All Commentary
Thursday, November 1, 1962

The Defamation of the American Tradition


Dr. Carson is Professor of American History at Grove City College, Pennsylvania.

Many of the departures from the American tradition came with dramatic swiftness in this century. A Rip Van Winkle who went to sleep in 1910 and woke again in 1935 would have discovered many of his fellow citizens strangely de­pendent upon government, the Constitution in many ways inop­erative and grumblings about such restraints as it still imposed, nu­merous laws of a character with which he was unfamiliar, and a tendency to venerate leaders and to belabor those who appealed to the past. Surely, he would have concluded that a revolution had taken place, or that he had awak­ened in the midst of a revolution. At the least, assuming that he was a perceptive man and not too cir­cumspect in his pronouncements, he would have declared that the American tradition had been sub­verted.

If such a modern Rip Van Winkle had launched inquiries to discover the sources of these changes, he might not have been satisfied with the answers he re­ceived. Undoubtedly, most of those whom he contacted would have pointed out, impatiently, that con­ditions had changed, that there had been war and depression, that the old opportunities were no longer available. Had he insisted upon knowing what happened to American ideals, institutions, cus­toms, and traditions, he would probably have been dismissed as an odd fellow who could not adjust to new times and new ways.

Yet my imaginary character is not too different from a good many Americans of the recent past and today. Awaking from their private concerns and indifference (sleep), they are discovering a transformed America with mounting tendencies at odds with the tradition that they had known. One of our concerns in this condition, under­standably, is to find out what hap­pened.

The most appealing—and in some ways most comfortable—ex­planation is that the tradition was undermined, destroyed, and re­placed by alien infiltration and communist subversion. Some his­torians dismiss this conception cavalierly by calling it the con­spiracy theory of history—imply­ing somehow that such a notion is disreputable on the face of it. Un­questionably, there has been and is a communist conspiracy. It is demonstrable, too, that many ideas of non-American origin have been propagated here. But such ex­planations attribute too much ef­fectiveness to communists and fail to account adequately for the mas­sive help they have had from non­communists. It glosses over, too, the really difficult task of recov­ering liberty and individualism, for it ignores how deeply en­meshed in thought and ways col­lectivism has become.

Discredited by Scholars

My contention is that much of the work of subverting—I use the word in the rare sense of “to un­dermine the principles of; cor­rupt”—the American tradition was carried on by “respectable” thinkers, writers, and scholars. I attribute to them no evil motives nor covert design, for much of their work was presented openly and argued directly. Indeed, some of those who prepared the way for collectivism in America apparently had no intention of nor knowledge that they were doing so. The effect of an action, however, is not al­tered by the intent of the actor.

Before the American tradition was replaced, it was discredited. Odium was attached to it, and feel­ings were marshaled against it. This was no easy task to accom­plish. There is every reason to be­lieve that at the beginning of this century Americans at large were firmly attached to constitution­alism, government by law rather than by men, individual liberty, voluntary group activity, limited government, and personal inde­pendence.

Yet, “American” became a tainted word for many people in the course of time. Several years ago, Karl Shapiro, writing in The New Republic, ref erred to the “American way of life” as a “nau­seating expression” which meant to him “the material life, the wor­ship of the scientific mentality, and the belief that Americans are the best people on earth.” A single in­stance of lynching is apt to call forth denunciations of the “Amer­ican” penchant for swift and vio­lent justice. Should a board of cen­sors fail to license some obscene movie, it would be just another horrendous example of that latent Puritanism in America which has reared its ugly head once more. If a businessman were to question spending for foreign aid, he might find himself used as an example of that bete noire of the “liberals”—the selfishly acquisitive American who stems in a long line from that vulgar preacher of penuriousness, Benjamin Franklin. “American­ism” is sealed off by quotation marks from too close a contact with it by the cognoscenti, who might otherwise be contaminated.

