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Hellfire Nation: The Politics of Sin in American History 
by James Morone.
Yale, 575 pp., £25, April 2003, 0 300 09484 1
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Some aspects of the American political system can seem opaque and mysterious to the outsider. In particular, the Constitution, which British journalists regularly confuse with the Declaration of Independence, is calibrated so as to correct the arithmetical simplicities of an undifferentiated popular will. The Presidential election of 2000 introduced the world not only to the vagaries of the franchise in Florida, user-unfriendly butterfly ballots, and the arcana of chad – hanging, dimpled, pregnant and penetrated – but also to the constitutionally mandated authority of the Electoral College. Shadowy and spectral in its operations, the College proved decisive in the face of a narrow, but clear, national majority for the losing candidate. More recently, the State of California has presented another challenge to the straightforwardness of democracy as the rest of the world imagines it, with the proposal to recall an elected governor in possession of an unambiguous and unexpired democratic mandate.

No wonder the United States needs so many lawyers, and so many professors of political science – the American Political Science Association has some ten thousand members. However, as James Morone, a professor of political science at Brown University, reassures us, his colleagues in the discipline have themselves a very defective grasp of American political culture. In particular, Morone believes that political scientists are in thrall to the misguided notion that the classical liberalism which underpins the Constitution actually describes the workings of American politics in the raw. Hellfire Nation interrogates, by way of an ultra-revisionist interpretation of American history, the consensus that free markets, limited government, the protection of individual rights and the factional politics of ‘pork’, patronage and spoils, together amount to an adequate summary of the American political system.

The Founders, so the liberal theory runs, devised the complicated checks and balances of the Constitution in order to overcome the traditional fate of republican self-government. Throughout history, republics had been sustained – but only for so long – by the virtuous self-rule of their citizens; inevitably, patriotic commitment to the polis waned with the coming of luxury, which led to self-interest, faction fighting and the corruption of republican institutions. The Constitution was designed, like a perpetual motion machine, to run by itself. The United States – already a vast nation encompassing distinct regional and economic interests – would require virtue in neither rulers nor ruled; rather, the complex machinery of the Constitution would exploit the fallen nature of man, his selfishness and propensity to put self-interest before the commonweal, to serve the wider ends of liberty and political stability. Therefore, according to the liberal argument, morality has no place in American politics. The Constitution draws a line between the public and private spheres, with its First Amendment in the Bill of Rights specifically guaranteeing liberty of conscience and the separation of church and state.

Such provisions are held partially to explain the peculiarly non-ideological tenor of American politics. From the outset, moreover, wannabe ‘Americans’ had come to the New World to escape the trammels of established churches and the hierarchical rigidities of feudalism which disfigured early modern Europe. Thus in the long run class resentments did not surface in the United States, which avoided the polarities of Right and Left. Instead, political parties evolved as broad non-ideological coalitions, with ‘wheeling and dealing, log-rolling and compromise’ the standard idiom of the nation’s ‘pragmatic, commonsense, split-the-difference’ politics. Unburdened by the intrusiveness and expense of big government, Americans have been able to devote their lives more energetically to wealth creation than the peoples of Old Europe.

Of course, America’s liberal self-image obscured a darker underside. Social conditions in the late 18th century had prevented immediate realisation of the full promise of the Declaration of Independence. Several groups found themselves excluded from the American Dream of the white, periwigged, slaveholding intelligentsia of Enlightenment Virginia. Nevertheless, greater democratisation came in the 1830s during the age of Jackson; a tragic and bloody Civil War had to be fought in the 1860s to end the peculiar institution of Southern race slavery; democracy was extended to women voters in 1920; and desegregation in the second half of the 20th century would at last confer civil rights on black Americans. ‘The official American story,’ in Morone’s words, ‘symbolised by the congenial melting pot, imagines a nation constantly cooking up a richer democracy with thicker rights.’ And the state got bigger, too. The New Deal witnessed a more proactive state determined to shore up the vital economic underpinnings of the American system of liberty. Moreover, participation in two world wars and the Cold War demonstrated that the United States would provide a global defence of the liberal international order on which its own security and prosperity depended.

But, persuasive as it is in many respects, this liberal paradigm, as Morone insists, tends to blind political scientists to ‘the roaring moral fervour at the soul of American politics’, leading them to misconstrue central features of American history and government. The liberal story, after all, does not provide pointers to Guantanamo: how did American history get here? Recent developments, it transpires, are far from anomalous. Hellfire Nation depicts a hardline moralism – which turns out, as often as not, to encode nativist and racist prejudices – lurking in the neglected penumbra of American liberalism: ‘How do Americans get around all their constitutional safeguards and repress rivals, strangers and scary others? Morality. We are bound to honour our fellow citizens and their rights, unless the neighbours turn out to be bad. Then they can be – and often are – stripped of their lives, their liberty and their legally acquired property.’ Americans have consistently misunderstood the liberal significance of the Constitution’s carefully contrived mechanics, and have instead required a ream of unnecessary virtues of their fellow citizens – especially from blacks, Catholics, Asians and Southern Europeans.

