Saturday, November 15, 2008

American Exceptionalism: Sarah Vowell's Wordy Shipmates

John Winthrop, 12-time governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony

It is by a mutual consent, through a special overvaluing providence and a more than an ordinary approbation of the churches of Christ, to seek out a place of cohabitation and consortship under a due form of government both civil and ecclesiastical. In such cases as this, the care of the public must oversway all private respects, by which, not only conscience, but mere civil policy, doth bind us. For it is a true rule that particular estates cannot subsist in the ruin of the public...

That which the most in their churches maintain as truth in profession only, we must bring into familiar and constant practice; as in this duty of love, we must love brotherly without dissimulation, we must love one another with a pure heart fervently. We must bear one another’s burdens. We must not look only on our own things, but also on the things of our brethren...

When God gives a special commission He looks to have it strictly observed in every article; When He gave Saul a commission to destroy Amaleck, He indented with him upon certain articles, and because he failed in one of the least, and that upon a fair pretense, it lost him the kingdom, which should have been his reward, if he had observed his commission.

Thus stands the cause between God and us. We are entered into covenant with Him for this work. We have taken out a commission...

The Lord will be our God, and delight to dwell among us, as His own people, and will command a blessing upon us in all our ways, so that we shall see much more of His wisdom, power, goodness and truth, than formerly we have been acquainted with. We shall find that the God of Israel is among us, when ten of us shall be able to resist a thousand of our enemies; when He shall make us a praise and glory that men shall say of succeeding plantations, "may the Lord make it like that of New England." For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us. So that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken, and so cause Him to withdraw His present help from us, we shall be made a story and a by-word through the world. We shall open the mouths of enemies to speak evil of the ways of God, and all professors for God's sake. We shall shame the faces of many of God's worthy servants, and cause their prayers to be turned into curses upon us till we be consumed out of the good land whither we are going.
-- From John Winthrop's sermon A Model of Christian Charity, delivered upon the ship Arbella.

"The eyes of all people are upon us. And all they see is a mash-up of naked prisoners and an American girl in fatigues standing there giving a thumbs-up. As I write this, the United States of America is still a city on a hill; and it's still shining -- because we never turn off the lights in our torture prisons. That's how we carry out the sleep deprivation."
-- Sarah Vowell, from Wordy Shipmates

As we head towards Thanksgiving, I'm reminded of an intererview I heard on NPR last month with essayist, commentator, and "historical humorist" Sarah Vowell (frequent host of This American Life and author of Assassination Vacation). Click the following link to listen to: Sarah Vowell Finds Humor In Puritan History. Even though she's 38 year old and is obviously quite bright, she sounded to me like she was about 15 years old. I guess there's a reason for that and for why that seemed familiar to me somehow. She was the voice of Violet in the animated film The Incredibles.

In this interview, she discusses her new book The Wordy Shipmates. It's important for me to note here at this juncture (on account of the Thanksgiving reference) that the Pilgrims who landed at Plymouth Rock were Separatists who were different from the Puritans who settled in Boston and later ran Massachusetts, although eventually, the two movements converged and the Pilgrims were absorbed. I haven't read this book yet, but from what I can gather, Vowell's intention is not to ridicule the Puritans. On the contrary, she dispels myths about them being drab and colorless, and she has great respect for their universal literacy and intellectualism, right down to their assiduous study of Classical Greek. She does make note of the fact that their theology was imbued with a sense of wrath and fear of failure; fear of failing God in particular. While this helped us to develop a healthy American sense of personal responsibility, it also bequeathed to us another legacy - a connection to our persistent sense of being a specially blessed and chosen nation on earth. This has been a double-edged sword for us over time. At times this "American Exceptionalism" has led us to run roughshod over other peoples and to lead us into messianic ventures overseas that over-reach.