Why, it is proper to ask, should an expression such as the “Ameri­can way of life” be distasteful to any American? Why should “Americanism” be used to refer to the failings of some Americans? Why should we have to flinch when we encounter the word Amer­ican, fearing from experience the denunciation of the “Ugly Ameri­can” that will follow?

Let us admit that some individ­uals have used Americanism as a cover for unwise and wrongful acts on occasion. Grant, too, that Americans taken one with another have many faults. But why should the vices of Americans be that which is conveyed by “American”? Is the summary lynching of law violators more American than trial by jury? Surely, censorship is less central to our tradition than is the liberty to publish our thoughts and opinions. Voluntary choice of church membership is more cer­tainly a part of the “American way of life” than is scientism. Consti­tutionalism is much more deeply American than is materialism. The Constitution-makers took great care to guard the individual against falling prey to the bent of his neighbors to force him into conformity. Charity, both individ­ual and organizational, is as much American as is acquisitiveness. Why then, in all fairness, does “American” not call to mind vir­tues as well as vices?

Literary Denigration

The major reason is rather clear to me. There was a large-scale as­sault upon the American tradition carried out earlier in this century. Probably the most direct attack was carried on in literature—in stories and essays, but denigration appeared more subtly in philoso­phy, history, political science, and theology. But the point can be made by calling attention mainly to what went on in that field known technically as literature. The hey­day of this defamation came in the 1920′s, though some came before and after.

H. L. Mencken, the sage of Bal­timore, was likely the most unin­hibited of the defamers in the 1920′s. He not only pointed up the vices and failings of Americans, but he identified them with the American tradition. In the fourth volume of his vigorous Preju­dices, Mencken asks: “What, then, is the spirit of Americanism? I precipitate it conveniently into the doctrine that the way to as­certain the truth about anything… is to take a vote on it, and that the way to propagate that truth… is with a club. This doctrine… explains almost every­thing that is indubitably Ameri­can, and particularly everything American that is most puzzling to men of older and less inspired cultures….”

Of Puritanism, Mencken claimed, “There is only one honest impulse at the bottom of Puritan­ism, and that is the impulse to punish the man with a superior capacity for happiness—to bring him down to the miserable level of `good’ men, i.e., of stupid, coward­ly, and chronically unhappy men.” “New England,” he declares, “has never shown the slightest sign of genuine enthusiasm for ideas. It began its history as a slaughter­house of ideas, and it is today not easily distinguishable from a cold-storage plant.”

Mencken expressed an undis­guised contempt for those who settled America and gave it its basic culture. “What are the char­acters that I discern most clearly in the so-called Anglo-Saxon type of man? I may answer at once that two stick out above all others. One is the curious and apparently in­curable incompetence—his con­genital inability to do any difficult thing easily and well…. The other is his astounding susceptibility to fears and alarms—in short, his hereditary cowardice.” Even free inquiry would appear to be a wholly non-American thing. “Thus the battle of ideas in the United States is largely carried on under strange flags, and even the stray natives on the side of free inquiry have to sacrifice some of their na­tionality when they enlist.”

As for religion, “the average American is a prude and a Metho­dist under his skin…. Save in a few large cities, every American community lies under a sacerdotal despotism whose devices are disin­genuous and dishonourable….” The Boobus americanus is taught by “oafs from the farms and vil­lages of Iowa, Kansas, Vermont, the Dakotas, and other such back­ward states….”

Few could match Mencken in the pithiness of his language, but others shared his scorn for things American. Frederick L. Allen may have penned the classic statement of the position in his ever-popular book, Only Yesterday, first pub­lished in 1931. “The typical Amer­ican of the old stock,” he says, “had never had more than a half­hearted enthusiasm for the rights of the minority; bred in a pioneer tradition, he had been accustomed to set his community in order by the first means that came to hand—a sumptuary law, a vigilance committee, or if necessary a shot­gun.” Van Wyck Brooks, long-time chieftain of literary critics, calls the “traditional drag” of our cul­ture “the main fact of American history”—writing in 1922. “If our writers wither early,” he said, “if they are too generally pliant, pas­sive, acquiescent, anaemic, how much is this not due to the heri­tage of pioneering, with its burden of isolation, nervous strain, exces­sive work, and all the racial habits that these have engendered?”

