Photo by Madeline Rider
With Mitt Romney’s acceptance speech last night, my thoughts are drawn, as usual, back into the 17th century. Now, this may seem like a jab at the GOP’s draconian view of the world (which in some ways I am sure that it is), but, more than anything, it is an acknowledgement of the paradoxes that shape our country. And to get to the root of these paradoxes, or at the very least to see them for what they are, we need to return to 17th century Massachusetts. When longtime friend Pam Finlayson calls Mitt Romney “a man of faith” we need to contend with what this statement truly means, both in a contemporary sense, and in relationship to our national history. Not the well-meaning and decent man of faith that may pepper our day to day lives, but the archetypal political “Man of Faith” that resides in the annals of New England.
The dour men and women who first came across the Atlantic and settled at Plymouth, Naumkeag (Salem), and the Bay Colony (Boston), for better or worse, have left an indelible mark on our national identity, on the very foundations of our ideology. More than any other faction of early settlers, these grim fundamentalists have shaped us. They loom in the back of our collective consciousness. To truly understand the impact of the Puritans on American politics and culture is more than I can hope to put forth here, I will however point towards several books which shed a cutting light on them: Sacvan Bercovitch’s The American Jeremiad, Philip Gould’s Covenant and Republic, and Nathaniel Hawthorne’s introduction to The Scarlet Letter—”The Custom House” sketch. I am by no means a historian, thus these books focus on the relationship of the Puritans to the American word, and one of them is clearly “fictional” on some levels. However, I have always said that the greatest truths reside in the greatest lies. In this way, amongst others, Hawthorne’s “The Custom House” is one of the most important pieces of writing in American history. It may also give us a glimpse of what the Puritan heritage means to us today. Hawthorne writes:
The figure of that first ancestor, invested by family tradition with a dim and dusky grandeur, was present to my boyish imagination, as far back as I can remember. It still haunts me, and induces a sort of home-feeling with the past, which I scarcely claim in reference to the present phase of the town [Salem]. I seem to have a stronger claim to a residence here on account of this grave, bearded, sable-cloaked, and steeple-crowned progenitor,—who came so early, with his Bible and his sword, and trode the unworn street with such a stately port, and made so large a figure, as a man of war and peace,—a stronger claim than for myself, whose name is seldom heard and my face hardly known. He was a soldier, legislator, judge; he was a ruler in the Church; he had all the Puritanic traits, both good and evil. He was likewise a bitter persecutor; as witness the Quakers, who have remembered him in their histories, and relate an incident of his hard severity towards a woman of their sect, which will last longer, it is to be feared, than any record of his better deeds, although these were many. His son, too, inherited the persecuting spirit, and made himself so conspicuous in the martyrdom of the witches, that their blood may fairly be said to have left a stain upon him. So deep a stain, indeed, that his old dry bones, in the Charter Street burial-ground, must still retain it, if they have not crumbled entirely to dust! I know not whether these ancestors of mine bethought themselves to repent, and ask pardon of Heaven for their cruelties; or whether they are now groaning under the heavy consequences of them, in another state of being. At all events, I, the present writer, as their representative, hereby take shame upon myself for their sakes, and pray that any curse incurred by them—as I have heard, and as the dreary and unprosperous condition of the race, for many a long year back, would argue to exist—may be now and henceforth removed. (12-13)
Hawthorne, in that way only he can, seemingly discusses his own personal ancestors and his personal relationship to them, but he is truly saying something much larger—something much more insidious. The foundations of the very nation are planted in the many “Charter Street” graveyards. The bones of all the grand ancestors, those reverend dead, are drenched in the blood of the persecuted. The paradox of the grim Puritan armed with “his Bible and his sword” leers forward in time at Hawthorne, and from Hawthorne’s days it glares at us. This “man of faith” is cloaked not in the dark raiment of his sect, but in the blood and gore of 400 years of “his Bible and his sword.” Hawthorne speaks out of the side of his mouth when he hopes to remove the curse. There is no running from the ghosts of the past, but one must face them on new ground. The curse is in the very soil itself, in the bloody dust of the burial-ground. The early Hathorne is the collective American ancestor, our deepest shame, and in the minds of some, our greatest glory—the Man of Faith.
When I hear terms plucked directly out of 17th century sermons I cannot help but think of Hawthorne’s guilt. There are no good old days, no heroic pasts, no brave ancestors. The sooner that we can—if it is possible at all—arrive at a place where we see American ideology for what it truly is, the sooner we will put the ghosts to rest. There is bitter humor in this as well, for as Hawthorne so tellingly intimates, there is always a family resemblance, and who is to say that we are not making the same mistakes ourselves?
NOTE: Pagination for “The Custom House” is from the Library of America edition of The Scarlet Letter
NOTE NOTE: The very concept “We deserve better,” which is essentially Romney’s catchphrase and was brazenly scripted across the cover of USA Today this morning, amongst other things, is heavily reliant on an old piece of 17th century rhetoric which, as Sacvan Bercovitch describes in The American Jeremiad, casts the American people (and this is always a relative few) as God’s chosen, and views their America as a sort of New Jerusalem. This rhetorical device presupposes American superiority and places the chosen few in steadfast opposition to those outside looking in: the other. It is the very germ of American nationalism. But more on that later!