The American Way

THE United States looms large to-day in the European mind, and two opposite schools of thought offer us two very different definitions of America. To one group the United States and its marvelous prosperity represent the beacon light of economic progress. Such people talk about the American economic miracle and never get tired of informing us that all things American are practical, reasonable, and progressive, that the United States is the original patentee of the modern process of industrial rationalization, and that Europe cannot do better than imitate American mass production, scientific salesmanship, and human uplift.

To the other group the United States stands for everything that is vile in modern industrial civilization. America is accused of having evolved that deadening system of quantitative production which is killing qualitative workmanship, and with it industrial art all over the world. America is held responsible for that dead leveling of individuality into a mass of drab homogeneity which calls itself progressive democracy. The United States is said to have killed the mind which strove after ideas and to have replaced it with material greed, the lust for wealth, the rule of Mammon, the Almighty Dollar. One group proposes that a tired yet restless Europe save itself by imitating the American system of rational control of material things; the other advocates a crusade against the deadening spirit of Americanism.

Both parties, though vociferous, are equally incapable of understanding the true meaning of America. To begin with, their adherents know very little of the real United States. They have seen its linguistic, its institutional, and its technical uniformity — all of which they fairly understand. But they ignore the country’s geographical, ethnological, and cultural diversity. They have visited New York, Boston, and Chicago, and flitted through Washington. Yet even so they only know the more or less stereotyped life of an upper stratum which is enshrouding in a kind of drab veil the glaring colors of the seething metropolitan masses. Such people rarely view American achievements from the point of view of American aspirations. Their attitude is imitative or preventive; it is rarely appreciative.


The chief result of that wholesale conflagration known as the Great War is the change in Europe’s relation to world affairs. Through the Bolshevist revolution, the fangs of Asia have penetrated the flesh of European Russia as far as the Polish frontier. Africa, though still obedient to her European masters, no longer stands in silent awe. Both Americas ceased being colonies in the political sense of the word more than a century ago. But only during the Great War did the United States, after a steady development of nearly a hundred and fifty years, carry the Declaration of Independence to its logical economic conclusion. It is no longer a European colony in the economic sense; it is colonizing old established Europe with capital, methods, and men. Under these circumstances, it is a question of life and death to Europe, and to the world in general, to know what America stands for, to understand its meaning.

In spite of this urgent necessity, a gulf between the United States and Europe is broadening and deepening as modern communications develop. Familiarity may not breed contempt, but it certainly does breed misunderstandings. Furthermore, this antagonism is not due to racial causes.

Europe has been reorganized on a nationalistic basis, and most of her new political frontiers are supposed to enclose more or less homogeneous nations. The gulf separating the different Europeans from each other is much greater than the racial differences between the various American stocks and their relatives in the Old World.

Racially the United States is far more akin to the different European stocks from which it sprang than these stocks are to each other. Having drawn its inhabitants from all European (and many non-European) countries, it has not permitted segregation, but has tried to fuse them into a common American nationality. Before the war America carefully avoided those methods of compulsory national assimilation that were all too common in Europe at the time, but during and since the war a process of more or less forceful Americanization has set in. The United States has not succeeded in melting down a unified American stock within the space of a single generation. The country is still dotted with thousands of‘alien islands’ which the rising flood of Americanism has not yet submerged.

The true line of demarcation between Europe and the United States is neither racial nor geographical. The American continent is a land of marvelous variety, notwithstanding certain frequently recurring features, for its apparent monotony is due to the enormous scale on which it is built. The works of man have, no doubt, produced a good deal of standardization. Colonization always demands a stock of ready-made goods, sent from the rear, and America, the creation of pioneers, is no exception to this rule. Since the eclipse of the South, her civilization has been made in New England and mail-ordered, as it were, all over the continent. But for the first time since the quest of the Golden West began, people can at last be born and buried in the same place, without a change of habitation, and their sons and daughters are finally beginning to stretch their roots deep down into the native soil. Surely they will partake of the essence of this soil which they have conquered and made habitable, and, as time goes on, will reflect in their morals and customs the essential features which Providence has given to each region.

America will not produce those varied types that have blossomed out into the form of nations in modern Europe. Her racial problem is not whether the immigrants of non-AngloSaxon groups will retain their separate nationalities, but rather what the nature of the new American stock will be.

