal warfare. They didn't have a written language. They wrote no books and recorded no history. They didn't build cities, or roads, or machines of any type. The history of America as we recognize her doesn't begin with them, it begins with the European settlers.

Modern conservatives might like to pretend that America's history is completely unfettered from reality, and tied explicitly to ideas, but the truth is that America's history is deeply tied to the people that settled the continent. The Scottish, Ulster Scots, and English people who settled the United States were the driving force in the building of the United States. Sheriff, for example, is not a term that originated in the United States. It's an Old English word from Saxon times for an official responsible for keeping the peace in a shire. The Constitution and the rest of American politics is (or at least was) largely a continuation of English political tradition—perhaps the Magna Carta rings a bell? America's Constitution was written in blood in England before Columbus had even set eyes on the New World. Self-government and an appreciation for liberty are very English (and by extension, American ) traits. Kipling wrote a poem called "Norman and Saxon," that he felt typified the English soul, and it is no coincidence that the sentiments found in the poem will ring true with Anglo-Americans.

"My son," said the Norman Baron, "I am dying, and you will be heir
To all the broad acres in England that William gave me for share
When he conquered the Saxon at Hastings, and a nice little handful it is.
But before you go over to rule it I want you to understand this:–

"The Saxon is not like us Normans. His manners are not so polite.
But he never means anything serious till he talks about justice and right.
When he stands like an ox in the furrow – with his sullen set eyes on your own,
And grumbles, 'This isn't fair dealing,' my son, leave the Saxon alone.

"You can horsewhip your Gascony archers, or torture your Picardy spears;
But don't try that game on the Saxon; you'll have the whole brood round your ears.
From the richest old Thane in the county to the poorest chained serf in the field,
They'll be at you and on you like hornets, and, if you are wise, you will yield.

It wasn't ideas that built America. People who held ideas of liberty built America and created the form of government that modern conservatives claim is The One True Government, sent by Providence to rule the planet.

With their admiration of these ideas they have completely forgotten the people who held them. They have mistakenly thought that these ideas made the American people. The opposite is true. The American nation built America, and it carried forward the idea of a free, and White, republic. The Constitution is not some eternal document that existed outside of time and space before being written, it was the product of a particular people—the American people.