The Three Pillars of American Civilization

When, exactly, did the civilizational collapse that we see underway today get started? Apart from the 1960s, one obvious earlier turning point is the 1920s. Like the ‘60s, the ‘20s were a period of social liberation and rebellion and were marked by the effects of American involvement in a foreign war. As is frequently remarked, the carnage of World War I shattered the faith of many white Westerners in their own civilization. America, unsure of what role to play and geographically distant from the conflict, emerged physically and emotionally intact, but was still profoundly altered by the experience.

In the 1920s, too, the deep changes that took place in American culture had been preceded by decades of the weakening of the foundational beliefs of our society. An excellent reference for understanding how this process may have taken place, at least in the realm of ideas, is The End of American Innocence: A Study of the First Years of Our Own Time: 1912-1917, by Henry F. May (1959; there is also a 1994 edition). May provides an exhaustive discussion of the cultural trends of this brief period, showing that challenges to conservative social institutions, traditional morality, and conventional political processes were well under way even before World War I. It is fascinating as well as disturbing to learn how clear the signs were, even at this early stage, that a profound shift in our culture was taking place.

That some were aware that this shift was happening is demonstrated in the epigram, a quote by George Santayana from 1913: “The present age is a critical one and interesting to live in. The civilization characteristic of Christendom has not yet disappeared, yet another civilization has begun to take its place.” What was the nature of the American portion of Christendom? According to May, in 1912, almost all Americans were in agreement about “three central doctrines” of American civilization. These were: morality, progress, and culture.

May summarizes the American faith in morality characteristic of the time as follows:

The first and central article of faith in the national credo was, as it always had been, the reality, certainty, and eternity of moral values. Words like truth, justice, patriotism, unselfishness, and decency were used constantly, without embarrassment, and ordinarily without any suggestion that their meaning might be only of a time and place. This central commitment entailed several corollaries, often stated and still more often taken for granted. First, most Americans were still certain that moral judgments applied with equal sureness in literature, art, politics, and all other areas. Second, it seemed clear that such judgments could be and must be applied not only to the conduct of individuals but also to the doings of trusts and labor unions, cities and nations. Finally, and this was perhaps the most often stated corollary of all, the United States, as the leader in moral progress, had a special responsibility for moral judgment, even of herself. (p. 9-10)

America’s moralism set her apart from Europe. May mentions as an example the outraged response of Americans in 1906 when they learned that the Russian writer Maxim Gorky had traveled to America with a woman who was not his wife, as detailed here. The power of public moral disapproval at the time is almost unbelievable today. At the same time, as in Europe, new doctrines, including Darwinian evolutionary science and Freudian psychology, were leading some to question the traditional moral verities, especially on sexual matters. The prewar period, in this book, appears more or less as a light period of rebellion which prefigured a much more widespread rebellion in the 1920s.

Early 20th-century America was also the land of progress. May describes the problem of this second American credo as follows:

…the most crucial task for American thinkers was to reconcile a belief in eternal moral truth with the belief in the desirability of change. In the long run this was to prove, as many Victorians had suspected, the weak point in the nineteenth-century faith. In 1912, though, the link between moralism and progress seemed not only firm but inevitable. Good was eternal, but yet developing. The progress of the world was the chief proof of its underlying goodness; the eternal moral truths pointed out a direction for social change.

The idea of progress, according to May, was descriptive: most people at the time believed the world was getting better. It was also prescriptive: working to improve the material and moral condition of society was considered a high imperative. As a result, the era’s unprecedented technological and economic development was accompanied by a variety of movements to root out corruption, waste, and injustice in society. This Progressive movement left as its legacy the income tax, woman suffrage, modern education, Prohibition, and regulation of food, medicine, and industry.

While what was achieved was often laudable, one can see potential problems in the notions of progress prevalent at the time. There was a danger of excessive reliance on governmental regulation and intervention to deal with social ills. More importantly, the idea of “progress” itself could become a kind of civic religion: a belief system that might be pursued to the point of causing real harm, and a faith that might be shattered by real social catastrophes such as World War I. I believe that we can see, in the early 20th century view of progress, an early incarnation of contemporary American liberalism.

The third doctrine of American civilization was the transmission and defense of culture, particularly literary culture. This claim sounds surprising today, and not only because we get most of our entertainment and information from TV, film, and computers. Even those who enjoy literature and art do not generally link this interest with such causes as “civilization” or “morality.” It is hard to imagine that a conservative literary establishment once existed which had real power and which the brightest and best young men sought to join, or challenge. But so it was in America in 1912.