Sinclair Lewis, a champion de­flater of the American ego, con­tributes this description of what he considered to be the most typi­cal American—the businessman, a Mr. Jones. (Although this is taken from an introduction to Babbitt that was not published at the time, it is just the sense of what was told dramatically in the novel.) “Mr. Jones himself… votes the Republican ticket straight, he hates all labor unionism, he be­longs to the Masons and the Pres­byterian Church, his favorite au­thor is Zane Grey, and in other particulars noted in this story, his private life seems scarce to markhim as the rough, ready, aspiring, iconoclastic, creative, courageous innovator his admirers paint him. He is a bagman. He is a pedlar. He is a shopkeeper. He is a camp-follower. He is a bag of aggressive wind.”

George F. Nieberg almost achieved a Mencken pitch in his description of the American in an article in The Forum published in 1931. “I lean toward the heresy that the typical American citizen is, at best, an unpleasant go-getter, a professional back-slapper going through his dumb-show always a bit fearful of his job, of what peo­ple will say, of his wife—and of himself. To this heresy I will add another: that it is impossible for him to live like a civilized man, as it is impossible for him to die like one.” More, “his blind, unwavering faith in ‘success’ stories, patent medicines, political platforms, his bootlegger’s word of honor, and his boss’s stupidity borders upon fanatical fervor.”

Robert Herrick, in 1931, said that there “have been many in­stances… of American brutality, American tyranny, American in­tolerance, which have reverberated around the world.” Katherine F. Gerould published an article in Harper’s in the same year, in which she associated American­ism with gangsterism, in an at­tempt to explain the alleged popularity of Al Capone. “It is not be­cause Capone is different that he takes the imagination: it is be­cause he is so gorgeously and typi­cally American…. Of course he was born in this country: could anyone but a native American have adopted so whole-heartedly American principles of action? An immigrant would have taken years to assimilate our ideals; whereas Capone was born to them…. There are analogies for Al Capone among the American immortals.”

Writers left hardly an aspect of American behavior undenounced. In a volume of diatribes on Ameri­can life published as Civilization in the United States, Elsie Clews Parsons attacks our sex mores. She claimed that “the lack of warmth in personal intercourse which makes alike for American bad manners and, in the more intellec­tual circles, for cheerlessness and aridity is due… to failure of one kind or another in sex relations.” This failure she ascribes to the “confusion between parenthood and mating,” which she says the French handle admirably. It should be pointed out that these critics frequently compared Americans unfavorably with Europeans.

In 1931 a book called Behold America was published containing the most thoroughgoing assaults upon the tradition. In this book, most of the essays were obviously animated by a socialist or commu­nist ideology. I cite them as ex­tremes of what was a general tendency of defamation. One writer says, “The United States is not peaceful: its very geographic existence and its expansion in tem­perate North America is the result of a consistent policy of the slaughter of weaker peoples… and the expropriation of their property.” V. F. Calverton de­clares: “Unfortunately, however—and if there is any single explana­tion of why America has had no great writers to compare with those of Europe, this is it—no traditions in America have ever been very genuine or very original, and never very long-lived….”

The above are but a sample of the defamations of the American tradition. In the article alluded to earlier by Karl Shapiro he inad­vertently gives part of the explana­tion of why the “American way of life” should be a “nauseating” ex­pression to him. Calling up the names of the major American poets of the twentieth century, Shapiro points up how they were “anti-American-way-of -lif e.” Of T. S. Eliot, he says: “His entire literary output constitutes a con­demnation of American material­ism, economic greed, and cultural vacuity.” Ezra Pound “is the most scurrilous critic of American life in the twentieth century.” Edgar Lee Masters “laments the corrup­tion of pioneer stock and the hy­pocrisy of smalltown American life.” Robinson Jeffers is described as “chief of the self-avowed ene­mies of American society and civilization. His attacks on Ameri­can materialism and the American savagery of character have become synonymous with his poetry.” The list is longer, but the point emerges: American poets heaped abuse on their country.

