The Basic Requirements of Nationhood II: American Nationhood

Brad Patty

15 days ago

October 05, 2017

Such a man is far better… in a more difficult kind of war, much in the same degree as justice… when united with courage is better than courage only; for a man cannot be faithful and good in civil strife without having all virtue…. Loyalty in the hour of danger may truly be called perfect justice.

Plato, Laws I, 630a-c

This is the second in a series on the basic requirements of American nationhood.  The first treated the basic requirements of nationhood simply. This will speak of American nationhood.

Some argue that the United States is entering another phase of civil strife. If Plato is right, one of the hardest things to do is to remain loyal in such an hour. This is especially true given that we face nearly daily challenges to the idea that the idea of America is something to which one ought to be loyal. We are reminded of its terrible history of slavery, and of the complicity of the Founding Fathers in that history. We are told that America’s founding principles are therefore nothing more than hypocrisy. We are reminded that the nation was gained through genocide against Native Americans. We are told that the capitalist economic system on which it stands creates inequality and environmental destruction. Why, then, should anyone feel any loyalty to America?

I will answer that America stands at the end of a proud history of rebellion against tyrants. I will answer that America participated in an Enlightenment reformation of the basic project of nationhood in a way that put justice ahead of security. I will show that American pragmatism is the only thing that kept that project alive, where everywhere else it fell into tyranny. I will argue that the American balance of principle and pragmatism stood at the core of resistance to such tyranny for generations. It is only because of America that such tyranny did not prevail over all of humankind. America is justified by its success in advancing human freedom and wealth, I will argue. Loyalty to the American project is right and proper.

The History of Rebellion for Rights

In the first piece in this series I wrote that the security of a nation is tied to the just treatment of the people. A people treated unjustly by their government has the right to rebel and to replace that government with a better one. The American Declaration of Independence opens with this very claim.

The American revolution was not the first revolution seeking to force governments to recognize the rights of free people. As mentioned in the previous piece, insurgencies against the Norman conquest were responsible for transforming what had been feudal liberties of knights into rights for free men. Magna Carta, or fully Magna Carta Libertatum (the Great Charter of Liberties), was extracted from the Norman king John following a further rebellion against his tyrannical practices.  A still later Norman king, Edward I, decided to conquer Scotland and subjugate it to his rule. The events are dramatized in the famous Hollywood film Braveheart, which leaves you with the impression that the Scots won their freedom in 1314 following the battle of Bannockburn.  In fact, it took another decade of war to force the Norman kings of England to give up their attempt to dominate Scotland.

During this time, the closest predecessor of our Declaration of Independence was written. In 1320, Scottish nobles wrote the Pope to demand the right to choose their own king. The Declaration of Arbroath is a ringing and beautiful piece, if you have not read it.

…for, as long as but a hundred of us remain alive, never will we on any conditions be brought under English rule. It is in truth not for glory, nor riches, nor honours that we are fighting, but for freedom – for that alone, which no honest man gives up but with life itself.

This declaration informed the Pope that the Scots recognized their own king Robert the Bruce, and not the English king, had the right to rule in Scotland. However, they added, if Robert the Bruce should give them up to English domination in any way, they would throw him out and choose another.

Ultimately the Pope was not willing to accept the claim that a people had the right to choose their own king. The Scots had to win their right to do so on the battlefield.

The Scots did win that right to choose their own kings.  Like the freedoms won from the Norman kings at Runnymede, it was won on the battlefield.

Ironically, two centuries later, it was Scottish kings who invented the claim that they ruled by “the divine right of Kings.” In doing so they undermined the bargain of justice that created and sustained their own security as rulers. In trying to make good the claim that their subjects owed them loyalty by God’s will, rather than because they treated their people justly, the Stewart kings provoked a series of rebellions against themselves. Charles I lost his head over the question, and eventually the Stewarts were permanently rejected by force of arms.

This opposition to the kings’ preference for ruling by right, instead of ruling by justice, set in motion a series of philosophical works that make up much of the foundation of the American way. I will quote a helpful summary that shows the connection:

When Thomas Wyatt the younger instigated what became known as Wyatt’s rebellionJohn Ponet… allegedly participated in the uprising.[19] He escaped to Strasbourg after the Rebellion’s defeat and, the following year, he published A Shorte Treatise of Politike Power, in which he put forward a theory of justified opposition to secular rulers…. Ponet’s pamphlet was republished on the eve of King Charles I‘s execution.