There seems to me no doubt that these various national strains grafted on the old American tree and planted in the highly varied American soil will blossom out into a ‘polytypy’ or a ’polytomy’ of regional characters which will make American life quite different from European conceptions of it. The American scene will regionalize the American people; the inhabitants of New Mexico will differ from the New Englanders, notwithstanding the Declaration of Independence and the mailorder houses. I look forward to a strong growth of national regionalism, much as it existed in the thirteen original states a hundred and fifty years ago, while at the same time the unity of the country as a whole is bound to increase.


Nothing in this development should dissociate the people of the United States from their relatives in Europe, yet there is a clear line of demarcation dividing things European from things American. Things European have taken shape by a process of spontaneous growth; things American have been created by acts of conscious will power. European society has grown up, so to speak, as things mature in nature; American society is the outcome of reason, the product of a purposeful artificial creation. In this respect the United States is the masterwork of the New England Puritans. Theirs was the fanatical individualistic rationalism which shaped the New England of the Pilgrim Fathers, according to a preordained plan. Theirs too was the passionate hatred which made the American Revolution no mere snapping of ties between a mother country and her rebellious offspring, but the beginning of a new age of reason. Other revolutions were only breaks in the course of national development, which changed the direction of the stream, but did not affect its continued flow. But to the American people their revolution meant the beginning of a separate national existence. It made them a nation, and did not merely deflect them. Revolution as a purposeful break with the past, not a mere accidental derailment, seems to them a legitimate method of creating a commonwealth; tradition and tenacious preservation of things no longer serving the end for which they were created are to them mere acts of sentimental contemplation. When the Englishman in false humility tells his American guest that it is quite easy to have a perfect lawn, provided you go on rolling it for several centuries, he stands for things European; and when Henry Ford assures us that history is ‘bunk’ he may not add much to our stock of philosophy, but he gives us the American theory of spontaneous social creation. Broadly speaking, the dividing line between Europe and the United States is that Europe stands for preservation and America for creation. The creative genius of the American people has not gone into the realm of art and abstract science. It has tried ever since its beginning to create a perfect human commonwealth. This practical construction of an improved world in accordance with a theoretically conceived ideal scheme, as contrasted with the mere preservation of an established social order, has always been the distinctive note of American development.

America’s ideas may not always have been quite new; they rarely have been very deep. They differ, however, in one important respect from the many profundities with which the European, and especially the German, mind is always boiling over. They are not conceived merely in order to be reasoned out; they are actually executed. The will to make a new commonwealth, rather than to inherit an old one, is to my mind the really distinctive note of the United States. This will did not inspire the Southern gentlemen, when they tried to reproduce a faithful and in many ways very charming replica of feudal England. But this feeling did permeate the great Puritan inspiration which became the driving force of the land, and which could easily be shared by all those alien immigrants who had cut themselves loose from the Old World in whose standardized social hierarchy they could find no proper place.


This man-made, not time-made, commonwealth, originally conceived as the city of God, assumed different meanings at different times, until it became the skeleton of a society, perilously akin in the vulgar mind to the ‘heaven on earth’ scheme of materialistic Communism. In the place of the sombre determinism of American Calvinism round which the fires of Hell eternally raised their fiery tongues, the idea of a free and easy world has developed, thanks to that wonderful spirit of optimism which is America’s greatest asset. The sons and daughters of the old Puritans are convinced that knowledge and reason, management and will, can really make life on this planet nearly perfect. Starting with a belief in the depravity of human nature, which tinctured most political philosophies of the sixteenth century, they have now arrived at a conception of human nature from which the last vestiges of original sin are virtually eliminated. Europe, being traditional and theoretical, does not really believe in the perfectibility of human nature; America, being rational and practical, is going to prove it.

From a European point of view, American history ought to be regarded as an almost uninterrupted effort to break away from the past, in order to free human society from the evils of tyranny, political and economic, and from fear and pain. Since Old World governments seemed wedded to oppression, the people of the United States not only severed their connections with the British Government, — which has ever since appeared to their eyes as tyrannical and rapacious, a view by no means historically correct, — but they have gone out of their way to build a government of their own, which in ordinary times is probably the weakest government any civilized people enjoy, though powerful interests have made it far stronger than the Declaration of Independence had conceived it to be. Until the days of Prohibition it certainly did not efficiently block man’s many-sided pursuit of happiness.