Anne Hutchinson Preaching in Her House in Boston, 1637, by Howard Pyle (1901)

Here are excerpts from a review of Vowell's book that I enjoyed:

The Puritan settlers of America are often blamed for the more irritating aspects of its modern society. Their tightly-wound moralism is blamed for America’s fidgety, repressed sexuality while references to the “Puritan work ethic” imply that an aversion to fun and relaxation is somehow embedded in its cultural genetics. Their penchant for religious hysteria and supernatural beliefs, as dramatically demonstrated in the Salem Witch Trials, is often used to highlight and mock those who lose reason and rationality. The idea is that had we been settled by French libertines instead of English churchgoers, the United States would be a nonstop, epicurean party. Instead, it’s, well, puritanical, deeply rigid and averse to change.

To believe that the Puritans of Boston poisoned the well for the whole United States of America right from the start, you’d have to ignore the fact that their sphere of influence in the 17th Century hardly extended beyond the Connecticut River, and that their colonial domain of Boston and its environs is today a bastion of liberalism and Papist religious observance the likes of which would have driven them absolutely crazy. Salem, scene of the epic battle between the righteous forces of Puritanism and the imagined legions of Satan, has surrendered entirely to witchcraft and has become a Mecca to those looking for novelty broomsticks and family-friendly occult experiences. If the very heart of Puritan America has evolved into something radically different, it’s hard to believe that the whole of America has been tainted by their social mores.

The common image of the stern, stentorian Puritan in his drab, black ensemble, preaching fire and brimstone, is largely an exaggeration that elides the fascinating nature of these devoted, adventurous, flawed, and yes, influential people. In The Wordy Shipmates, NPR fixture and historical humorist Sarah Vowell argues that misunderstanding of the Puritans obscures the roots of America’s national character and clouds their true contribution to our culture, which even today informs its political and social attitudes: American Exceptionalism.

The term ‘American Exceptionalism’ is a euphemistic cover for that old bugbear, nationalism, which you may remember from the prologue to every chapter about disastrous war and conflict in your high school history textbook. Nationalism differs from patriotism in that it not only declares that its own culture, government, and society is great, it (whether implicitly or explicitly) casts all others as terrible. It’s a sentiment planted by Puritan John Winthrop, who first cast their New World home as a “city on a hill”, and later employed to different ends by politicians like John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, and in a faint echo of the “Great Communicator” during her 2008 Vice Presidential Debate, Governor Sarah Palin.

The “city on a hill”, a beacon of rightness in the world, is a noble and laudable sentiment, one that Vowell feels particularly fond of, though as she demonstrates throughout her book, the well-meaning ideals of Winthrop and his brethren are a double-edged sword. American Exceptionalism has the potential to spur great innovation and bring about profound change, yet it can also be a destructive, insular force that pits the country against those who dare question its authority. The road to Puritan Boston was paved with good intentions, and Vowell is quick to draw obvious parallels to the current situation in Iraq. Much as the American involvement in Iraq was expected to be greeted as liberation, the emigrants to Boston saw themselves on a mission to aid the Natives who knew nothing of Christ. The crest which represented the voyage of these well-meaning Puritans, Vowell notes with exasperation, depicted an American Indian explicitly asking “Come over and help us”.

Still, even in the face of such questionable thinking, Vowell can’t help but have a soft spot for these early Americans because, well, they’re too much like the current Americans to look down upon. She takes great steps toward sweeping away the caricature of Puritans that’s continually reinforced by pop culture and sloppy, lazy history. The portrait she paints of these hearty settlers is both endearing and tragic, as they set out in search of a better, more perfect life and occasionally stumble into wrong-headedness and conflict.

Pilgrims Going to Church, by George Henry Boughton (1867)

Here are some excerpts from Vowell's book from the NPR site.

The only thing more dangerous than an idea is a belief. And by dangerous I don't mean thought-provoking. I mean: might get people killed.

Take the Reverend John Cotton. In 1630, he goes down to the port of Southampton to preach a farewell sermon to the seven hundred or so colonists of the Massachusetts Bay Company. Led by Governor John Winthrop, a gentleman farmer and lawyer, these mostly Puritan dissenters are about to sail from England to New England on the flagship Arbella and ten other vessels in the Winthrop fleet...

