The Lost Soul of American Politics: Virtue, Self-Interest, and the Foundations of Modern Liberalism. By John P. Diggins. Basic, $23.95.

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“Americans are not a virtuous people,” Tocqueville wrote, “and nevertheless they are free.” More than a century later Richard Hofstadter evoked the same paradox: America is “a democracy of cupidity rather than a democracy of fraternity.” A society founded on the primacy of the private has become an exemplary republic, or respublica; the universal pursuit of individual wealth has produced a flourishing commonwealth. Locke is our civic prophet; liberalism our civic creed; the “invisible hand” our political, as well as economic, Providence.

This, at least, is the perennial myth of American historiography. It is currently under attack from several directions. The “republican” school (Bernard Bailyn, for example) has tried to displace Lockean individualism and enlightened self-interest from the center of 18th century American ideology, replacing them with a discourse of patriotism and civic virtue supposedly inherited from Continental theorists like Machiavelli and Montesquieu or from the English Dissenting tradition. The “communitarian” school (e.g., Garry Wills) stresses the influence of Scottish moral philosophy on Jefferson and other Founding Fathers: in opposition to Locke’s psychology of possessive individualism, Hutcheson, Hume, and Adam Smith posited an innate “moral sense,” a faculty of imaginative identification or “sympathy,” which they (and the Founders) considered the basis of political community. Radical historians (e.g., Staughton Lynd) have followed Charles Beard and the Progressives in raising questions about the class allegiance of the Founders and have resurrected the pre-Marxist anticapicalist critiques of Paine, Thoreau, and many previously invisible lower-class radicals.

These revisionists all dispute the centrality of liberalism in the history of American political thought. John Diggins, in “The Lost Soul of American Politics”, rereads that history and attempts to vindicate the traditional liberal, or Lockean, paradigm—but with a twist. Where other historians have mainly seen the influence of Locke’s doctrines —materialist psychology, property rights, ethical individualism—Diggins sees also a Christian legacy—the Calvinist tenets of innate depravity, inescapable guilt, work as a “calling,” the sovereignty of individual conscience. According to Diggins, it is this Christian pessimism, not just Enlightenment skepticism, that answers the familiar question: why did the ringing rhetoric of the Revolutionary period issue in the cautious conservatism of the Constitution? In pursuit of America’s Calvinist soul, Diggins threads his way through key texts—“The Federalist”, John Adams’s “A Defense of the Constitution”, Cooper’s “The Bravo”, Melville’s “Billy Budd”, Lincoln’s speeches, Henry Adams’s “Mont-Saint-Michel & Chartres”—looking for Old World shadows. There are a good many, it turns out, and in this strain of melancholy and self-doubt Diggins finds what he calls a “Niebuhrian corrective” to current, overly cheerful assessments of the American heritage. As he recognizes, there is something problematic about intellectual history on this scale: three appendixes anticipate methodological objections from his colleagues. But other readers, methodologically innocent or indifferent, will be at least intermittently intrigued.

Unfortunately, many of Diggins’s speculations are barely visible through the murk of his style. “The Lost Soul of American Politics” is marred by much clumsiness (“Once we see the Calvinist foundations of liberalism, the gospel of ‘free labor’ that Lincoln espoused as the essence of liberty, we are in a better position to see why in American intellectual history liberalism could carry the seeds of its own condemnation, particularly in its fostering of capitalism, as ends came to absorb means, wealth to replace work, and the mere possession of things to replace the making of products as the nation threatened to sink into a morass of materialism”), obscurity (“Today, when America seems to be awash in a ‘culture of narcissism’ and Emerson’s doctrine of ‘self-reliance’ has dropped from the ‘Oversoul’ to the underbelly, Tocqueville’s fears of ‘the passionate and exaggerated love of self have made the demands of the ‘Me’ the first priority of politics”), and even bad grammar (“There was no place for sin, evil, and guilt in Jefferson’s Christianity, as there would be for Henry Adams, Melville, and Lincoln”). But suspended throughout, like beacons in the fog, are passages of limpid or luminous, sprightly or sonorous prose by Jefferson, Madison, Cooper, Emerson, Melville, Henry Adams, and others (including this timely quote from Lincoln: the Republican Party is “for both the man and the dollar, but in case of conflict the man before the dollar”).

“Democracy,” said John Dewey, “begins in conversation.” Even through Diggins’s static, we can sometimes hear Jefferson arguing with Montesquieu, Emerson with Locke, Henry Adams with Tocqueville, Thoreau with everyone; and this is, momentarily, exhilarating.


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