Is America an Experiment?

Bill McClay holds the Sun Trust Bank Chair of Excellence in Humanities at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, where he’s also professor of history. Before Tennessee, he taught at Georgetown, Tulane, Johns Hopkins, and the University of Dallas.  He is a senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington; a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy center, again in DC; and he serves on the National Council on the Humanities, which is the advisory board for the National Endowment for the Humanities.  Professor McClay  addressed an American Experiment Forum on January 17, 2008.

Wilfred M. McClay: A visit to one of the great American historical sites helps us remember our origins, and thereby remember a part of who we are. Whenever one visits a reconstructed colonial American setting – and here I am thinking not only of a relatively elegant town like Williamsburg, but also of somewhat more spare or rugged places such as Jamestown or Old Sturbridge Village or Plimouth Plantation or St. Mary’s City – one is forcibly reminded of the tentativeness and fragility of the entire American undertaking.

That impression follows one even into the more famous venues. Go to Independence Hall in Philadelphia, Faneuil Hall or the Old North Church in Boston, the Old Senate Chamber at the State House in Annapolis. All are lovely, well-kept sites. Yet one is struck not by their grandeur, but their tininess, their almost self-effacing modesty. Even the most jaded among us may feel compelled to pause for a moment, and ponder the astounding fact that a nation so colossal could have grown from seeds so small. When one thinks about the chaotic and tumultuous social history of Jamestown and early Virginia, or contemplates the half-mad audacity of the New England Puritans, who were convinced that their lonely adventure huddled together in a remote and frigid wilderness was a divinely appointed mission of world-historical importance, one does not sense historical inevitability or destiny. Far from it. The longer and more deeply one studies the American past, the easier it is to imagine that matters could have turned out very differently. It’s easier to see America not as a land of destiny but as something tentative, fragile. As an experiment.

This sense of America as an experiment was also well expressed by Ralph Waldo Emerson, in his famous address on “The American Scholar” in 1837, when he complained that “we have listened too long to the courtly muses of Europe.” By speaking of “courtly” muses, Emerson wished to remind his listeners of the fiercely anti-monarchical and anti-aristocratic premises undergirding American political life. But the thrust of his remarks went deeper. It urged would-be American writers to find their own way, and treat their European heritage not as a sacred legacy but as an exploitable (and dispensable) resource. And in a different but complementary way, the influential American historian Frederick Jackson Turner propounded a theory of American origins that discounted the “germs” of European culture, and instead found the genius of American democracy arising directly out of the life of the American frontier. Either of these views was likely to lend considerable support to the idea of America as a land of experiment: an ever-unfolding enterprise that was not tied down to any enduring principles or precepts or institutions drawn from the past, but was instead committed to an understanding of human life as open-ended improvisation and unfettered exploration, a perpetual trial-and-error undertaking.