Front Royal, VA. “Who is the American, this new man?” Crevecoeur famously asked. Since the discovery and settlement of the continent across the Atlantic, European intellectuals have expended much energy answering this query. And ancestral political and cultural connections have made British thinkers among the most intrepid investigators of the character of these new men of the new world. With the United States’s attainment of great power status in the nineteenth century and its rise to globalism in the twentieth, however, such inquiries have become more pressing in recent times. Among British Christian writers, G.K. Chesterton was especially interested in the American prospect. He initially characterized, and criticized, the United States as the epitome of modernity, yet he also discerned a tension in American culture between modern and traditional traits. Hence, as America’s predominance in the twentieth century became more apparent, he hoped that this country could become a beacon of rebellion against modernity and an alternative to his day’s despotisms, something he considered contingent on American acceptance of a Catholic Christian ethos.
Chesterton’s ultimately hopeful views of the United States were contrary to the opinions of it usually expressed by members of the two chief intellectual heritages to
which he belonged—namely twentieth-century Catholic and Christian thinkers and British religious and romantic critics of modernity. These two traditions were generally more hostile to American civilization and more skeptical about its prospects. Comprehending Chesterton’s more distinctive attitudes toward that culture, then, will both enrich our understanding of his own social criticism and also add currently absent voices to the discourse concerning British conceptions of America.
In his early work (c. 1905-1920) Chesterton tended to depict the United States as quintessentially modern. Echoing Crevecoeur in asking “Of what nature is this people?” Chesterton responded frequently that America was “the most progressive and modern of lands,” even equating “Americanism” and “modernity.” To him this meant an America that “has really worshipped money,” one typified by millionaires who “only live in order to work,” the frenetic pace of life he associated with such “commercial anarchy,” and an “unnatural” passivity on the part of the populace when confronted with the exploitation and abuses of power by the rich. Moreover, Chesterton thought the United States exemplified the social uniformity he had portrayed as a hallmark of modern life in The Napoleon of Notting Hill (1904), and he echoed Tocqueville’s fear of the tyranny of the majority. Consequently, he was anxious about any attempts to import American norms into Britain, considering them a form of cultural treachery, as he referred sardonically to “some of our British patriots [who] would like to swamp us in the American civilization” of newspaper interests, Masonic banquets, and a general moral show of everybody minding everybody’s business.”
By so using the United States as a foil to Britain, Chesterton was asserting that unwelcome modern trends are “un-English.” In making America the exemplar of modernity, he was able to displace his discontents about his own society across the Atlantic, thus purging these evil principles and practices from England in an act of prophetic patriotism. His fears about “Americanization” hence not only reveal a xenophobia characteristic of populist thought, but they also place Chesterton within a tradition of modern British thinkers who have criticized their own culture through critiques of the United States, a heritage of projection and purgation whose core beliefs are summarized well by Martin Wiener: “America offered the least resistance to the dehumanizing tendencies of modernity; it has sold its soul to industrialism. . . . Disparagement of the ‘American way of life’ seen as the idolizing of technology and wealth-could, from this standpoint, help exorcise these spirits from English culture.”
Yet even in his early thought Chesterton did not wholly disparage American culture. For instance, he praised what he considered American society’s democratic strain; and, while conceding that sensitivity to public opinion could have the deleterious effects Tocqueville noted, Chesterton still urged Britons, “do not despise it” for “it has its uses,” especially in what he deemed an undemocratic, modern nation like Britain.” Additionally, he often commended a child-like “simplicity” in the American character. Even more importantly, Chesterton suggested that Americans shared his belief in the primacy of theory: “there is really something about the Declaration of Independence that is almost like the stone tables of the Ten Commandments.”