According to U.S. President John Adams, Ponet’s work contained “all the essential principles of liberty, which were afterward dilated on by Sidney and Locke“, including the idea of a three-branched government.[20]

In due course, opposition to the divine right of kings came from a number of sources, including poet John Milton in his pamphlet The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates, and Thomas Paine in his pamphlet Common Sense. Probably the two most famous declarations of a right to revolution against tyranny in the English language are John Locke‘s Essay concerning The True Original, Extent, and End of Civil-Government and Thomas Jefferson’s formulation in the United States Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal“.

Reversing the Formula

The most obvious difference between the American system and earlier systems is our particular account of justice. This account is given in our Declaration of Independence, which sets out right at the beginning to explain what would justify a government’s existence – or its overthrow. As every American knows, the Declaration of Independence holds that ‘all men are created equal, and endowed by their Creator with certain inaliable rights.’
Government has one function: to secure those rights.

Rights come from the Creator, in the Declaration’s formula, but governments do not.  Governments are instituted “among men,” not by God, and for the sole purpose of defending these rights. A government that ceases to do this job is rightfully dissolved and replaced with one that can do a better job.

In the first piece we looked at how, for the ancients, the idea was that the need for security gave rise to a need for justice. The American account reverses the priority of security and justice but maintains their relationship. For earlier governments, security was needed for the political order to survive, and therefore justice was needed so that people would assent to providing the security. The American system says, instead, that a particular account of justice is needed, and therefore governments are set up to secure it. Whether the particular political order or particular government survives is no longer the point. The justice becomes primary, and it is the justice rather than the political order that is to be secured.

The First Century of America:  Pragmatism & Revolution

The American revolution was not the only attempt to do this. Another one, founded less on Locke and more on Jean-Jacques Rousseau, occurred about the same time in France. In 1789, the same year the United States Constitution and Bill of Rights came into force, the French began an attempt to completely reinvent their society. The French did exactly what many of our contemporaries criticize the Founders for not having done:  they took their principles of human liberty and decided to force the whole society to be completely consistent with them.

The Founders of the United States watched their contemporaries, the French, go from forcing the King to accept a constitution to cutting off his head. Well, Charles I had lost his head, and if it had stopped there it might have been acceptable. But the French went from cutting off the head of a king to cutting off the heads of very many ordinary people.

Civil war broke out in France, and endured. The revolutionaries turned on each other. They turned on the pillars of French society and burned them down. Especially religion became distrusted, such that nuns and priests were murdered in an attempt to purge their influence on society. Nothing proved to be sacred; nothing proved to be sufficiently rational to survive examination either. Even the calendar was abandoned in favor of a new way of counting the dates that was more ‘metric.’

The madness of the French revolution invited foreign wars to go with their civil wars. In the end, they gladly welcomed the tyranny of Napoleon because he could at least bring order again. Napoleon then drug them into a ruinous series of foreign wars that led to the collapse of his government and the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Frenchmen.

Early Americans watched this French struggle as they themselves struggled with slavery at home. The American revolution is often criticized for its hypocrisy.  Several of the Founders were slave-owners; even the ones who were not did not insist upon applying the philosophical conclusion of equal rights thoroughly to every aspect of their society. One reason they did not is that they had an object lesson in front of their eyes at the very time they were working through their compromises. The French revolution was not hypocritical. Its very devotion to rooting out every last deviation from principle is what caused it to fall into blood, so much blood that even tyranny seemed a happy escape.

When you study the series of compromises on slavery that occupy the first half of the 19th century in America, you see not a failure to confront slavery but a confrontation along the logic of containment. The Missouri Compromise attempted to confine slavery below a certain latitude. That attempt at containment failed first at the Nebraska-Kansas act, but more fully with the Dred Scott decision that ruled such containment unconstitutional.

The decision to pursue containment rather than to resort to a war to repeal slavery remains controversial. Abraham Lincoln’s speech following the Dred Scott decision shows much of the struggle of the era. His speech shows an America plainly grappling with a desire to ameliorate the suffering of slaves that is competing with racism and fear. Lincoln’s speech shows a careful deference to Constitutional principle combined with a commitment to pose new challenges to slavery within the Constitutional framework. Just as the later Americans would confront the Soviets firmly but with grave concern for the dangers of nuclear war, the earlier Americans confronted slavery — and in spite of their own prejudices, which are also clear in Lincoln’s speech.

This approach can be criticized, but not I think on the grounds that its advocates did not really believe in challenging slavery. They proved willing to fight a war for it, in the end. Rather, this points to a current of American thought that, in the years just after the Civil War, blossomed into a formal school of philosophy. This school is called Pragmatism, and it has always been a characteristically American school of thought. Pragmatism is what the American founding showed that the French one did not. Pragmatism holds to the the maxim that all ideas should be tested against their practical consequences. Ideas that do not work out should be abandoned. Ideas that reliably produce bad consequences are bad ideas; in formal applications of the philosophy, they can even be said to be false ideas.

