All Commentary
Saturday, October 1, 1960

American Is Many Million Purposes


Mr. Chamberlin has written a number of books, has lectured widely, and is a contribu­tor to The Wall Street Journal and many nationally known magazines.

Defining America‘s national pur­pose has become a contagious fad. A considerable number of more or less distinguished persons have tried their hand at it in long articles; and it will be surprising if there is not, in due course, a spate of books on the subject. But somehow these attempts at defini­tion, even when made by men with a scholarly knowledge of American history and above average aware­ness of contemporary American life, have not come off very suc­cessfully. What often comes out of these efforts is little more than a string of platitudes and a list of causes with which the writer is personally identified.

A vital point that is often overlooked is that in a nation like America, “conceived in liberty,” as Lincoln said, there is no absolute authority, individual or collective, that can prescribe a set of national goals, binding on all citizens. Na­tional purpose in America is a synthesis of millions of individual purposes, sometimes conflicting, yet adding up to a very rich na­tional total, spiritually, culturally, materially. The old-fashioned mon­archies and aristocracies of Eu­rope, against which the American Revolution was a political revolt and a philosophical protest, did have their ambitions, aims, and “purposes” directed, not toward the well-being of their peoples, but toward national aggrandizement by war and seizure of territory.

The Founding Fathers of the American Republic had a radically different idea. They proposed, first of all, to guarantee the freedom of the citizen and his unalienable rights to life, liberty, property, “the pursuit of happiness” (what cynical sneers that last ideal must have excited among European re­actionaries who read the Declara­tion of Independence) by a scien­tific balancing of power against power, so that no individual, no group, no instrument of govern­ment could wield unlimited au­thority.

This excluded, so far as was hu­manly possible, the exploitation of the people by any ruling group. It placed on the new republic an in­delible stamp of voluntariness, of genuine consent of the governed. It eliminated the possibility that any group of Mr. Bigs, however sure they were right, however ex­alted their motives, could order and plan and push around and ap­ply compulsion to their fellow-citizens.

One of the wisest and keenest of the foreign observers of the Amer­ican Republic, Alexis de Tocque­ville, was quick to note the differ­ence between Europe, with its in­stinct for reliance on the State, and America, where government inter­vention was regarded with distrust and private initiative and self-re­liance were outstanding qualities of the people.

“When a private individual meditates an undertaking,” writes Tocqueville, “however directly con­nected it may be with the welfare of society, he never thinks of so­liciting the cooperation of the government, but he publishes his plan, offers to execute it himself, courts the assistance of other in­dividuals, and struggles manfully against all obstacles. Undoubtedly he is often less successful than the State might have been in his position; but in the end the sum of these private undertakings far exceeds all that the government could have done.” (Italics sup­plied)

This streak of self-reliance, of dependence on one’s own resources, individually or in voluntary co­operation with one’s neighbors, gave to American life a special and peculiar quality. In times of great stress and crisis there have been leadership and discipline. But it was leadership that was voluntarily accepted, not imposed by fear of a firing squad or a con­centration camp.

An Individualistic Order

The American Revolution shows no equivalent for the French Jacobins or the Russian Com­munists, no highly organized conspirative, tightly disciplined party imposing its will and laying the groundwork for a tyranny more ruthless and efficient than the one which was being destroyed. It refleets rather both the strength and weakness of a revolt against for­eign arbitrary rule by a highly in­dividualistic frontier society.

From a technical standpoint it was a messy affair. Volunteer militia units behaved splendidly on some occasions and failed badly on others. It required infinite pa­tience, along with other high qual­ities of patriotic leadership, for George Washington to hold to­gether an army that was usually unpaid and sometimes almost starving, to cope with the prob­lems of limited term enlistments and the absence of a regular sys­tem of finance and supply.

And yet, when Yorktown sur­rendered and it was all over and the United States took its place among the nations of the world, the foundations of a free society had been laid more securely than if victory had been won by a mili­tary leader at the head of troops whose allegiance was to him, not to their country and the republi­can cause, or by a fanatical party intent on stamping out any oppo­sition as “counterrevolution.” Washington himself, after guid­ing the destiny of the country during eight years of war and eight years of peace, could sound a note of sober rejoicing in the last sentence of his Farewell Ad­dress:

“I anticipate with pleasing ex­pectation that retreat, in which I promise myself to realize, with­out alloy, the sweet enjoyment of partaking, in the midst of my fellow-citizens, the benign influ­ence of good laws under a free government, the ever favorite ob­ject of my heart, and the happy reward, as I trust, of our mutual cares, labors and dangers.”