He asserted this tension between perceived vices and virtues in the American soul as early as 1906: “while there is no materialism so crude or so material as American materialism, there is no idealism so crude or so ideal as American idealism.” Yet in the century’s first two decades he felt unable to discern which set of traits would triumph. As he concluded in 1914,
If ever there was a place in the world where forces whose strength no one knows were coming to an utterly truceless and largely heartless struggle; where enormous riddles may at any moment answer themselves because no man can answer them . . . if ever there was a place where the task of reform was not self-evident and the future of democracy was not secure, I should say that it was in the industrial centers of the United States. . . . That all these dangers and evils are balanced by good, healthy, and tenacious elements in American civilization, I know. . . . But that is just the point; the presence of the good things makes it all the more difficult to predict with certainty than if the things were all bad.
Making such a certain prediction, however, was not a pressing concern for Chesterton at this point in his career. America’s ultimate fate lacked broad and immediate significance for him, as, at this time, he rejected “the absurd pretence that she holds the future of humanity.”
Such a conviction would seem less pretentious to him, though, following the United States’ participation in the Great War and the immediate aftermath of that conflict. Chesterton described America’s entry into the war as “like the entry of unborn mankind.” To him America was now “the youth of the world,” the shaping force of the future: “the Western democracy speaks for our daughters and our sons even more than for ourselves.” His sense of urgency about America’s role in the world only intensified at war’s end. In the post-war era, Chesterton suggested, either American or Prussian ideals would govern Western civilization. While they were “both in a sense progressive” societies, he contended, “what men call Germany is a thoroughly modern thing” that emphasizes an omnipresent, omnicompetent state, whereas America retained a reservoir of what he regarded as traditional beliefs, like democracy. Believing that Britain had adopted “Prussianism” in its reconstruction policies through measures that concentrated and augmented centralized state power—like the Education Act of 1918, the Housing Act of 1919, the Unemployment Insurance Act of 1920, and the establishment of a Ministry of Health—Chesterton in the 1920s and 1930s sought cultural correctives to the antidemocratic course he thought Britain had mistakenly adopted. It was with this mixture of hopes and fears in mind that he arrived in the United States in January, 1921.
Chesterton’s search for anti-modern models, plus the growing importance of Catholicism to his desired contemporary restoration of ancestral ideals, helped modify his view of the United States. Though he continued to associate America with many modern qualities, his firsthand observations of its culture during lecture tours in 1921 and 1930-1931 combined with his fears of Prussianization to promote greater stress on the American attributes that seemed conducive to his own social norms. He hence encouraged what he regarded as these more traditional traits in the hope that a transformed United States would become a guide to Britain and the rest of the West. Not surprisingly, though, this hope finally rested on faith.
In many respects, Chesterton still found America consummately modern during his travels there. He continued to regard it, for instance, as the exemplar of monopoly capitalism and large-scale business. To him, America was still “the largest, most vigorous, and most wealthy expression of the general modern process of Capitalism and Industrialism,” producing the “big Yankee store” that he thought menaced the small English shop, as well as remaining archetypal of the frantic pace of modern life. Additionally, he still deemed the United States a representative of modern cultural homogenization, having “a general impression of unity verging on uniformity” among its citizens; and he continued to warn about the potential tyranny of the majority. Moreover, Chesterton, like Graham Greene, contended that Americans lacked a tragic sensibility and that, although this “touch of innocence” had a “strange link with Christian humility,” it also fostered a “strange philosophy of Optimism” that “denies the actual reality of evil in experience.” Also like Greene, Chesterton considered this denial of traditional Christian doctrine “the most dismal thing about” Americans. Finally, he maintained that at least part of the country shared modernity’s purported contempt for tradition, being “proud of having no history.”
Yet he also continued to observe other characteristics in U.S. culture that were closer to his own anti-modern ideals. Initially, Chesterton elaborated on his sense that Americans believed in the primacy of theory, arguing that the country’s criteria for citizenship is ideological rather than ethnic:
America is the only nation in the world that is founded on a creed. . . . America invites all men to become citizens; but it implies the dogma that there is such a thing as citizenship. Only, so far as its primary ideal is concerned, its exclusiveness is religious, because it is not racial . . . the American may exclude a polygamist, precisely because he cannot exclude a Turk.
