On the Fourth of July near the end of the 18th century, citizens of Boston paraded into the church that gave birth to the first Tea Party movement. The city’s board of selectmen, the executive arm of the town government, had announced that Congressmen John Lowell, a Harvard-educated lawyer and notable of the founding generation, would deliver the annual commemoratory address. A corps of cadets escorted Lowell to Old South Church; an honor guard prepared the way by firing off a proper salute.
Like in Thomas Jefferson’s first inaugural address a year later, Lowell spoke of the unprecedented upheaval in the transatlantic world around him, an age of violent leveling and social transformation, through which his generation was passing. He used the platform given him on Independence Day to express publicly his hopes and fears about the future of the great experiment in republican government to which he had contributed a measure of sweat in creating.
Like virtually every other person of prominence in America’s revolutionary generation, Lowell had come belatedly to the conclusion that the cause for which he and his compatriots had been willing to take up arms was not the same as that of the French. In the 18th century, the word “revolution,” like many other key terms in the prevailing political discourse, was undergoing change under pressure. One older meaning of revolution—applied, for example, to England’s “bloodless” Glorious Revolution—implied the restoration of something lost. The word itself suggested the circular movement of planetary bodies. The French Revolution, however, infused into the word the meaning more familiar to moderns: one that combined regime change with social transformation.
Lowell, who had helped to end slavery in Massachusetts, believed that human beings had natural rights. But the root-and-branch demolitions carried out by the fanatical French, he maintained, were more likely to lead to new forms of servitude than to the preservation of the civil liberty of freemen in a democratic-republic. He saw that a spirit of extreme equality was dissolving “manner, order, and virtue” and turning liberty into license. This was equality with a capital “E,” rationalist, abstract Gallican equality of the kind that activist judges now read into constitutions to justify social engineering.
“The System of Morals preserved by our Patriots,” declared Lowell, “did not teach them that man was not entitled to the fruits of his own labor; that property was not transmissible to the children for whom it was required; that the end justifies the means; that marriage is a solemn farce; and that mankind may live forever.”
The big cultural and political issues of Lowell’s time, it seems, are unresolved to this day.
Once upon a time, Independence Day festivities featured stirring oratory, patriotic fervor, and impassioned readings of the Declaration of Independence by honored guests in the public square. Citizens invoked divine providence to give thanks to a blessed land of freedom and plenty.
Today, a firm idea of the meaning of “American” appears to be dissolving away into the obsolescence of decadence. Give thanks, in part, to the dumbing down of a population. One that is developing an almost Pavlovian response to the sooey-calls of political charlatans and their academic allies to gorge themselves at the capacious federal trough. Give thanks, in part, to the historical amnesia produced at our finest and most expensive institutions of higher learning, where American history may not be required even of history majors.
Has anyone anywhere in the country asked the corporate and financial wizards who populate boards of trustees on elite campuses what precisely are, as Lowell might have put it, the values and duties of a civic culture needed to sustain a free society? Has anyone anywhere asked a college or university president why their school’s website advertises, front and center, consumerist sweeteners on diversity, sustainability, and any number of other touchy, feely attractions while falling silent about American history and its importance to the sustainability of a great nation?
Instead, the public has been hearing lately a loud chorus of lament from academic leaders who suddenly have become deeply concerned about the declining state of the humanities on their campuses. The very persons on college campuses responsible for the decline of the humanities are precisely the concerned leaders who are lamenting their decline. It is these captains of expediency, these marvelous dispensers of cheap sentiment, who have underwritten the very policies that have allocated staggering resources to empower the professorial Jacobins and their administrative soulmates.
The words Lowell used to describe the French revolutionists in his Independence Day speech more than 200 years ago could be applied to the ideology of the campus commissars today. “Whatever was established it has overturned—Whatever was ancient it has modernized—Whatever was virtuous it has corrupted—Whatever was respectable it has ridiculed—Whatever was sacred it has profaned,” Lowell said.
Predictably, courses and programs in today’s humanities programs offer what Lowell termed “fashionable infidelity.” The instructed learn that man is not entitled to his property, his wealth must be redistributed in the name of abstract equality, his children should not inherit what he has worked so hard to earn, marriage is merely another lifestyle choice, and grand social-justice projects are needed to reshape infinitely malleable human nature so as to bring what the managerial elite regards as heaven on earth.
As Middle Americans head for the picnic tables to socially distance while scoffing hotdogs and brandishing fireworks on Independence Day 2020, don’t expect the idea of American exceptionalism, which should never be confused with American triumphalism, to resonate as it once did. This term dare not be uttered today in certain polite company without the risk of some academic or woke androgyne demanding to reimagine it for you.
Robert L. Paquette is an American historian, Publius Virgilius Rogers Professor of American History at Hamilton College, and co-founder of the Alexander Hamilton Institute for the Study of Western Civilization. He is particularly known for his work on the history of slavery in Cuba.