Reading and thinking about history lately, it seems to me that a lot of Americans seem to gloss over certain key points about our country. We have a tendency either to forget the very peculiar circumstances of our own history and the consequent effects it must have had on our national development and mindset, or else to simply hold them up as yet another point of pride. In neither case do we look at them objectively to actually consider what they mean.
None of the below are meant to be criticisms, by the way, nor are they meant to be praises; just reminders. A judicious recollection of the facts, I think, is useful whatever conclusions we draw from it. Also, I don’t address obvious and well-trod points, like that we never had an explicit state religion or social hierarchy. And many of these points also apply to a greater or lesser degree to other former British Colonies (Canada, Australia, South Africa, etc.), though I don’t think in quite the same way owing to our differing histories.
1. We are a man-made nation
We are so used to this that we hardly even realize how rare it is in the annals of human history.
No one founded England. Different tribes and groups of people migrated there, settled, fought, intermarried, and slowly formed a kind of common culture. This was then further cultivated by conquest, Christianization, and slowly united by shared historical events and dynastic consolidation. England has no founding date: it grew up organically out of the people living there. The same thing with France, Spain, Germany, Japan, Russia, China, and so on.
But the United States has a definite birthdate. It began as a collection of colonies, and at a particular point of history a particular group of men willed them to become an independent nation according to a particular pattern that they created (though of course not entirely, as it was still based on customs and laws either imported from the mother nation or organically grown prior to the revolution, but the point is that the structure of the new nation and its identity were created at the will of certain men according to certain patterns where they did not exist before).
2. We are a transplanted nation
On a similar note, America is almost unique among the nations – again, apart from a few other former colonies like Australia and Canada – in that it was formed and governed from the outset almost entirely by relatively recent arrivals to the territory; men whose roots lay in foreign soils. The Indian Tribes formed little to no part in the American founding, and were regarded by the new nation as foreign powers. This is in contrast with places like Mexico, where the native population was partially absorbed and integrated into the colonial power, or India, where the native populations assumed government after independence.
3. We were never Catholic
America is the only major western power to have never had a Catholic period of its development, save in a few distinct areas such as southern Louisiana, Florida, California and the other former Mexican states, and Maryland. Even in those regions, most of them were only sparsely settled by the time the Protestant juggernaut absorbed them (and Maryland became majority Protestant very early on). In any case, these regions were too small to affect a serious influence on the country as a whole, whose mental makeup was originally and has always been Protestant to the extent it has been Christian.
4. We have never experienced a change of government
While it is true that our current system bears little resemblance in practical terms to that envisioned by the founders, these changes have been gradual and incremental, and, more importantly, have never involved a shift in self-perception. Conservative Americans still look to the Founding Fathers and the Constitution as their guiding light, still imagine the country to have essentially the same form of government as it had in 1789, and we still consider the President to be in line of succession to George Washington, a line that has never been interrupted. After the institution of the Constitution in 1788, the United States has never changed its government, and what is perhaps more significant, it has never even experienced a serious and acknowledged attempt to do so.
Even in our Civil War, both sides fundamentally agreed on the form of government: the Union and Confederacy both had a Constitution, a President, a congress, and essentially the same self-image as a liberal, representative republic. The conflict was over application of that principle.
Again, we hardly realize how unusual this is. A Frenchman could look back on his history and see Feudal Monarchy, Absolute Monarchy, Republic, Empire, Constitutional Monarchy, Republic, and so on one after another, with innumerable rebellions, uprisings, wars, and efforts to change or re-instate one or the other. The same thing with Mexico, England, Germany, Spain, Russia, and so on, but not of the United States. We have never known our country under any form of government besides that which we have.
5. For most of our history, we had no serious foreign rival
Bounded by oceans on the east and west, with our northern neighbor a culturally kindred colony of our mother country and our southern neighbor being both largely cut off from us by desert and wilderness and struggling with internal troubles for most of its history, America did not have a serious foreign rival from at least the end of the War of 1812 until the middle of the 20th century (that is to say, during our period of greatest growth and development). Even in the days immediately after the Revolution, Great Britain was too culturally similar and too much dominated by philosophically kindred leaders to be a very serious antagonist to the young nation, and what enmity we had rapidly evaporated following the two conflicts.
In any case, the United States grew up and expanded for most of its history with no real foreign rivals; certainly none that could pose an immediate threat. There was no Turkish menace at the gates, no old dynastic rivalries, no enemy religious states as among the nations of Old Christendom. Our greatest conflict during that time was when different states took up arms against each other. Apart from that, we had wars with the Indian Tribes, who were militarily no threat to us as a nation, confidently snatched up territory from Mexico and Spain, illustrating how little of a threat either posed to us, and later were drawn into conflict with Imperial Germany (which had absolutely no means of threatening us), largely on account of our alliance with Great Britain.
But until the rise of the Soviet Union (or, arguably, Imperial Japan), the United States did not have a serious international opponent; one that posed a genuine threat or which could be expected to oppose us on principle.
6. Our entire life, as a nation, has been during the social and material height of post-reformation Christendom
This one is kind of interesting. The United States, as an independent nation, came into being over the course of the 1770s and 1780s, the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, technological expansion, and the birth of a global society. We of course fully participated in the subsequent development of this trend. But the important point is that we have never known anything else. Of course, we’ve had our frontier for most of our history where something like a pre-industrial society was carried on, and we were majority agrarian for most of our history. But as a nation, we have never experienced a non-industrialized, non-civilized world. America has never known a time without a moneyed economy, a literate population, international trade, or well-established cities. Ironically enough you could put it that we had no ‘wild west’ period.
That is to say, we of course had our ‘wild west’, but it was localized (distinct areas over different periods of time; never the general experience of the nation as a whole), short-lived, and it was almost at once connected with civilization at large (railroads crossed the continent without a hundred years of the founding). Our Wild West was never a necessary condition that had to be accounted for by the structure of our society; it was always regarded as a transitory state while lands were being settled.
Much of Old Christendom, on the other hand, had to live on a ‘wild west’ basis (e.g. primarily localized authority, continual danger both natural and human, very few cities, limited trade and communication, etc.) for centuries at a time. It was and had to be an assumed, established state of affairs rather than a transitory one.
Though at the same time, Europe’s ‘wild west’ period was mostly on lands long settled and often formerly civilized, while America’s far briefer experience was on lands that were largely virgin wilderness.
What this all amounts to is that the United States is a young nation, but a young nation that quickly achieved a position comparable to what other nations had reached only after immemorial centuries of development, and we have largely enjoyed them absent any kind of serious internal or external threat to ourselves. It’s rather like the Vision or Number 13 of nations; a creature born fully-grown in a lab and then hastily trained up to an approximation of an adult mindset, but without the experiences that usually go along with it (though that analogy unfortunately implies a progressive understanding of the development of nations, which I don’t want to imply).
Again, that’s not meant as either a boast or a criticism; just a point of interest.
I’ll leave you to consider the effects these points may have had and are still having on our national character.