This current of thought explains why the American project succeeded while the French one fell into tyranny. Even when dealing with direct challenges to America’s founding principles, American thinkers responded to those challenges with a careful eye to the real-world consequences of their decisions. The American principles were realized, slowly:  slavery was in fact banished, its replacements in Jim Crow and lynching eventually defeated. For those who favor a more principled response to evils like slavery, note that this insistence on considering the practical consequence is one of the principles of Pragmatism. The question How can this work? has to be considered, and the consequences weighed.

But what about the rights that come from the Creator? It might seem that Pragmatism is a challenge to religion, as it looks to the world instead of to God for the test of its ideas. It is certainly compatible with secular philosophy, but what about the Declaration of Independence? I would argue that Pragmatism makes room for religion as well:  if God made the world, then to learn the rules of the world is to learn something about the world’s maker. (This approach to religion is called ‘natural theology.’) The only sort of religion that is ruled out by Pragmatism is the sort whose dogma reliably leads to practical disasters. The same is true of ideas in politics, economics, or other fields. Americans are characteristically interested in what works. That fact will explain America’s victories in its second century.

The Second Century of America: World Wars

What I am going to argue about the second century is that it largely mirrors the first. America engaged severe economic and military challenges, and it did so with a basically pragmatic approach. While this century saw segregation and Jim Crow, it also saw the end of segregation and Jim Crow. While it saw the Great Depression and two world wars, it did not see America falling into the tyranny that darkened so much of Russia, Asia, and Europe. Rather, by focusing on pragmatic approaches to these severe challenges, the United States ultimately prevailed and led the world to a freer, richer state.

The counterpart to the French Revolution in the second century is the Communist Revolution.  Communists had existed since the middle of the 19th century, but their first real success came in 1917 with the rise of the Soviet Union. It took as along as it did because the industrial world turned out not to want Communism.  Karl Marx, the prophet of the Communists, had expected his revolutionaries to capture systems of industrial production that could be turned to feeding and supplying large numbers of people right away.  Instead, the early Communist successes were all in agricultural third-world powers like the Russian Empire. Communism expanded into Europe mostly by Soviet conquest: where it expanded organically, it tended to be agricultural rather than industrialized states that adopted it.

However, non-industrial agriculture depends upon large unfree populations.  Even in the United States after slavery, the tenant farmer and sharecropper systems tied agricultural workers to the land and set up legal barriers to their escape until agriculture became sufficiently industrialized.  The Communist “liberation” meant starvation, over and over, for a number of reasons.  For one thing, the diversion of resources from growing food to trying to build an industrial economy set up shortages.  For another, human beings work harder for their own immediate good than they will for the good of others further away.  That also created shortages.  In the most extreme case, China’s “Great Leap Forward,” the focus on trying to change the economy from agricultural to industrial meant ordering farmers to melt down their tools for ingots (see p. 262ff).  Without tools, the starvation was massive.

Ultimately, no government ever managed to make Communism work.  For Pragmatism, that is sufficient to prove that the Communist ideal is not just a bad system, but a false idea. In addition to practical failure, there was a great deal of state-sponsored violence. As in the French revolution, people were put to death for refusing to think the right way or speak the right way.  Increasingly, Communist states applied the theories of psychiatry to force people to think the ‘right’ way. Secret police worked to identify those who just might be good at hiding what they really thought, so that they could be killed or tortured into confessing the ‘truth’ of the Communist way.

Two systems of government opposed the tyranny of Communism in the mid-20th century. One was fascism, which sought to use ethnic identity to dominate nations. There is some debate about the degree to which “National Socialism” and “Socialism” differed, and more pointedly, the degree to which Nazism and Stalinism did. Certainly the fascists were as tyrannical as the Communists. Both claimed that their state controls on the economy produced economic miracles that, on examination, turn out not to have really existed. Nevertheless, they certainly saw themselves as being in opposition to one another: they fought each other in the streets, and though they made common cause for a while, they fought each other on the battlefield too. Arguably the Nazis were broken more in that fight than in any other way.

The other system were the heirs of the medieval revolutions I spoke of at the beginning of this piece:  the United States, and the British Commonwealth. The last hours of strength for the British Empire were the right hours for challenging Nazi fascism, and Japanese fascism, without falling under the banner of Soviet Communism. Had it not been for the alliance of the British Empire with the United States, either Communism or fascism would have carried the day. Our present would look very different had the last decades of world history been led by either fascists or Soviets.

