October 8, 2011
AMERICA'S MESSIANIC DREAM
David Brion Davis, Revolutions: Reflections on American Equality and Foreign Liberations (Cambridge, Massachusetts, & London, England, 1990) ("How are we to interpret the response of the United States, over the course of two centuries, to foreign revolutions? If we still cling to remnants of our old national messianic dream, we may ask why it is that a nation created by revolution, a nation whose first president ceremoniously received the key to the fallen Bastille as the 'early trophy,' in Thomas Paine's words, 'of the Spoils of Despotism and the first ripe fruits of American principles transplanted into Europe'--why such a nation should become in time the world's leading adversary of popular revolutions, the neo-Metternichian supporter of such reactionary leaders as Fulgencio Batista y Zaldivar of Cuba, Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines, Mohammed Riza Pahlavi of Iran, Ngo Dinh Diem of South Vietnam, Anastasio Somoza Debayle of Nicaragua, Francois Duvalier of Haiti, and Augusto Pinochet Ugarte of Chile?" Id. at 3. "In an earlier chapter [Tocqueville] had also noted that in the 1790s, 'only Washington's immense popularity' had prevented the popular feeling and passion favoring the French Revolution from plunging the nation into war with England, contrary to common sense and obvious national interest." "There is much wisdom in these observation. But reflecting on his visit of 1831, Tocqueville could not foresee the class, ethnic, and ideological differences that would divide Americans over the Mexican War, the Revolution of 1848, and the consequences of industrialization. His dependence on John Marshall's Life of Washington prevented him from seeing that there was more than irrational feelings behind American sympathies with the French revolution, which few Frenchmen could perceive as a direct consequence of the American Revolution. Tocqueville could never really grasp the significance of America's messianic mission, even though he contributed to it in ways that extended from Catharine Beecher's vision of the rile of American women in the foreign policy of Woodrow Wilson and the neo-Tocquevilleans of the 1950s and 1960s. By messianic mission I mean the desire to regenerate the United States by making the it the model for revolutionary movements throughout the world. . . . " Id. at 79-80. "Foreign revolutions have helped Americans to tune or adjust the inevitable tension between changing ideals of perfection and present reality. Without a sense of new possibilities in history, without evidence that arrogance and oppression can sometimes be overthrown, the cello strings of American democracy might easily have lost all their capacity for sound. We no longer have time for self-righteousness, cynicism, or the pretense that we have played no part in the twentieth-century's crimes. . . ." Id. at 85. As so it goes.).