The Course of American Democratic Thought

By Ralph Henry Gabriel; Robert H. Walker | Go to book overview

Chapter 7
NATIONALISM, DETERMINISM, AND THE DEMOCRATIC FAITH

DEMOCRACY, LIKE MONARCHY, is always an aspect of a particular culture. What is called democracy in Great Britain varies from that in the United States, because democratic practices and ideas are conditioned by the culture of which they are a part. Democracy has little meaning when divorced from a particular nationality; it is a culture trait which distinguishes from others the national group which professes it.

The culminating doctrine of the American democratic faith was that of mission. The tenet was an expression of nationalistic consciousness. It did not achieve developed form until after the Treaty of Ghent had put an end to the secessionist movement in New England, and Waterloo had terminated the danger of further embroilment in Europe. As Americans faced the West and centered their energies in the building of a nation, Monroe announced in 1821 his famous doctrine of aloofness. Sixteen years later Emerson in his Phi Beta Kappa address held up the ideal of national intellectual independence. He affirmed with his contemporaries that the American democratic principles were the nation's most important contribution to the civilization of the world.

On the surface the democratic faith of the Middle Period appeared to be a consistent pattern of harmonious doctrines. Hidden within it, however, were some of the oldest issues of human thinking. How free is the free individual? Calvin had answered the question with his theistic determinism, a reply which mid-nineteenth- century American democrats had instintively rejected. Melville, when he called Ahab Fate's lieutenant, had affirmed a naturalistic determinism. Melville was exiled to the customs house. But the

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