It is one of the strange coincidences of history that the same man whose pen drafted that charter of liberty known as the Declaration of Independence should have also secured for the American people the economic basis on which they could try to realize their conceptions of a perfect commonwealth. Jefferson’s Louisiana Purchase unlocked the marvelous West; it provided the natural resources that would give every man a chance, no matter whence he came, so that for once in history all competitors could start without undue handicap. Without the West the thirteen original states would have greatly expanded, no doubt, in the hands of their energetic inhabitants; but their development would have followed quasi-European lines. The West gave the people of the United States fairly equal opportunities; it made it possible for them to evolve a competitive capitalistic society in close accordance with the principles of an optimistic progressive liberalism. It was the West which expelled from America the shadow of feudalism that had fallen across the path of European progress. The shadow lingered, to be sure, for some time over the plantations of the South, but when it threatened to expand, a terrible fratricidal strife put an end to the system and destroyed not only evil, but much good as well.

When the people of the United States, after the era of free land had ended, were forced to adapt themselves to a state of affairs where resources no longer expanded automatically, they continued the struggle against ‘tyranny.’ They fought the railway monopolies and trusts, not half-heartedly, as it is done in Europe, for economic reasons, but as part of the fight against oppression, which in its new economic form threatened to deprive the individual of his right to happiness. Later, when they realized that large-scale production made monopolistic organization unavoidable in many cases, they did not stop fighting, but substituted control for competition. Of course, the United States has often failed in its efforts of ‘constructive society-making,’ but its spirit of ‘optimistic social engineering ’ has never flagged. These experimenters have not been at work much longer than have the aeronautical inventors; I do not think that their success has been much slower.

America has used and abused the wonderful opportunities with which she has been allowed to work out her salvation. American capitalism has often been more dishonest, more grafting, and more hideous than its European counterpart. But it seems to me that it is learning its lesson. The world is watching with bated breath and unabated interest the huge communistic experiment in Russia. It is bound to fail, when measured by its own standard of bringing everincreasing material happiness to millions of people. But whether it fails or whether it succeeds, it has proved to the working class that it can get control of a big country and can keep that control for a considerable length of time.

American capitalism realizes that capitalism can only continue as a social system if it delivers the goods. This must be done not only to the capitalists themselves, but also to the working classes and the consumers. Wage earners must be assured high wages that will enable them to acquire property; and, at the same time, low prices and an ever-expanding scale of consumer enjoyment must be guaranteed. While European business men still look upon producers and upon material production as the aim of modern economics, their American colleagues have realized — notwithstanding trusts and greed — that the key to modern business life is held by the Honorable Mr. Consumer. He and he alone is the master of the world.

The many schemes for price stabilization, whose object is to reduce the risks of economic crises to employers as well as employees, no doubt often contain a great deal of economic nonsense. They are not merely devised as a practical alternative to communistic experiments; they really aim at eliminating from man’s life the terror of economic uncertainty; they are a reasoned-out, conscious effort to drive away blind fate from the business affairs of men, and to give everyone that economic security without which life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are scarcely worth while. Such schemes try to make men free from economic fear, as they have already been freed from political and economic oppression.

Although America’s new immigration policy, as well as her effort at Americanization, may have been quite as brutal in actual application as former European policies, both are from this point of view only parts of a grandiose scheme of a ‘perfect society.’ When the science of eugenics is used to glorify the Nordic race in the United States, it becomes quite as silly and infantile as similar efforts in Europe appear; and its practical ramifications begin to resemble a universityextension textbook on the principles of stock breeding, applied to mankind. It contains, however, a very great social conception, in that it endeavors to produce a nation made up of numerous divergent strains, the component parts of which are so wisely dosed and so judiciously blended as to ensure it social superiority, not only over other nations, but over the stocks from which it sprang. From this point of view, birth control, which is gaining ground in everyday life as a result of pure egotism, is merely another element in the great American movement toward a ‘synthetic society.’