Culture, to most Americans in 1912, did not mean what it was beginning to mean to anthropologists, the sum of a particular area’s customs and institutions. It was not so much a way of describing how people behaved as an idea of how they ought to behave and did not. More specifically, culture in America meant a particular part of the heritage from the European past, including polite manners, respect for traditional learning, appreciation of the arts, and above all an informed and devoted love of standard literature. Standard usually meant British: culture might imply a vague knowledge of the classical and Renaissance tradition, but for the most part it was something that had come via England. This was part of the trouble; Americans for a long time had wanted to construct their own tradition, yet the European and English past was the only past that was available. (p. 30)

May describes faith in “culture” as the weakest of the three faiths, and much of his book is devoted to chronicling the chipping away at the standards and beliefs of the American cultural establishment. Among intellectuals, we meet H.L. Mencken, Walter Lippmann, and others attacking conventional morality (Lippmann: “no moral judgment can decide the value of Life. No ethical theory can announce any intrinsic good…”). Every poet and novelist of the era seems to have been subverting, whether congenially or aggressively, the artistic and moral conventions of the day. (Among those discussed are Sherwood Anderson, Edgar Lee Masters, T.S. Eliot, Amy Lowell, Ezra Pound, Vachel Lindsay, and Carl Sandburg).

The issues raised by this survey of early 20th century American culture are difficult and troubling for an American traditionalist. One sobering fact the book highlights is the very long history and deep-rooted nature of American liberalism. From the late 19th century onward, a “progressive” current can be found in the thought of virtually every American writer or intellectual. The cultural pillar of our modern civilization has a liberal component that cannot be separated out. This is the source of the tension that often arises for the traditionalist in dealing with the classic American writers: the majority of them ARE, in some sense, liberal. In trying to enlist their thoughts in service of American civilization, it thus becomes necessary to sort carefully through their spoken and unspoken assumptions and decide what we want to keep and what to get rid of. Of course, more “conservative” literature can no doubt be found if we plumb the old newspapers, sermons, etc., but the mainstream has long been liberal. Even in the realm of religion, the Social Gospel favored by the middle class prefigured today’s liberal Christianity.

The pillar of traditional morality is certainly one that needs to be restored to our society; but we will have to separate it once and for all from the other pillar, that of progress. It is no longer possible for us to see America as “the leader in moral progress,” a conceit which has made us blind to the real moral decline in our society and susceptible to believing that our supposed moral goodness can serve to defend us from enemies and invaders. Russell Kirk explains the conservative mistrust of the idea of a “mystical Progress, with a Roman P,” as follows:

When a society is progressing in some respects, usually it is declining in other respects. The conservative knows that any healthy society is influenced by two forces, which Samuel Taylor Coleridge called its Permanence and its Progression. The Permanence of a society is formed by those enduring interests and convictions that give us stability and continuity; without that Permanence, the fountains of the great deep are broken up, society slipping into anarchy. The Progression in a society is that spirit and that body of talents which urge us on to prudent reform and improvement; without that Progression, a people stagnate.

May devotes little space to discussing the issues of race, immigration, and religion that have proven, nearly 100 years later, to be the realms where the life or death of our civilization would be determined. In fact, the issues of today were all prefigured in early 20th century America, but their impact on the national life, serious as it was, was eminently manageable compared to today’s situation. Eastern European and Jewish immigration, fueled, as today, by a demand for cheap labor, deeply disturbed some, like Henry James, who “had found a trip to Ellis Island a profound shock; he could not get over, let alone accept, the ‘claim of the alien, however immeasurably alien, to share in one’s supreme relation.’” Others, like Harvard president Charles W. Eliot, believed the newcomers could be assimilated. The entire cultural establishment agreed, however, that America was an “Anglo-Saxon” civilization. As for blacks, a kind of complacency about their inferior condition seems to have been the rule for the era, based on the belief that they had proven themselves unequal to the opportunity emancipation had granted them:

Most believers in idealism and progress had concluded, with varying degrees of regret, that Negro equality was an impossible dream. It was to be a long time before the Negro himself was to be in a position for revolt, but his exclusion impaired the whole cheerful picture. Soon some young rebels were to notice this dangerous exception. (p. 122-3)

Obviously, neither the amazing partial successes nor the devastating, intractable failures of the later attempt to fully integrate blacks into American society could have been imagined a century ago.

One final thing to note about the progressive intellectuals of early 20th century America: most of them are virtually forgotten today. The great revolutionary European thinkers, like Marx and Nietzsche, still appear in college courses; but the writings of Lippmann or even Woodrow Wilson are little read today. In working, in their various ways, to manage, change, and level American society, breaking it open for radicals who disdained rational dialogue and aliens who sought raw power, could it be that these men, many of them brilliant, ensured their own obsolescence? In any event, retracing the steps some of them took may help us to understand how we arrived where we are now.


7 Responses to The Three Pillars of American Civilization

  1. Terry Morris says:

    Merry Christmas, Stephen. I always enjoy reading your excellent blogs!

