Has America’s Character Changed Since The Time of The Founders?

Saturday, March 19, 2016

By Daniel Mann

What does “character” mean to us today? What personal traits and goals do we value? For the late psychologist Abraham Maslow, it was a matter of self-actualization – “fulfilling themselves and doing the best that they are capable of doing.”

Another website listed 13 personal goals worth pursuing:

  1. Becoming the person you aspire to be.
  2. Fixing your priorities
  3. Specifying your values.
  4. Determining your lifestyle.
  5. Defining your ethics.
  6. Improving your knowledge, potential and awareness.
  7. Enhancing the quality of your life by being more spiritual and healthy.
  8. Developing strengths, learning techniques or methods to achieve wisdom.
  9. Fulfilling aspirations.
  10. Building human capital.
  11. Defining and executing personal development plans.
  12. Developing spirituality.
  13. Improving health.

Both sources have a lot in common – self-fulfillment. However, different eras esteemed different goals and traits. Historian Daniel Walker Howe highlights the differences:

  • In the development of Western political thought, the control of passion by reason has been an issue of critical importance. Stephen Holmes’s Passions and Constraint shows how the creation of free political institutions required that people control such strong passions as tribal hatred or the resentment of social slights by the exercise of sober rationality… “The principal aim of [early] liberals who wrote favorably of self-interest was to bridle destructive and self- destructive passions, to reduce the social prestige of mindless male violence, to induce people, so far as possible, to act rationally, instead of hot-bloodedly.” (Making the American Self)

While today, we esteem self-fulfillment, yesterday, self-control, a virtuous character, and rationality were praised. Jacksonian historian and famed “Father of American History,” George Bancroft’s laudatory description of George Washington reveals what our first president esteemed:

  • His faculties were so well balanced and combined, that his constitution, free from excess, was tempered… [with] the power of self- control, and enabled him to excel in patience, even when he had most cause for disgust.

Why the sharp difference and what does it mean? Why has self-fulfillment replaced self-control along with the other Christian virtues? With the onslaught of secularism and its denial of an afterlife, there is nothing to live for but the “now.” Therefore, “character” – honesty, integrity, courage, and other-centered-ness – has become only a means to an end, a payoff in the now. Virtue has become a commodity to barter as the changing situation requires.

However, our Founding Fathers, even the least religious among them, could not conceive of this American experiment working without the Christian faith and its virtues as its foundation.

The Unitarian and our second President, John Adams, wrote:

  • “The general principles upon which the Fathers achieved independence were the general principals of Christianity… I will avow that I believed and now believe that those general principles of Christianity are as eternal and immutable as the existence and attributes of God.”
  • “We have no government armed with power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion. Avarice, ambition, revenge, or gallantry, would break the strongest cords of our Constitution as a whale goes through a net. Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” (October 11, 1798)
  • “I have examined all religions, as well as my narrow sphere, my straightened means, and my busy life, would allow; and the result is that the Bible is the best Book in the world. It contains more philosophy than all the libraries I have seen.” (December 25, 1813 letter to Thomas Jefferson)
  • “Without Religion this World would be Something not fit to be mentioned in polite Company, I mean Hell.” (John Adams to Thomas Jefferson, April 19, 1817)

Even the alleged deist president, Thomas Jefferson, wrote:

  • “Of all the systems of morality, ancient or modern which have come under my observation, none appears to me so pure as that of Jesus.”
  • “God who gave us life gave us liberty. And can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are a gift from God? That they are not to be violated but with His wrath? Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just, and that His justice cannot sleep forever.” (excerpts are inscribed on the walls of the Jefferson Memorial in the nations capital; Source: Merrill . D. Peterson, ed., Jefferson Writings, (New York: Literary Classics of the United States, Inc., 1984), Vol. IV, p. 289. From Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia, Query XVIII, 1781.)

Were they right? Can our liberties remain secure as the Christian faith continues its exile into the margins of American life? How can they! When we deny objective moral truths and the afterlife (and the pursuit of gratification fills the gap) we will care less about abstract and distant principles such as liberty until its disappearance begins to impinge on our pursuit of immediate gratification.

Also, this pursuit will set us against each other in competition for scarce resources, whether they are advancements, recognition, influence, pay-increases, or even legislation that will favor our side. Consequently, we will resent those competitors and wish them ill.

Even now, we are inheriting the fruitage of our values and goals – polarization, division, distrust, economic decline, and bitterness. Instead, when our lives are other-centered and not self-centered, peace, trust, and cooperation reign. When we are seeking the benefit of our neighbor, how can they argue! This pertains even to our spouses, as Alexis de Tocqueville had observed almost 200 years ago:

  • There is certainly no country in the world where the tie of marriage is so much respected as in America, or where conjugal happiness is more highly or worthily appreciated. In Europe, almost all the disturbances of society arise from the irregularities of domestic life. To despise the natural bonds and legitimate pleasures of home is to contract a taste for excesses, a restlessness of heart, and the evil of fluctuating desires. Agitated by the tumultuous passions which frequently disturb his dwelling, the European is galled by the obedience which the legislative powers of the State exact. But when the American retires from the turmoil of public life to the bosom of his family, he finds in it the image of order and of peace… While the European endeavors to forget his domestic troubles by agitating society, the American derives from his own home that love of order which he afterward carries with him into public affairs. (Democracy in American, 199)

Nor should Western society argue against the benefits of the Christian faith, but they do! Indian scholar, Vishal Mangalwadi, attempts to understand this peculiar auto-immune response:

  • This good news [of the Christian faith] became the intellectual foundation of the modern West, the force that produced moral integrity, economic prosperity, and political freedom. If moral integrity is foundational to prosperity, why don’t secular experts talk about it? The reason is that the universities no longer know whether moral laws are true universal principles or mere social conventions made up to restrict our freedoms. And why don’t they know? Economists have lost the secret of the West’s success because philosophers have lost the very idea of truth. (Truth and Transformation: A Manifesto for Ailing Nations)

Truth has died. Only self-fulfillment remains. God help us!