IN THE MIDDLE YEARS of the twentieth century, Americans were attempting to adjust their thinking to the possession of vast power and to the responsibilities that went with it. They had carried the battle in a global war. They had then guarded and aided ancient nations, wounded and endangered by a rampant communist totalitarianism. In World War II and in the years immediately following it Americans, with the aid of their allies, had preserved for the time being the principles of human freedom and dignity whose formulation had been the greatest consummation of Western civilization. Scarcely more than three centuries before these momentous events the first Englishmen had built at Jamestown their habitations and a church. In the twentieth century the center of power in Western civilization had moved across the Atlantic to rest with a people who had so recently originated in an outthrust of Europe.
No one can grasp the full power and meaning of this new America, so suddenly come into being. The story of the rise of the United States and of the evolution of the American variant of Western civilization resembles a tall tale of the frontier. Perhaps for this reason, perhaps because of the conditions and contingencies of an age of revolution and violence, mid-twentieth-century Americans have more and more looked backward for understanding to the origins of their institutions.
Every civilization rests on a body of knowledge and changes as that knowledge grows. American history began in that seventeenth century in which Western men first mastered the method of science. The story of American culture has paced with that of science. The trench of the archeologist cuts through two, sometimes three or more culture levels, each distinguishable by its artifacts. The historian finds something analogous to culture levels in the evolving civilization of the United States. The eighteenth-century scythe and spinning wheel suggest a culture in the handicraft stage. The millstones lying in creek beds below broken masonry dams imply the crude nineteenth-century beginnings of modern industrialism. The assembly line characterized the first half of the twentieth century as the nuclear reactor does its second half. These changing artifacts