Cotton's sermon is titled "God's Promise to His Plantation." He begins with one of the loveliest passages from the book of Second Samuel, an otherwise R-rated chronicle of King David's serial-killer years. Chapter 7, verse 10: "I will appoint a place for my people in Israel, and I will plant them, that they may dwell in a place of their own, and move no more." Sounds so homey, like that column in the real estate section of the New York Times about how people found their apartments. Until I remember that talk like this is the match still lighting the fuse of a thousand car bombs.

What Cotton is telling these about-to-be-Americans is that they are God's new chosen people. This they like to hear. In fact, they have been telling themselves just that. The Old Testament Israelites are to the Puritans what the blues was to the Rolling Stones—a source of inspiration, a renewable resource of riffs. What Cotton is telling them is that, like the Old Testament Jews, they are men of destiny. And, like the Old Testament Jews, God has given them a new home, a promised land. And, like the Old Testament Jews, God has printed up eviction notices for them to tack up on the homes of the nothing-special, just-folks folks who are squatting there.
It's fine, according to Cotton, to move into "a country not altogether void of inhabitants" if said country is really big. After all, he continues, "Abraham and Isaac, when they sojourned amongst the Philistines, they did not buy that land to feed their cattle, because they said 'There is room enough.' "

This is God's plantation, remember? Cotton says, "If God be the gardener, who shall pluck up what he sets down?" Hear that, Indians? No weeding of the white people allowed. Unless they're Catholic. Or one of those Satan-worshiping Virginians.

These people listening to this man are scared. There's a boat in the harbor that just might sail them to their deaths. They may never see their friends again until heaven (or hell, depending how this dumb plan goes). For years they've grumbled that England is a cesspool governed by an immoral king under the spell of the Whore of Babylon, which is their cute nickname for the pope. But now that it's time to light out, their dear old mother country seems so cozy, all warm beds and warm beer and days of auld lang syne.

Yet here is the smartest man in England, maybe the smartest man in the world, telling them, little old them, that they have been picked by God. They are Israelites is what they are. They are fleeing Egypt. Good riddance! Next stop, land of milk/honey.

Now they know. They can do this. They can vomit their way across the sea. They can spend ten years digging up tree stumps to plow frozen fields. They can even learn to love corn. For the first time in months, they can breathe.


Steve Bogner said...

Very interesting post, Jeff.

My wife and I were in Europe during election week (a bit of work, a bit of vacation), and it was interesting to see the US and the election from that perspective, even if we were there only for a short time as outsiders. It reminded me that for all the energy and importance of the election, we don't have a monopoly on the best way to do things, the best way to be, the best way to govern, and so on. Lots of other countries work just fine, and they work differently from the US.

I have a hunch that American exceptionalism is at least partially reinforced or encouraged by the evangelical right. I'm not much of a historian, but I think exceptionalism has been present in American political culture for a long time; it just seems to have gained ground since the rise of the evangelical right in the past few decades.

Liam said...

Interesting stuff, Jeff. I have to admit I know very little American history for someone who's a professional historian. I may pick up this book when I have some time.

crystal said...

I remember a past post at dotCommonweal about American Exceptionalism and how Sarah Palin used that expression of the city on the hill in her convention speech. I think it's a euphemism for jingoism ... makes me think of Alexis de Tocqueville :)

Jeff said...

The Bog-Man lives!!

How have you been, Steve? Long time, no see!

I think you're right. My best friend, who went to live in Spain, was as rah-rah American as you could be, but after living over there for a while, he began to realize that there are some real peculiaralities about the way we do things here.

It seems like once or twice a century, we go through an evangelical revival and awakening here in this country. I have some real mixed feelings about that, but at least it keeps everyone else on their toes. It's probably the reason why people (of all denominations) are so much more religious here than in Europe.


Yes, this looks like an interesting read, doesn't it? You didn't need much background in American history to get that Masters degree?


Interesting posts and good conversation on that over at dotCommonweal.

De Tocqueville... Yeah, Democracy in America is one of those books I picked up and put on my shelf just because you're supposed to have it, you know what I mean? But I've never really taken a serious run at reading the whole thing, I admit. :)