As to the major novelists of the 1920′s, Henry S. Canby calls at­tention to the “dogged discontent of Ernest Hemingway, the mystic morbid discontent of William Faulkner, the strong lyric discon­tent of Willa Cather, the sharp scoffing discontent of Sinclair Lewis….” He points out that he could easily extend the characteri­zations to the major dramatists. But we are all too aware of the continued vulture-like dissecting of America that still goes on among popular dramatists.

A Diversity of Objectives

If destruction of belief in the American tradition was their aim, writers had done their work well. They had portrayed the tradition as one of narrow-minded Puritan­ism, of low caste Anglo-Saxons, of intolerant busybodies, of rural oafs and hayseeds, and of vulgar democrats. Whatever was good and worthwhile must surely have been sneaked in somehow from foreign lands. Nothing properly denotable as the American tradition could be worth preserving or even ex­amining.

Judging from what they said, these writers were moved to this denigration by diverse aims. Some of them were unhappy about the unenthusiastic reception accorded to artists and the arts in America. Others wanted to awaken their countrymen to a more sensitive ap­preciation of “higher things.” So­cialists and communists were un­doubtedly trying to arouse social-consciousness and prepare the ground for their ideas. Besides, it has been fashionable in literary circles for some time now to dis­cover decay and disorder every­where, and to describe it in lurid detail.

The importance of this defama­tion lies, however, not in the mo­tives of those who did it but in its general impact upon Americans. H. L. Mencken, for instance, had no other national loyalty than to America, if he had that. In his mellower moods he expressed ad­miration for the Constitution and the Founding Fathers. But bread cast upon the waters may return in strange ways, for once the tradi­tion had been undermined the rea­son for which it had been done could become separated from it.

Once a writer’s words are pub­lished he loses control over the uses to which they may be put.

Nor was it their numbers that gave these literary denigrators so much import. Their importance stems rather from the role of writers in modern society. Litera­ture is the vehicle for public memo­ries, the means by which ideas are usually spread, the device by which many creative men present their visions, the source of many of our mental images and conceptions. One may go to a play only to be entertained, but carry away with him a residue of notions which the author has implanted in his drama. “Smart” people imitate the pro­claimed leaders; those who would profess to be “in-the-know” spread the ideas.

Assault in Depth

Literature can be, and often is, the means for the expression of the noblest ideas men have held, the vehicle for preserving and continuing the heritage of a peo­ple, the source of the epigrams by which people carry with them their stout beliefs. But it may also be used to undermine the tradi­tion, to defame the heritage, to erode away the faith of a people, and to blacken the reputations of those who would uphold them. Many who were reckoned to be great writers performed this de­structive task in the 1920′s. The rust of their doubt entered into the iron of our tradition and con­tinued to weaken and immobilize it long after the writers modified their assault.’

Fully to appreciate the sweep of the assault it must be viewed as coupled with a much more subtle and broader attack. Philosophers such as William James and John Dewey worked to undermine the belief in a fixed reality. As they succeeded, the belief in natural law which had been at the heart of the American tradition crumbled. Frederick Jackson Turner, the historian, emphasized the chang­ing and pragmatic character of American historical development. J. Allen Smith and Charles A. Beard took positions which helped to discredit the American Consti­tution. Biographers “debunked” men who had been heroes to earlier Americans. Justices Oliver Wen­dell Holmes and Louis D. Brandeis emphasized the evolutionary char­acter of law and the importance of changing conditions.

The climax of the defamation of the American tradition—coming as it did in the 1920′s and early 1930′s—could hardly have been timed to achieve greater effect. It just preceded a convulsive and rev­olutionary period in world history. The United States—and much of the rest of the world—was hit at about this time with a lengthy and debilitating depression, and was shortly plunged into the interna­tional disorder of the late 1930′s and 1940′s. In other words, it was a time of trial and of searching for something firm amidst swift and unexpected change.