The melting-pot theory may have operated with only moderate success, and the practice of Americanization may have fallen short of its goal; but I feel that there is a kind of nationwide transubstantiation at work, from which a new American nation will arise, a people healthy in body and vigorous in mind, from whose spirit democracy will have lifted the fear of political oppression, and modern business development the dread of poverty. Political and social science have been vying with each other in ousting worry; medical science and hygiene are hard at work driving away pain. The time may not be so very far off when criminals will no longer be punished, but treated wisely; and when the only fear man has to face in this life is death— death made easy by euthanasia.


For the spiritual values of the American people are rapidly changing. For many years educated Europe has been rather ‘secular’ in things religious, while carefully paying public obeisance to the inherited ethics of Christian religion. As far as formal creeds are concerned, America may not have changed much, but in her application of certain religious conceptions to the proper way of living she seems to be passing through a kind of revolution. Puritan formulas of what to do and what not to do have controlled the active life of the American nation for many years, and their advocates have recently won a great victory — Prohibition. To bring this about, they have deliberately sacrificed their original principle, — ‘ individual liberty,’ — and set up a new conception of social welfare.

Although the Puritan conception of life transformed the pioneer and the immigrant, and even, to a certain degree, the negro, it has undergone great changes. The mixture of alien stocks, in whom remnants of pagan creeds still live, has proved quite as effective as the materialistic influence of pioneering life. Modern industrialism, whose practical bearings are diametrically opposed to the Puritan conception, has done its share. For modern industries that produce consumers’ goods can only flourish with an ever-growing expansion of consumption, and consumption cannot expand without an ever-growing amplification and diversification of human desires, which the Puritan conception of life severely tried to restrain.

Though alcohol has been forbidden, and even in some isolated cases tobacco, pure joy of living, which the old theocratical austerity so abhorred, grows by leaps and bounds. It has often been said that America is ruled by women. This does not hold true of her production, but it is true in respect to her consumption, which more and more tends to direct production. Modern American women are changing the pace. They no longer advocate sexual equality by the mere repression of low male instincts; they are lifting the ban on women’s actions. Such women have formed the advance guard of the leisured class, which America is slowly producing. After they have borne the brunt of the winning of the West, an achievement perhaps not equaled by anything other women have done, they have now not only forced their males to use their inventive genius to provide them with costly garments and to beautify them with lovely skinfoods, thus democratizing luxury and the cult of the body, which is pagan rather than Puritan — they have even driven the men to devise cunning machinery to free woman from domestic service and to give her time, not only to manicure her hands, but, what is far more important, to improve her mind.

In European countries men are often free thinkers and esprits forts, while their women still cling passionately to seemingly outworn creeds. Things are different in America. There may be a certain inanity in some of the more popular ‘uplift’ movements, but there is certainly more general practical radicalism among American women than among American men of the same social stratum. And the radicalism women go in for is not mere ‘lip service,’ as is often the case with men. They are willing to pay the price of freedom with their bodies and their souls. The enormous influence of a democratic, nation-wide system of education is spreading new ideas, often half-baked ones, all over the country.

Europe has lately become interested in this process. The Dayton ‘monkey trial’ and many other similar fundamentalist explosions have been interpreted by noisy intellectual snobs as a symptom of American retrogression. Such prophets are clearly mistaken. The violence of these movements offers clear proof that the large immobile strata of backward America, which up to now were tolerant of many new developments because they were ignorant of them, are being terrified by great onrushing dangers, of whose very existence they were ignorant some time ago.

The lengthening shadows of declining day are settling over the Puritan world. Instead of Jehovah saving and damning souls with the arbitrariness of a merciless dictator, we find a human deity, ready to save sinners as well as saints. In a continent like Europe, where men and women are bound by traditions, the disappearance of old pivotal beliefs need not be followed by vital practical consequences. Such a world goes on for a long time after the power which set it in motion has died. In the past America was ruled by conventions (in the French and in the English sense of the word), not by tradition. When a large number of the people who severally used to respect these conventions come to disbelieve their raison d’être, the driving force of the American world will be spent. Fear of impending anarchy explains easily enough the frantic efforts made by powerful groups to safeguard the faith of certain backsliders. For the eclipse of Hell is driving the last element of fear out of American life.