Morone questions not only the substance but the tone of American liberal mythology. Most American political scientists give the impression of being spectators at a high-minded and respectable process. American constitutional history, the Civil War excepted, proceeds as a stately minuet of executive, legislature and judiciary. But in Morone’s version, ‘we the people’ – including witch hunters, anti-Catholic Know Nothings, purity crusaders, nativists, book censors, moral vigilantes, Ku Klux Klanners, meddling wowsers, prohibitionists and anti-drugs mavens – gatecrash the ball, and transform it into a rough and rumbustious barn dance. Morone’s version of the American past is far removed from the liberal saga of 1776 and all that. Here, the Declaration of Independence and the Federalist Papers yield ground to the ‘leering inventory’ of sins catalogued by the Puritan synod of 1679 and the anti-Catholic invective of The Awful Disclosures of the Hotel Dieu Nunnery, which, Morone reminds us, was 19th-century America’s biggest bestseller until the appearance of Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

In Hellfire Nation the quintessential American statesman is not Thomas Jefferson or Abraham Lincoln, but the anti-smut campaigner Anthony Comstock. The Comstock Act of 1873 outlawed from the federal mail any ‘obscene, lewd or lascivious book, pamphlet, picture, paper, print or other publication of an indecent character or any article or thing designed . . . for the prevention of conception or procuring of abortion’, or, indeed, any advertisement, circular or printed card giving information, ‘either directly or indirectly’ as to how such items might be obtained. Penalties ran to five thousand dollars and from one to ten years’ hard labour. Worse, Comstock was appointed a postal inspector and allowed to police the legislation for which he had lobbied. Over a forty-year career as a smut-finder, Comstock boasted the confiscation of fifty tons of books and four million pictures, as well as four thousand arrests and at least 15 moral deviants driven to suicide.

Morone knows that American historians and political scientists have shed considerable light on this underside of American political culture. He cites, for example, Richard Hofstadter’s definition of anti-Catholicism as the pornography of the Puritan. However, Morone diverges sharply from works such as Seymour Martin Lipset and Earl Raab’s The Politics of Unreason: Right-Wing Extremism in America, 1790-1970 (1970) and David Bennett’s The Party of Fear: From Nativist Movements to the New Right in American History (1988), which identify a persistent crackpot fringe on the margins of American politics. Instead, Morone contends that the hardliners have shaped some of the central features of the American state.

Similarly, while historians have pointed to the Puritan origins of American politics, they connect these with a progressively secular dilution of New England religiosity as it enters the liberal mainstream. The Puritan notion of the ‘covenant’, for example, appears to provide a model for the contract theory of government, though the latter is denuded of the former’s connection with the divine. But Morone argues that Puritan influences are much more profound and direct than most historians acknowledge. Relocating the Puritan ancestors from folksy Thanksgiving remembrance to a place of honour (or dishonour) as the principal begetters of the American way of doing politics, he proposes that Puritan ideals loom large behind the ‘zero-tolerance’ version of liberalism. The Puritans first conjured up the notion of America as a redeemer nation with a sacred mission, popularised the jeremiad – a sermon of complaint against backsliding and declension – which would become in time ‘a kind of American anthem’, and set precedents for the harsh treatment of demonic otherness. The Puritans confronted their own axis of evil – Quakers, Indians, antinomians, witches – and established an American pattern of waging external war as ‘an idealistic moral crusade against a satanic foe’ and of purging domestic society of heretics and ‘scary, hidden subversives’ when these threatened the community’s divine vocation. Moreover, the classic Puritan jeremiad of 1679 anticipated generations of complaints against ‘permissive parents and their pampered kids’ with its lament about ‘defects as to family government’.

Whereas his fellow political scientists tend to classify periods in American political history by way of a series of distinct two-party systems punctuated by moments of partisan realignment, Morone traces cycles of religious and moral revivalism in politics, their pattern complicated by the dialectical relationship of what he recognises to be an ambiguous Puritan heritage. The Puritans have not only bequeathed America a hysterical witch-hunting moralism which blames individual sinners, certain categories of citizen or particular ethnic groups for the nation’s problems, but also another kind of moralism which recognises that many evils (which still need to be tackled and eradicated) arise ultimately from structural faultlines in society. In an unfortunate shorthand, Morone labels these twin Puritan legacies ‘Victorianism’ and the ‘Social Gospel’, though they are not historically confined to any particular period. Curiously, this Social Gospel encompasses the New Deal and progressive developments in the 1960s.