Moments of Decision

These same elements of volun­tariness, consent of the governed, multiple purposes of citizens of the nation rather than any single “national purpose, or purposes,” prescribed from the top, have marked America’s development from the agrarian society of three millions, clinging to the fringes of the Atlantic, to the mighty indus­trial nation of 180 millions which we know today.

Of course, there were moments of decision, as when Jefferson made the Louisiana Purchase, or when President James K. Polk took measures calculated to round out America‘s permanent fron­tiers in the Southwest and North­west. But no one worked out five-year, or any other plans for the settlement and cultivation and de­velopment of what was once the frontier area of Kentucky and Ohio and of its steady westward extension. This was the work of large numbers of individuals, impelled by a great variety of mo­tives, among which acquiring bet­ter conditions for themselves and their families predominated.

No bureaucratic agency in Washington said to the men and women who moved to the West in an endless caravan of covered wagons: So many of you shall go this year to this district and you shall chop down so many trees and plant so many acres with corn and so many with wheat. The win­ning of the American West, one may be sure, went better because these agencies at that time were few and limited in powers and f unctions.

Multiple Purposes and Unlimited Possibilities

It is the glory of America that, at least up to the time when it be­came fashionable and popular to substitute state help for self-help, it has been a land of multiple pur­poses and unlimited individual op­portunities. America is infinitely many purposes. It is the scientific inventor—like Morse or Alexan­der Graham Bell or Charles P. Steinmetz or Edison—working in his laboratory on some invention that will change the pattern of life.

It is Edgar Allen Poe, with his dark broodings, and Walt Whit­man in his ecstatic jubilation, and Ralph Waldo Emerson working-out a typical American philosophy of life, and the fruit of the imagin­ings of Hawthorne and Melville and the New England poets, with their more conventional messages. These and other similar figures were not, like writers in a totali­tarian society, the hired propa­gandists of any particular order of things, political, economic, or so­cial. They were following their own artistic impulses, expressing their own ideas, and thereby add­ing stone by stone to the edifice of American culture.

America offers, along with its big and often well-equipped state universities, a unique exhibit of private schools and private liberal arts colleges, often founded as an expression of religious faith or of devotion to a special educational or cultural ideal. And this strong concern with education, which has been marked since the early period of American life, has left its im­print, again on a basis of private initiative, in many foreign lands. One thinks of the colleges founded, with or without a missionary as­sociation, in China, Japan, India, Korea, Turkey, Lebanon. Some of these have been casualties of to­talitarian suppression; others are still functioning. But here again is a unique example of private initiative in the cultural field, reaching out and probably win­ning more friends and exerting more constructive influence than all the expensive programs of gov­ernment aid and “cultural ex­change.”

Voluntary Cooperation

To suggest that America’s greatness lies not in trying to frame national goals and purposes, but in making it possible for mil­lions of individual Americans to realize their goals and purposes is not to intimate that America is devoid of ideals or lacking in the capacity for voluntary cooperation. Quite the contrary. The American pioneer, by his very way of life, was more self-reliant than the European peasant who was de­pendent for his livelihood on the local country squire in England, or nobleman in France.

But, in the case of an Indian raid, the lives of the pioneer and his family might depend on the willingness of his neighbors to come to his help. There was also cooperation in building cabins, in clearing woods, in husking corn. And this tradition of voluntary mutual aid finds expression in the very different conditions of mod­ern life, in the service club that looks after handicapped children, in the alumni group of a small or medium-sized college that raises funds for scholarships for the stu­dents who have followed them and whom they wish to help.

Libertarian Ideals

As for ideals, it is doubtful whether any other nation came into existence in such a ferment of discussion of natural rights and natural laws and the nature of liberty and how liberty can be effectively implemented. In the literature of the American Revo­lution, from weighty essays on po­litical theory like the Federalist Papers to resolutions of state as­semblies and newspapers and peri­odicals, one finds constant empha­sis on these five natural rights of free men: life, liberty, property, conscience, and happiness. These are regarded not as privileges which an arbitrary government can bestow or withdraw at will, but as unalienable rights derived from the Creator himself.