What will a people be like who have successfully freed themselves of fear of life and death, who are not frightened of the ways of the world, and who no longer believe in divine wrath? If the old order is going to fall, something new and positive must come. I don’t know what it will be. I am convinced it will not be a materialistic, hedonistic duplicate of the different forms of European anticlericalism. Since America is heir to all the strains which have made Europe, since her forms of life have thus far been created by Puritan Anglo-Saxons, while the bodies of her people are made up of every living element in the European and the African world, it seems to me that in the spiritual world, too, her task may be a kind of ‘spiritual synthesis,’ a creative chemistry of the mind. Greek and Jew, Christian and pagan, have flocked into her huge confines. May she not succeed in fusing the two great strains which up to now have divided the civilized world? May she not succeed in combining the pagan joy of Greek life with the moral responsibility of Christianity?


I see one great danger ahead of her. If America’s social and economic system is sound, the rest of the world must accept it. Measured by American standards, the rate of progress in Europe, and certainly in Asia and Africa, is slow. The Old World, even now, is made up of various social strata; European society is a pyramid of different well-defined layers, between which there is no easy transition. The American pyramid, on the other hand, can quickly be mounted by a convenient flight of steps to which an elaborate system of moving stairways has lately been added. Europe is slow, skeptical, and traditional; America is impatient, rational, and emotional.

Progress in the rest of the world may not keep up with the growth of the American system and with the output of American commodities, which are being poured into all foreign lands at an ever-increasing rate in the form of permanent investments. Notwithstanding the Kellogg pacts, America has no desire to-day to interfere in European affairs. The dream of reforming the world by means of a great crusade such as President Wilson led has evaporated. America is still suspicious of Europe, and remains wedded to a policy of political isolation. But, while isolating herself politically, she is pouring her wealth into Europe, thus creating the tie which is the frailest and the firmest of all social ties: the contractual tie between creditor and debtor. The richer she grows, the greater her stake in Europe becomes. To save bad old money, you must throw in good new money. To be sure of the repayment of your capital, you must often advance the interest after it has fallen due. There may be losses — nay, there must be losses — such as Europe had to suffer over and over again when she financed the United States in the nineteenth century. What will be the attitude of the United States? Will she cut the losses as Europe did, when the debtor cannot pay, and recoup the values with a better interest the next time? Or will she try to use political and economic pressure?

Deep down in the American mind exists a feeling that America has a mission — which her people are not always content to consider in the restricted sense of a moral obligation — to make their land and their people worthy of those great opportunities Providence has given them. When their interests are touched by what they may consider — and perhaps rightly — European slovenliness and European subtlety, they may not be willing to suffer silently and rest content in the deep conviction that righteous men do not always fare well, but that the depraved foreigner will learn by and by that honesty is the best policy. They may come to the conclusion that it is not only their interest, but also their sacred duty to insist on the fulfillment of contractual duties entered toward them. And they may remember the old puritanical tradition of force regarded as a remedy, force wielded by the righteous for the punishment and the subsequent moral improvement of the wicked.

I have never been frightened of what might be termed the conscious American imperialism that the lords of Wall Street are supposed to be carefully nursing. Most of such talk is fantastic piffle. But I am terrified by the missionary fanaticism that sleeps in the heart of the American people. They will never, I am convinced, try to gain the lordship of the world in a conscious effort for spoils and domination. But they are just now developing a very helpful and sane form of economic control by establishing financial liens in all countries, which will make them silent partners in the business of the world. They are not desirous of taking an active controlling part in such affairs; few Americans are fitted by training and outlook for such work. This they realize, and they wisely restrict themselves to the role of money lenders.

There is no danger as long as things go smoothly. But if ever there were a real hitch, if ever in any country debtor and creditor were facing each other angrily, then the world would have need of all its available statesmanship. For a nation imbued with an imperialistic spirit, driven to actions by the lust of domination, is always willing in the hour of destiny to let profit go by the board for the sake of power. A nation of business men, however, to whom empire means only a well-run estate, and who are willing to offer social service to other economically less prosperous nations by means of loans, may fight for the sanctity of business contracts, though fighting might be far more costly than canceling. The only American danger I really foresee is not the wickedness or the greed of the American business men; I fear their morals more than their vices. If this danger ever were to materialize, it would be because men who spend their lives within the empire of business rarely learn the business of empire.

  1. The reader should know that Dr. Bonn is a famous German professor, long connected with the University of Berlin. — THE EDITOR