Morone happily concedes that the more benign strain of Puritan social reform lies behind abolitionism and a host of progressive causes; but, he warns, ‘mix morals with fears and strangers’ and America’s ‘high-flying principles get trampled in righteous indignation’. Anti-immigrant nativism rested on the assumption that liberal democracy placed excessive burdens on the lax moral characters of non-Wasps, who drank too much and had large families, while it also helped to assuage any anxieties about the presence of poverty in the land of plenty and unrestricted opportunity. Moreover, it’s sometimes hard to separate the Social Gospel from a moralism which did little more than act as a respectable screen for out-and-out racism, not least on the subject of miscegenation. Morone cites the case of Frances Willard of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, a Christian Socialist aligned to the cause of labour unions, who could not bring herself to condemn the lynching of black males for ‘atrocities worse than death’. Similarly, Margaret Sanger, a feminist, socialist and family planner, promoted vaginal diaphragms in heroic defiance of the Comstock laws, but also urged the sterilisation of racial inferiors. Is the conjunction of race and liberal freedoms any less surreal today, when, in the common African-American jest-cum-genuine-complaint, the police are seen to clamp down vigorously on the offence of DWB, or ‘driving while black’?

The size of today’s black prison population leads Morone to ponder another puzzling element in America’s liberal mythology: the legend of limited government. Americans commonly attribute their economic advantages over a lethargic and decadent Europe to the fact that free enterprise in the United States does not find itself shackled to a bloated public sector. While social welfare provision is much more restricted than in Europe, the prison statistics qualify the notion that Americans dislike big government. America has more than six million citizens in jail, on probation or on parole, with an incarceration rate, Morone notes, five times higher than other industrialised democracies. Inside America’s slimline government there’s clearly a big state trying to get out: ‘Only an unusually muscular state could push 3 per cent of the adult population into its criminal justice system.’ But look further at the statistics. While the United States imprisoned 648 out of 100,000 citizens in 1997, the rate rose to an incredible 6838 per 100,000 for black men. Morone detects other asymmetries in the growth of big government and questions the conventional narrative of state formation. Indeed, he asks, does the state expand in rational and sensible ways to meet real policy needs, or rather in response to fevered moral panics? The standard account of the growth of big government in modern America relates the emergence of a New Deal state in the 1930s to tackle a serious economic crisis and of a national security state during the Cold War to deal with the threat posed by the Soviet Union. Morone suggests an alternative trajectory, however, in which the ‘rising federal leviathan’ of the Prohibition state in the 1920s paved the way for the big government of the New Deal era. The national war on liquor – a fit of illiberal moralism inflected by racist and anti-German phobias – was ‘American government’s overlooked growth spurt’.

The white slave panic of 1909-10 provoked an even more irrational and nativistic wave of government intrusiveness. The press claimed that aliens were combing the all-American heartlands looking to lure innocent white girls into the red light districts of the immigrant cities: ‘Shall we defend our American civilisation, or lower our flag to the most despicable foreigners – French, Irish, Italians, Jews and Mongolians?’ What could be done to redeem American maidenhood from ‘oriental brothel slavery’? Representative James Mann of Illinois exploited federal oversight of interstate commerce in order to tackle the degradations of this traffic. White slavery, the odious Mann declared, ‘while not so extensive, is much more horrible than any black-slave traffic ever was in the history of the world’. Loosely drafted, the Mann Act of 1910 ranged across a wide spectrum of interstate sin, criminalising ‘any person who knowingly transports . . . in interstate commerce . . . any woman or girl for the purpose of prostitution or debauchery, or for any other immoral purpose’. Within four years, only 14 per cent of convictions bore any resemblance to white slavery. The most celebrated victim of the Mann Act was the first black heavyweight champion, Jack Johnson, who compounded the notoriety he earned trouncing white men in the boxing ring by flaunting his liaisons with white women outside it. Surely the protections afforded by the Constitution did not cover this ultimate transgression? According to the Governor of South Carolina, ‘the black brute who lays his hands upon a white woman ought not to have any trial.’ Interstate lust was clearly a risky proposition, even for whites, though a boon for the tiny, but now expanding, Bureau of Investigation to which Congress had assigned enforcement of the Mann Act. According to Morone, ‘today’s FBI got its big organisational break from the white slave panic.’

Hellfire Nation provides a provocative, offbeat introduction to American politics, and its lively narrative tempo owes something to vaudeville. The reader gawps, in turns amused and appalled, at an enthralling variety bill of Victorians and Social Gospellers. Morone never lapses into leaden polemic – though he can’t avoid intimations of satire – and remains a cheerful guide through some dismal periods of his nation’s past. However, the mock-heroic sweep of his dunciad does invite some qualification. The analysis of America’s flawed exceptionalism might be more persuasively framed by international comparisons. Some of the phenomena covered in the book – including anti-Catholicism, evangelicalism and scientific racism – belong, at the very least, to a transatlantic, if not to a wider context. Furthermore, too much emphasis on Puritan continuities can detract from the particularity of each historical episode.

Indeed, a focus on the Puritan provenance of America’s moral politics might well obscure a more profound horror at the heart of the liberal tradition. Was it Puritanism alone which perverted American liberalism? In certain respects, the Enlightenment and the redneck fringe are more closely aligned than we imagine. After all, even John Locke, the acknowledged grandfather of Anglo-American liberalism, excluded two obnoxious groups from his broad scheme of religious toleration: Roman Catholics, whose allegiance was suspect, and atheists, who could not be trusted to observe oaths and promises. Morone’s story ends with the war on terror, but it might have led, just as plausibly, to the ultra-liberal fad for political correctness.

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