What Is America?


Essay by
William H. Stoddard


March 1998


In those days there was no king in Israel;
every man did what was right in his own eyes.
Judges 17:6
Bible: Revised Standard Version

Kurt Keefner has raised an interesting question [in his essay What is America? posted on the Objectivism-L mailing list].

I hope the answer I offer will be equally interesting: America is the Promised Land, as this is presented in the Old Testament. By this I mean that there are some compelling analogies between America and Israel, especially premonarchic Israel, which must have been in the minds of many of the Founding Fathers. I suspect that Adam Reed could do a more thorough job of this topic than I will be able to, but since I thought of it I'll have a go at it.

To begin with, there is the simple physical aspect: Americans had left their old countries, where they were often oppressed, and made long journeys to enter into a new land where there were no oppressors. There were, of course, human beings already in the new land, but the colonists had little doubt of their right to claim the land as theirs — no more doubt than the Israelites had that they were entitled to seize Canaan by force of arms.

And like early Israel, America was a land without a king. Israel's highest political office was that of Judge; America's was that of President. Neither position was hereditary, and neither implied any claim to ownership of the land, as aristocratic titles do. The land in Israel was owned by the Lord; the land in America by the sovereign people (whose will was explicitly equated with that of the Lord many times).

Going along with this, it's worth remembering that one of Israel's great claims was to be a land of freedom. We might not find its freedom sufficient to our ideas, but look at it in comparison with other lands of the time. Slavery existed, but the law limited it to a term of seven years, after which the slave had to be offered freedom, and a special ceremony was required if they refused to go free. One of the great lines of the Old Testament says "In those days there was no king in Israel; every man did what was right in his own eyes." I've seen a book on the history of Israel that claims that was a bitter lament, but I don't believe it. It sounds like a boast. And it was true of America as well; "sons of liberty" was the great American slogan.

The ancient Israelites and the modern Americans both had the concept that freedom could only be realized through law. And in both cases the law was not supposed to be a vast maze of arbitrary edicts, but to be reducible to basic principles. "O man, what does the Lord require of you, but to do justice and love mercy ...?" And reflecting this focus on law, both societies had a few essential texts that embodied the law: the Constitution in America, the Pentateuch in Israel. Notice, too, that Israel had the great saying "You shall not have one law for your neighbor and another for the stranger; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt." That is, the law wasn't envisioned as a set of tribal customs, but as universally valid.

Notice, too, that ancient Israel had an understanding of the importance of property to freedom and law. "You shall sit each man under his own vine and his own fig tree, and none shall make you afraid."

The founders of American society had several prototypes to draw on for their new order, the Iroquois Confederacy and the Roman Republic among them. But I'm convinced they also took Israel as a prototype.

And Israel had one other thing that America had for many years: the idea that "like all the nations" was a condemnatory phrase. Israel was not a nation like all the nations, not a collective body held together by custom and tribal sentiment. Israel was founded on covenant — that is, on a form of contract. This shows up in the Book of Ruth, where Ruth tells her mother-in-law, "Your people will be my people, and your god, my god." And in just the same way, Americans did not consider themselves to be one more nation like France or Germany or Portugal. Robinson Jeffers recalled this half-forgotten idea when he wrote, during World War II, "All Europe was hardly worth the precarious freedom of one of our states. What will her ashes fetch?" We should remember that when the Israelites came to Samuel and asked for a king to be "like all the nations," he warned them about taxation and involuntary servitude, and the tone of the narrative makes the phrase a condemnatory one.

And, tragically, America has now decided to be "like all the nations", too. I remember reading an essay in Time a few years back that remarked on such monuments as the Pyramids and Versailles and asked why the United States shouldn't have such monuments — without a hint of irony. (And without a thought that, if a country has to have tax supported monuments, footprints on the Moon outdo all the palaces ever built — but that's another story.)

I want to end with a different irony.

We've heard a lot about the Judeo-Christian roots of American civilization, and about the foundation of America in Christianity. Nothing could be more wrong.

Christianity represents a characteristic development in history — the translation of the religious beliefs of a people who were once free, and whose religion celebrated their life on Earth, into a celebration of spiritual freedom and salvation after real freedom was lost. India had the Vedas, hymns to the warrior gods of people who feasted on beef, and then it developed Brahmanic Hinduism, with its prohibition of beef eating and encouragement of vegetarianism; Israel's Judaism, with ritual feasts celebrating a God who wanted his temple filled with "the odor of roast meat and incense", turned into Christianity, where the only sacrificed beast was one man who promised salvation in the future, after death, through a magical transformation of the world.

The United States, with all its flaws, was a true revival of the spirit of ancient Israel, much truer than Christianity ever was. America was the real Promised Land, here on Earth, that Christians had hoped for centuries to see in an imaginary Heaven. And where Christianity had tortured and slaughtered the Jews for maintaining the memory of Israel, America let them in and made them rich — including Ayn Rand, who knew the value of what she received from it. Some of her history may have been oversimplified or even mythical, but she wasn't a scholar; if anything, she was a prophet, delivering both visions of a better world and warnings of the price to be paid for betraying it.

But they shall sit every man under his vine and under his fig tree,
and none shall make them afraid;
for the mouth of the LORD of hosts has spoken.
Micah 4:4
Bible: Revised Standard Version


© 1998 William H. Stoddard

Originally appeared on the
Objectivism-L mailing list;
this thread begins there with
What is America? by Kurt Keefner

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