In Chesterton’s mind, that primary American ideal was one he had long considered threatened by modern culture: “It is the theory of equality . . . an absolute of morals by which all men have a value invariable and indestructible and a dignity as intangible as death.” While he still recognized that this emphasis on equality could promote the tyranny of the majority, Chesterton also reiterated and expanded on his belief that that “huge power of unanimity and intolerance in the soul of America” could itself be beneficial. He held that this force could defend traditional morality against what he considered the tyranny of the minority of arrogant modern faddists who disdain customary codes: “It was said that the voice of the people is the voice of God; and this at least is certain that it can be the voice of God to the wicked. . . . A voice they never knew shall tell them that his name is Leviathan, and he is lord over all children of pride.”
Chesterton similarly asserted a tempering antimodern aspect to other allegedly modern American traits. Altering his earlier view, he claimed that if the United States is personified to some extent by millionaires, it also possesses “a democratic instinct against the domination of wealth.” If its outlook is dangerously innocent, it also continues to contain the cardinal Chestertonian virtues of child-like simplicity, “wonder and gratitude.” If portions of the country are proud of having no history, in others “there are traditions and a great deal of traditionalism.” Turning to history to localize these impressions, Chesterton depicted the antebellum South as the best representative of American resistance to modernity, making it a social order “with which I have a great deal of sympathy.” To him this “rural civilization” had possessed a “true tradition” that favored “local liberties, and even a revolt on behalf of local liberties” and that distrusted “the huge machine of centralized power called the Union.” Even its most peculiar institution was “nobler” to him than “the Northern slavery, industrial slavery.” Most tellingly, he concluded that “Old England can still be faintly traced in Old Dixie. It contains some of the best things England herself has had, and therefore (of course) the things England herself has lost, or is trying to lose . . . there was something very like Old England in the South. Relatively speaking, there is still.”
As this passage indicates, Chesterton’s more nuanced later view of the United States also shaped his employment of it as a comparative for Britain. He continued to use America’s course as a warning to his native land by pointing to the triumph of the industrial North over the agrarian South, plus what he considered its growing social ethos of conformity. But he also suggested that Britons could profit by imitating the United States’ purported egalitarianism, populism, republicanism, intellectual vitality, and greater willingness to challenge governmental authority. He even went so far as to conclude that “Americanization” in Britain was really a process of re-commitment to ideals that had originated in Britain, had been adopted partially by Americans, and were now being selectively re-imported from the former colony: “In the mere worship of machinery, in the mere worship of money, in the headlong materialism that invests and exploits with blind optimism . . . it was England that originally involved the world in this doubtful and dangerous departure from the traditions of Europe.” Hence, as “it is only American vices that we are intent on imitating,” but since “the real American evil is not so much the result of breaking away from England as of its having remained only too English,” Chesterton contended that “while I should heartily support an Englishman resisting the Americanization of England, I am not quite sure whether what he resists was not originally the Anglicizing of America.”
Chesterton could thus claim that “I hate Americanization and do not hate America,” for he believed that American culture contained anti-modern components that could be nurtured to promote a beneficent form of Americanization, one that would be an antidote to post-war Prussianization. He argued that “America, instead of being the open agricultural commonwealth for which its founders hoped, has become the dumping-ground of all the most dismal ideas of decaying epochs in Europe, from Calvinism to industrialism.” Specifically, he continued to discern a tension between American materialism and idealism, but he now specified the nature of that conflict between the United States’s economic system and its political principles, referring to “the modern thing called industrialism” and “the very ancient thing called democracy.”
Industrial capitalism and ideal democracy are everywhere in controversy; but perhaps only here are they in conflict. . . . [E]quality is still the ideal though no longer the reality of America. . . . [T]he reality of modern capitalism is menacing that ideal with terrors and even splendors that might well stagger the wavering and impressionable modern spirit. Upon the issue of that struggle depends the question of whether this new great civilization continues to exist, and even whether any one cares if it exists or not.