  2. Rick Darby says:


    Your — or your and May’s — analysis of the roots of our present distress rings true. Two turning points should be especially emphasized: one a clear historical event, the other a more nebulous but just as critical switch.

    The first was the Great War. It didn’t leave Americans as immediately shattered, culturally and emotionally, as it did the European combatants. But it was the first time that a fairly large contingent of young American men of all social classes went to Europe, and opened the country to ideas and ideologies from a broken and cynical continent. American artists and intellectuals in particular, some of whom moved to Paris or traveled in France, Germany, and England absorbed the zeitgeist firsthand, and brought it back with them eventually.

    The other phenomenon was the transformation of the idea of Progress. To the Americans of the late 19th century, progress was wrapped up in notions of moral progress. At some point, Progress was divested of its moral component and became a faith in technique, which is still with us. We’re not as glib about it as we used to be, platitudes about the dangers of weapons and weaponized diseases of mass destruction roll off our tongues, but we have found no substitute for technology as the answer to our problems and the source of our happiness.

    The idealistic pronouncements when the United Nations was founded at the end of the Second World War were the last breath of belief in moral progress. Today the words die on our lips. What has become of the United Nations symbolizes why.

    If we could only fuse moral, or if you prefer, spiritual progress with a sensible use of technology to improve the material comforts of life … but I’m dreaming, aren’t I.

  3. stephenhopewell says:


    Thank you for your comments. The traditionalist spin is mine, not May’s; he seems to have been generally liberal, but gives a very moderate and objective presentation of the sort one can find in pre-1960s writings. His conclusion is basically that the 1912 cultural establishment was on shaky ground due to being partially founded on class interest, and on not being able to defend its position against various social and philosophical onslaughts, including the movement for black equality. He discusses the European connection quite a bit; even before WWI the ideas of Nietzsche, Freud, and others were making a substantial impact on the culture, and it makes sense that the wartime and post-war experience dramatically amplified that effect, as you describe.

    Your statement about how the idea of progress was “divested of its moral component and became a faith in technique” seems an exceedingly apt description of what happened after WWII. In retrospect, the period of optimism about democracy and technology in the 1950s began to go bad extremely quickly! Nowadays it seems to me we act AS IF we still have faith in technological progress but don’t believe in it anymore in our hearts, what with our living environment, culture, services, and security all in obvious decline even as technology improves dramatically.

    I guess I am taking the conservative/Christian view of man being inherently morally flawed and therefore for society needing to use force as appropriate to punish and prevent crime and immorality. I don’t know if it’s possible for society as a whole to “progress” morally – though individuals can do so – since man’s potential for evil never goes away. Therefore it seems to me moral “progress” only occurs in a particular context; for example, scientific knowledge about mental illness might lead us to refine how we make some moral judgments, for the better, but this in turn can be abused, as it is today. A morally superior society would simply be one that as a society generally rewards and punishes the right things and enables most decent people to have good lives.

  4. Hannon says:

    Merry Christmas and thank you for another thought-provoking essay. Some of the basic themes here reminded me immediately of the thesis of the book “Generations” (Strauss & Howe, about 1992). As you may know they write about four alternating social periods in American history that coincide with four alternating and causal generation types. According to the authors the same cycle has repeated in the same sequence since the Founding. It is a fascinating read and has shaped my thinking about this country– or rather brought it a manageable framework.

    The generation idea is not new but is refined in their book. They talk about the “Third Great Awakening” or Missionary Awakening in 1886-1908. This period corresponds to the spiritual paroxysm of the 1960s-1970s. During both these unsettled periods the ‘establishment’ and its cultural mores and morality came under duress. This was the time of the Haymarket calamity and the forging of unions, so it makes sense that liberalism flared more brightly– and formatively– than usual. Whether the spiritual aspect was as flaky as it was in the 1960s I’m not sure.

    If one takes stock in the general idea it goes a long way I think to providing insight into various cycles and expressions of morality, culture shift and changes in the national character, at least as it appears by surface indications.

    NB: According to Strauss & Howe, the height of Baby Boomer power in Congress with be in the coming decade. If history is any indication, the life changes they indicate for this generation type (from liberal to conservative in certain ways) does not portend a peaceful decade.

  5. stephenhopewell says:


    Thank you for the comments and a Merry Christmas to you. I have not read Generations but it does sound helpful in understanding the subject at hand. May had traced the social chaos to before the 20s, and Generations shows in turn how those changes were rooted in events of the 1880s and 90s.

    Of course, the present demographic (and other) changes are so drastic that I would question how much a “cycle” paradigm is helpful for understanding them. You know, as in the articles where they are comparing Obama to some earlier president or the current immigration situation to an earlier one, etc.

    I will try to get hold of the book though and see if I can use it in a future article.

  6. […] terms of the Three Pillars of American Civilization, Carol’s faith is in Culture. For her, literature, plays, and public architecture are needed to […]

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