That humanity came out of the Second World War with new institutions of freedom and human rights instead is the triumph of the Anglo-American alliance. Pragmatically, the heirs of the British Empire sided with the Soviets to defeat the Nazis and their allies. Then, mirroring the logic of the 19th century, the increasingly-American-led alliance moved to contain rather than destroy Communism. This time the logic of containment worked, and the great nuclear war feared by everyone was avoided. Soviet Communism collapsed under its own weight; the other major Communist power, China, discovered the pragmatic reasons for adopting a kind of capitalism instead.

From the end of the Second World War on to this day, the United States has carried the chief burden of defending human liberty. That burden is not evenly borne even here: since the rise of the all-volunteer military, it is disproportionately borne by American men of particular families and, especially Southerners. As the first piece in this series argued, there is a danger to the ideal of citizenship posed by this professionalization of military force. All the same, pragmatically, it has so far presided over a great expansion of human freedom and wealth.

This is a very brief sketch, and it obscures a lot of the disagreement among Americans about what the right principles were. Every one of these conflicts has had books written about it; every one of them had voices arguing multiple sides. Understanding that every American political decision is the product of such a debate, nevertheless it is worth noticing that American politics has been successful insofar as it tends to produce pragmatic decisions.

Indeed, the great foreign policy debacles of American history have tended to come when it has tried to push its other philosophical principles beyond the bounds of pragmatism. Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan are united in that they were attempts to impose American values in relatively poor, distant countries that were in large part hostile to those values.


It is worth noticing that most of those critics of America who indict her for failing to move more rapidly or more robustly against slavery in her early days are also critics of her involvement in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan. There’s an unrecognized conflict in adopting both of those positions at once. If America is right to be pragmatic and circumspect in the face of deadly conflicts in the interest of spreading liberty, then the concerns of the 19th century look more rational. The immediate memory of the French descent into violence and tyranny explains the preference for Constitutional and peaceful solutions, and the willingness to resort to force only when other things failed. If Saddam’s Iraq should have been left alone in spite of its systematized murder of Shi’a citizens, rather than risking destabilization and the violence it would bring, one has to think more kindly of the Missouri Compromise. They too were facing a desperate war, one that left hundreds of thousands of Americans dead on both sides.

Rather, the lessons of the first two centuries of America should be that the American idea works. It works, in part, because its pragmatic foundation insists that “working” is one of its fundamental principles. Its economy enriches. Its political system advances human liberty. It may not always do so perfectly, but it has done so to a greater degree than anything else. It may sometimes forgo a fight for a while, but it returns to the fight when the time and ground are better. Where ‘purer’ approaches like the French revolution or the Communist one have failed, the American idea has advanced its goods even when challenges have been severe.

For these reasons, I think that Americans have cause to be loyal to our project. I do not say that it is above criticism, or that criticism isn’t an important part of advancing that project. But we have reason to love the American idea, reason to be loyal to it, and reason to defend it. Upholding our pragmatic defense of liberty, against the civil strife, is as Plato said a virtuous and just act.

Whether the American idea deserves loyalty is a separate question from whether the American government does. Loyalty to the American idea does not mean loyalty to any particular government. The heritage of revolution shows that citizens are right to be loyal to the idea that the government’s legitimacy depends on that government’s devotion to protecting the liberty of that citizenry. Human liberty has been advanced as often by opposing a particular king or government as by supporting it. The security of the state’s existence ought to depend on the degree to which it is both committed to and effective at advancing the rights spelled out by our Constitution.

Is the government committed to, or effective at, advancing the rights secured in the Constitution? For example, how effective or committed has the government proven to be in defending the rights secured by the Tenth Amendment? Those are the key questions in understanding whether or not the government remains legitimate. Securing the legitimacy of the government is also how you secure its survival, as a legitimate government merits a defense by its citizens.

Aligning the American government with the American idea — with that pragmatic heritage of revolution — should be the key focus of American politics. In that way legitimacy and justice are gained, and security follows from that. The Security Studies Group questions whether this is indeed understood by our current government to be their proper focus.

About the Author

Brad Patty

Dr. Patty advised US Army units in Iraq on information operations as part of more than a decade's involvements in America's wars. His work has received formal commendations from the 30th Heavy Brigade, the 2nd Brigade, 1st Armored Division, the 3rd Infantry Division and the 1st Cavalry Division. Dr. Patty holds his PhD in Philosophy from the University of Georgia.