So John Dickinson wrote to the Committee of Correspondence in Barbados:

“Kings or parliaments could not give the rights essential to happi­ness….They are created in us by the decrees of Providence, which establish the laws of our nature. They are born with us; exist with us; and cannot be taken from us by any human power, without tak­ing our lives. In short, they are founded on the immutable maxims of reason and justice.”

And Alexander Hamilton pro­claimed this same theory of natu­ral law and natural rights when he issued this flaming refutation of the Tory argument that New York had no charter and New Yorkers therefore did not possess charter rights:

“The sacred rights of mankind are not to be rummaged for among old parchments or musty records. They are written, as with a sun­beam, in the whole volume of hu­man nature, by the hand of the Divinity itself, and can never be erased or obscured by mortal power.”

Most modern revolutions are di­rected in varying degree against the rights of private property; but the American colonists never doubted that the right to acquire and own property and to be free from arbitrary levies on this prop­erty was among the basic unalien­able rights of free men. So the town of Newburyport gave these instructions to its representatives in the Massachusetts General As­sembly:

“That a people should be taxed at the will of another, whether of one man or many, without their own consent in person or by repre­sentatives is rank slavery. For if their superior sees fit, they may be deprived of their whole prop­erty, upon any frivolous pretext, or without any pretext at all. And a people, without property or in the precarious possession of it, are in no better state than slaves: for liberty, or even life itself, without the enjoyment of them flowing from property, are of no value.”

Indeed the American Revolution was in some degree a vindication of the rights of property against the arbitrary incursions of the British Crown. Prominent among the charges listed in the Declara­tion of Independence to justify the severance of the connections with Great Britain are that George III “has cut off our trade with all parts of the world,” “has imposed taxes on us without our consent,” and “has erected a mul­titude of new offices and sent hith­er swarms of officers to harass our people, and eat out their sub­stance.” (On this count a new Declaration of Independence has long been overdue.)

Compulsion To Be Avoided

There is no compatibility be­tween respect for unalienable rights of man, based on natural law, and establishment of a “na­tional purpose,” binding on all citizens, or of compulsory economic planning. It is, of course, anyone’s privilege to say what he thinks America‘s national goals should be, or how he would like to see our economy develop. The sticking point is the injection of compul­sion into either of these processes.

It is sometimes argued that the challenge of communism makes it necessary to scrap or greatly modify the principles to which the signers of the Declaration of In­dependence “mutually pledged our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sa­cred Honor.”

Twenty-five centuries ago there was a similar challenge in ancient Greece. Sparta, the totalitarian state of that time, was waging war against Athens, which stood for a freer way of life. Here is how the greatest Athenian statesman of his time, Pericles, responded to this challenge as he pronounced a funeral oration over the first vic­tims of the war:

“The freedom which we enjoy in our government extends also to our ordinary life. There, far from exercising a jealous surveillance over each other, we do not feel called upon to be angry with our neighbor for doing what he likes….

“If we turn to our military policy, there also we differ from our antagonists. We throw open our city to the world, and never by alien acts exclude foreigners from any opportunity of learning or observing, although the eyes of an enemy may occasionally profit from our liberality. We trust less in system and policy than in the native spirit of our citizens. While in education, where our rivals from their very cradles by a pain­ful discipline seek after manliness,at Athens we live exactly as we please, and yet are just as ready to encounter every legitimate danger….

“We cultivate refinement with­out extravagance and knowledge without effeminacy; wealth we employ more for use than for show, and place the real disgrace of poverty not in owning to the fact but in declining the struggle against it….We have forced every sea and land to be the highway of our daring, and everywhere, whether for evil or for good, have left imperishable monuments be­hind us. Such is the Athens for which these men, in the assertion of the resolve not to lose her, nobly fought and died.”

Pericles believed that Athens would defend itself best not by imitating its enemies, but by re­maining true to its own ideals. There is a lesson here for modern America. It would be a sorry and ridiculous paradox, in the name of fighting communism to take over, even unconsciously or subcon­sciously, some of the methods of communism, political or economic. National ideals, Yes. We should become more familiar with them and live up to them better.

National purpose, as something set apart from the multiple pur­poses of millions of ambitious, de­voted, capable American citizens, No.


  • William Henry Chamberlin (1897-1969) was an American historian and journalist. He was the author of several books about the Cold War, Communism, and US foreign policy, including The Russian Revolution 1917-1921 (1935) which was written in Russia between 1922-34 when he was the Moscow correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor.