The American Republic was founded at a time of dramatic historical change. Advances in industrial technology were radically altering the social order throughout the Western World. The gradual weakening of royal and noble political power was the inevitable result of these technological and social changes. The ancien regime of kings and lords was a relic of a time when political rulers were first and foremost warriors who personally led their retinue of troops into battle. When industrial efficiency and bureaucratic bookkeeping came to replace personal valor as the key to military dominance, the original logic of the old order faded away. In the brutal arena of global politics it would have been foolish and impossible to insist on these old social forms. And yet, with the fading of this old world and the emergence of the commercial spirit came a great loss of culture.
This loss of culture is undoubtedly one of the great weaknesses of Americanism. This is partly due to the fact that a new nation founded in the midst of the mercantile and industrial revolutions could simply not have reproduced a culture that already at that time existed in Europe largely as a relic of the past, and therefore we must disagree with those far-right critics who cite Americanism itself, and not the inexorable economic and technological changes of the 18th and 19th centuries, as being responsible for our current civilizational crisis. However, that does not mean that the problems caused by these changes can be ignored by American nationalists. Indeed, preserving the traditional folkways and customs of Christian Europe in an industrial setting is one of the foremost problems facing all white nations around the world, including us Americans.
This problem of the loss of organic culture was noticed in early America, even in the commercial northern states. In 1845 The American Whig Review published an article entitled “The Influence of the Trading Spirit on the Social and Moral Life in America” (republished in Ideology and Power in the Age of Jackson, edited by Edwin C. Rozwenc, Anchor Books 1964) which pointedly diagnosed the problem.
The author of the editorial states that,
“…while trade is destined to free and embrace the masses, it is also destined to destroy for the time much of the beauty and happiness of every land. This has been the result in our own country…[T]he excitement, the commercial activity, the restlessness, to which this state of things has given birth, is far from being a desirable restlessness or a natural condition. It is natural to the circumstances, but not natural to the human soul. It is good and hopeful to the interests of the race, but destructive to the happiness, and dangerous to the virtue of the generation exposed to it.” (page 49)
Genuine human fulfillment cannot be found simply in material prosperity or political liberty. God is the author of a world of stunning beauty. He speaks to us in his Word in poetry and song, not exclusively in prose. When our social and economic life do not promote a love of beauty or contentment in God’s gracious creation, we should recognize that we have strayed quite far from God’s vision for his people.
“We call our country a happy country; happy, indeed, in being the home of noble political institutions, the abode of freedom; but very far from being happy in possessing a cheerful, light-hearted, and joyous people. Our agricultural regions even are infected with the same anxious spirit of gain. If ever the curse of labor was upon the race, it is upon us; nor is it simply now “by the sweat of thy brow thou shalt earn thy bread.” Labor for a livelihood is dignified. But we labor for bread, and labor for pride, and labor for pleasure. A man’s life with us does consist of the abundance of the things which he possesseth.” (page 50)
“We cannot say that the destiny of this country did not demand that the spirit of trade should rule it for centuries. It may be that we are now carrying out only the decree of Providence. But if so, let us consider ourselves as in the wilderness, and not in the promised land. Let us bear the dispensation of God, but not glory in our bondage. If we are doomed to be tradesmen, and nothing but tradesmen—if money, and its influences and authority, are to reign for a season over our whole land, let us not mistake it for the kingdom of heaven, and build triumphal arches over our avenues of trade, as though the Prince of Peace and the Son of God were now and thus to enter in.” (page 51)
The author also notes that the loss of appreciation for the transcendent beauty of fine art and organic folkways leads to the inevitable cheapening of art and entertainment. God created man with an aesthetic sense, and when this sense is not oriented towards that which is good and holy, it will decline into a lust for the vulgar.
“It is rare to see a foreigner without some taste for amusement, some power of relaxing his mind, some interest in the arts, or in literature. This is true even of the less privileged classes. It is rare, on the contrary, to find a virtuous American past middle life, who does not regard amusements of all sorts either as childish or immoral; who possesses any acquaintance with or taste for the arts, except it be a natural and rude taste for music; or who reads any thing except newspapers, and only the political or commercial columns of those…We consider the common suspicion which is felt of amusements among thoughtful people to be one of the most serious evils to which our community is exposed. It outlaws a natural taste, and violates and ruins the consciences of the young, by stamping as sinful what they have not the force to refrain from. It makes our places of amusement low, divides the thoughtful and the careless, the grave and the gay, the old and the young, in their pleasures.” (page 53)
In old Europe the entire community would gather together to worship in the beauty of the liturgy, to view the mystery plays that set forth the great truths of religion, or to enjoy village fairs and dances. Our culture is now dominated by the the lowest form of indecent entertainment and perpetual youth rebellion. What is novel and transgressive is valued over that which is true and beautiful.
While the sinful exaltation of money making that accompanied the mercantile revolution certainly has had a very negative impact on our culture, the very nature of modern inventions has also weakened and cheapened our spiritual life. The great American author Nathaniel Hawthorne observed this in his short story Fire-Worship, which was originally published in 1843.
Hawthorne meditates on the spiritual loss suffered by mankind by moving from the open hearth to the enclosed stove:
“It is a great revolution in social and domestic life, and no less so in the life of a secluded student, this almost universal exchange of the open fireplace for the cheerless and ungenial stove. On such a morning as now lowers around our old gray parsonage, I miss the bright face of my ancient friend, who was wont to dance upon the hearth and play the part of more familiar sunshine…Where is that brilliant guest, that quick and subtle spirit, whom Prometheus lured from heaven to civilize mankind and cheer them in their wintry desolation; that comfortable inmate, whose smile, during eight months of the year, was our sufficient consolation for summer’s lingering advance and early flight? Alas! blindly inhospitable, grudging the food that kept him cheery and mercurial, we have thrust him into an iron prison.”
The reference to the Greek myth of Prometheus alludes to the fact that mankind has had a universal fascination with fire. Fire is used everywhere in religious ritual, including in the Bible. God revealed himself in fire both at the burning bush and as the pillar of fire in the wilderness. The divinely commanded fire of the levitical altars was a central aspect of God’s communion with his covenant people.
Even as moderns most of us have known the comforting and mesmerizing experience of sitting before the open fire, although it is now enjoyed but rarely and merely as a form of recreation, not as a central live-giving activity of the home.
“I never shall be reconciled to this enormity. Truly may it be said that the world looks darker for it. In one way or another, here and there and all around us, the inventions of mankind are fast blotting the picturesque, the poetic, and the beautiful out of human life. The domestic fire was a type of all these attributes, and seemed to bring might and majesty, and wild nature and a spiritual essence, into our in most home, and yet to dwell with us in such friendliness that its mysteries and marvels excited no dismay.”
The household fire combined the practical with the deeply spiritual, and there was no jarring contradiction between these two realms:
“To the youthful he showed the scenes of the adventurous life before them; to the aged the shadows of departed love and hope; and, if all earthly things had grown distasteful, he could gladden the fireside muser with golden glimpses of a better world. And, amid this varied communion with the human soul, how busily would the sympathizer, the deep moralist, the painter of magic pictures, be causing the teakettle to boil!”
Hawthorne cleverly concludes by observing that throughout history men have been roused to valor by the exhortation to fight for “hearth and home,” or some similar expression. This is because the hearth has deep spiritual meaning, a meaning which modern appliances lack.
“In classic times, the exhortation to fight ‘pro axis et focis,’ for the altars and the hearths, was considered the strongest appeal that could be made to patriotism. And it seemed an immortal utterance; for all subsequent ages and people have acknowledged its force and responded to it with the full portion of manhood that nature had assigned to each. Wisely were the altar and the hearth conjoined in one mighty sentence; for the hearth, too, had its kindred sanctity. Religion sat down beside it, not in the priestly robes which decorated and perhaps disguised her at the altar, but arrayed in a simple matron’s garb, and uttering her lessons with the tenderness of a mother’s voice and heart. The holy hearth! If any earthly and material thing, or rather a divine idea embodied in brick and mortar, might be supposed to possess the permanence of moral truth, it was this. All revered it. The man who did not put off his shoes upon this holy ground would have deemed it pastime to trample upon the altar. It has been our task to uproot the hearth. What further reform is left for our children to achieve, unless they overthrow the altar too? And by what appeal hereafter, when the breath of hostile armies may mingle with the pure, cold breezes of our country, shall we attempt to rouse up native valor? Fight for your hearths? There will be none throughout the land.
Fight for your stoves! Not I, in faith. If in such a cause I strike a blow, it shall be on the invader’s part; and Heaven grant that it may shatter the abomination all to pieces!“
We must recall that Hawthorne wrote this in an age when wooden stoves and oil lamps were used in houses, appliances which to us moderns seem warm and comforting. How much less could a man be exhorted to fight for his microwave or LED bulbs. Hawthorne’s observations reveal that in addition to reforming our economic system, it will also be necessary for us to approach every area of art with a view to mollifying and if possible reversing the spiritually sterilizing impact of industrialization.
We have seen that perceptive Americans in the first half of the 19th century already understood the problems caused by the industrial spirit that was coming to characterize the nation. The utter depravity of 20th century America proves that Americans did not adequately address these problems. However, although there is still much work to be done, there were numerous figures throughout American history who attempted to curb the destructive tendencies of industrialization and the money power, and it is fitting to examine and draw on the efforts of the great literary men and financial reformers that American has produced in the past.