But whereas Chesterton had previously been agnostic about this conflict’s outcome, he was now optimistic about what he regarded as a favorable resolution. He argued that even American materialism is leavened by egalitarian notions and, more significantly, that the U.S. contained an embryonic peasantry, something he deemed essential for democracy, for “exactly in so far as men are villagers, men are democrats: a peasantry is hidden in the heart of America. . . . It is rather an open secret; covering only some thousand miles of open prairie . . . where all those acres are is agriculture, and where all that agriculture is there is considerable tendency towards distributive or decently equalized property, as in a peasantry. He held that “in so far as America retains certain rural truths and traditions,” it will “survive and succeed”; and he thought this an increasingly likely prospect in his day, as “America now contains a considerable amount of revolt against Americanism.”
Though somewhat inconsistent on this point, Chesterton generally maintained at this juncture in his career that the Distributist ideal was ascendant: “the broad daylight of tradition and ancient truth is coming to end all this delightful nightmare of New York at night. Peasants and priests and all sorts of practical and sensible people are coming back into power . . . the turn of the world has come, and the turn of the agricultural countries with it.” He thought that the world-wide economic downturn that culminated in the Great Depression had proved industrialism a failure, making it possible that “the original village virtues of the real republicans of America . . . may emerge again as they never emerged during the brief and brittle illusion of a merely vulgar prosperity.” He consequently concluded that if Distributist democracy succeeded in the United States, that country could model anti-modern rebellion to other nations, not least its mother-country: “I think that crossless flag may yet become a symbol of something; by whose stars we are illumined, and by whose stripes we are healed.”
As this use of prophetic and religious rhetoric implies, Chesterton believed that America’s conversion to his social ideal depended on another kind of conversion. He argued that “there is no basis for democracy except in a dogma about the divine origin of man.” He asserted that modern intellectual trends like Darwinism, Social Darwinism, skepticism, and relativism had undermined secular rationales for equality—along with the religions that had attempted to accommodate these ideas—by emphasizing the inequality of nature. But he thought one form of religion had remained staunch in defending the ancient belief that men are equal in the order of grace as equally beloved children of God: “against all this irresistible force stood one immovable post. . . . The dogmatic type of Christianity, especially the Catholic type of Christianity, had riveted itself irrevocably to the manhood of all men. Where its faith was fixed by creeds and councils it could not save itself even by surrender.” Chesterton hence concluded that democracy’s one lasting foundation was Catholicism, and he stressed further that “peasant societies carry on what may be called the Catholic tradition.”
Not unexpectedly, then, Chesterton claimed that the “real disadvantage of American civilization . . . lay in the relation between culture and creed.” In particular he argued that what he considered the Calvinist creedal foundation of American culture not only fostered virtues favorable to industrial capitalism but also inhibited egalitarian democracy through its theological emphasis on a predestined division between elect and damned. To him “the spiritual vision was not wide enough for the breadth and variety of the brotherhood that was to be established among men. . . . Their religion was not republican enough; it was not common enough for a Commonwealth. And so at last religion surrendered to the trick of trade.” Chesterton explained America’s inability to develop a peasantry fully in these terms: “the defect by which they fall short of being a true peasantry is that they do not produce their own spiritual food”; and his recommendation for remedying that ostensible failing and creating a Distributist democracy in the United States was stark: “So far as that democracy becomes or remains Catholic and Christian, that democracy will remain democratic. In so far as it does not, it will become wildly and wickedly undemocratic.” He concluded confidently that “Americans of intelligence” were becoming increasingly conscious of this choice and were exhibiting “an enthusiasm for the Catholic creed.” Nor did this assessment wane substantially with Al Smith’s 1928 defeat. While Chesterton acknowledged anti-Catholic bigotry as a significant force in American culture, his reiterations of America’s potentially redemptive role during the 1930s suggests that he thought this prejudice was not insurmountable.