Traditions could have cushioned our fall and buoyed us up in crisis. They might have steadied and re­assured us when trouble came. Herbert Hoover tried, for example, to direct Americans to the faith of their fathers, to the virtues of individual initiative, to the moral­ity of private charity, but his dress reminded one of the despised Puritan, he talked too much the “hypocritical” language of rugged individualism and exuded the odor of the discredited businessman and materialism. Casting about for a faith in their time of troubles, Americans were loathe to take up a soiled tradition.

They found a faith, however, faith in men rather than law, faith in government rather than personal independence, faith in groups and collectives rather than the resolute individual. This was no accident, and the full import of the defamation is revealed in what was substituted for the American tradition. Reformers had for many years been spreading their ideas about “positive” governmental ac­tion, about the need for leaders, about the necessity for govern­mental action. They may have made little impact during most of the 1920′s, but their efforts were intensified once the depression came, reviving hope for the accept­ance of their ideas. The following titles published in the crucial years just before 1933 suggest the tenor of this material: Charles A. Beard, “The Rationality of Planned Econ­omy,” America Faces the Future, published in 1932; Rexford G. Tugwell, “The Principle of Plan­ning and the Institution of Laissez-Faire,” American Economic Re­view, March 1932; Stuart Chase, A New Deal, 1932; J. A. Hobson, Poverty in Plenty, 1931; Chester Davis, “Toward Planned Har­vests,” Review of Reviews, 1933; H. L. Hopkins, “The War on Dis­tress,” Today, 1933; and many others.

Fellow Travelers

Back of the above material lies another phenomenon of consider­able moment. At the very time that the American tradition was being shattered by defamers, American travelers were giving glowing reports of another kind of society. In a recent issue (Summer 1962) of American Quarterly—a schol­arly publication with no apparent axes to grind—Lewis S. Feuer tells of “American Travelers to the Soviet Union 1917-32: The Formation of a Component of New Deal Ideology.”

By 1932, according to Feuer, the leaders in pragmatic thought had come “to regard the Soviet Union as a model of the experimental method in social practice. The whole conception of a ‘social ex­periment,’ the whole notion of planned human intervention into social processes to raise the wel­fare of the people, had become linked in the minds of America‘s intellectual and social leaders with the practice of the Soviet Union.” This linkage he ascribes to the “work of a small number of several hundreds of travelers to the Soviet Union during the previous dec­ade.” Among those so enthralled were Rexford G. Tugwell, Paul Douglas, Stuart Chase, Jane Addams, Robert M. LaFollette, W. E. B. DuBois, and Sidney Hill­man, among others. Mr. Feuer sup­ports his statements with refer­ences to the published writings of these “travelers,” along with il­luminating quotations.

Some of the processes of social change in this century emerge from the above facts and general­izations. The defamation of the American tradition preceded and prepared the way for the abandon­ment of much of that tradition. The subversion of American ways was not so much the work of some secret conspiracy as it was the re­sult of open assaults. Whatever the intention of denigrators, they had set the stage for reformers who wished to change the character of American society. Many of the changes came swiftly—as in the “Hundred Days” of the New Deal, but they were made possible by years of work preceding them.

Those who are concerned today in the recovery and revitalization of the central American tradition should be better fitted for the task by knowing how it was under­mined. It has not been uncommon to interpret the departure from the American tradition in the 1930′s as a consequence of its failure in its hour of trial. Yet in view of the above evidence, we may doubt whether the established American ways were tried very vigorously or shunted aside as already discred­ited. At any rate, in view of the large-scale defamation that took place, the revival of the American tradition will require the rehabili­tation of its premises one by one, each examined on its own merits and supported by deep thought and massive evidence.


  • Clarence Carson (1926-2003) was a historian who taught at Eaton College, Grove City College, and Hillsdale College. His primary publication venue was the Foundation for Economic Education. Among his many works is the six-volume A Basic History of the United States.