Yet Chesterton’s hopes for the United States were too high. His sense of his ideal’s strength, both generally and in America, was clearly exaggerated; and his belief that only Catholicism could sustain it was not shared by others, like the Southern Agrarians, who were influenced in other ways by Chesterton’s distributism and offered cognate models of social reconstruction. Nonetheless, while he often saw what he wanted to see in America, Chesterton’s later view of this country still reveals much about the course of his thought during this period. His fears that Britain was dishonoring the sacrifice of those (like his brother Cecil) who had died to defeat “Prussianism,” along with his hopes that American post-war power could serve what he considered more traditional ideals, reveals not only a sharpened sense of the perils of modern political ideologies and what is required to refute them but also an acceptance of Britain’s secondary status in the inter-war world. Moreover, although he had not yet become a Roman Catholic formally when he reflected on his first visit to America, his tight yoking of dogmatic Catholicism to distributism in those musings demonstrates how close to Rome he was in spirit at this time as well as the growing synergy between his sacred and secular solutions. The fact that he separated himself from other anti-modern thinkers who remained more critical of the United States during these years, as well as from contemporaneous Catholic and Christian skeptics like Douglas Woodruff, demonstrates the depth both of Chesterton’s concern about Western civilization’s direction and of his faith in Catholic Christianity’s redemptive power.
Peter Conrad has contended that “to the European, the enchantment of America is the variegation of its reality. . . . The reality of America is selective, optional, fantastic; there is an America for each of us.” The Americas that enchanted G.K. Chesterton were protean in just this way. Seen from one perspective, the United States was the incarnation of all they found meretricious in modernity; from another, it was the best opportunity for overcoming the tyrannies of their respective times. The former view predominated in his imagination initially, as the power of forces he feared seemed to grow along with America’s power while Britain’s waned. He became increasingly convinced, however, that the United States could— and would—respond favorably to the appeal of what he considered a universal faith. Hence, to Chesterton, America was not simply “the last best hope or an awful warning and a cautionary tale.” Rather, it contained both wheat and tares, with a fruitful harvest depending on whether the good seed was sown in rich cultural soil.
Yet that ground remained rocky when it came to Chesterton’s hopes for a Distributist democracy. Despite having some seminal influence in certain circles, his views did not attain wide or enduring cultural currency. Even many of those who agreed that American culture lacked a proper religious basis were not convinced that Catholicism was that fitting foundation. Moreover, several twentieth century British thinkers who also had a redemptive image of America conceived those portraits in private and personal terms rather than articulating the kind of social and public vision voiced by Chesterton. While there is some evidence that John Paul II saw a potentially positive alliance between Catholicism and America’s core political principles, other commentators have noted a growing tendency by American Catholics to accommodate modernity. Patrick Allitt’s judgment is thus sound: among Americans including American Catholics—there has been “little patience with fanciful convert schemes such as economic distributism or the finer points of Catholic cultural studies.”
Chesterton’s practical shortfalls, however, do not diminish the intellectual or historical significance of his efforts. Their depictions of America illustrate the depth of his challenge to modernity, the extent to which his religious beliefs shaped his social criticism, and his willingness to take stands at odds with otherwise like-minded observers. Chesterton thus helped establish a distinct standpoint from which to view the new American man and so answer Crevecoeur’s question. What he finally saw in America was a land of hope, one that could be a light unto the nations by being dedicated to the proposition that the power and the glory belong to that kingdom not of this world.
Adapted from “What They Saw in America: G.K. Chesterton’s and Christopher Dawson’s Views of the United States,” which first appeared in Faith
& Reason: The Journal of Christendom College, Vol. XXVIII, No. 1 (Spring 2003) and which was originally delivered at the 1998 annual meeting of the
American Chesterton Society (University of St. Thomas, St. Paul, MN). Used with permission.