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FROM EMPIRE TO ANTIPODE: LIBERALISM,REPUBLICANISM AND REINHOLD NIEBUHR'S JEREMIAD ON RECENT AMERICAN HISTORIOGRAPHY Richard Nelson The debate over the place of John Locke and liberalism and republicanism in Anglo-American political culture, is by now an old and historiographically familiar one. From Jonathan Edwards in the eighteenth century to the Romantic historians of the nineteenth century and the Progressives of the twentieth, Locke and republicanism have often been associated with moments of cultural conflict. And as proxies for those conflicts, they have been defended or denigrated, or squared off against each other, in attempts to defme American identity.1 One of the most curious aspects of the current controversy is that it erupted after republican idealism had been ignored by an entire generation of American historians, following the collapse of Progressive historiography. Curiously, too, this neglect of republicanism followed a kind of truce arranged between Locke and republicanism by the Progressives, in the interest of defending a faltering faith in American exceptionalism. By claiming Locke as an Old World precursor to New World democratic values, the Progressives sought to convince themselves that a similar dynamism of evolutionary change would ensure the defeat of Old World capitalism by the leaven of New World republican economic values.2 This suggests that the new republican scholarship which has emerged since the mid-1960s is closely related to the counter-Progressive movement among American historians of the 1950s.3 It suggests as well that the intense divisions which have accompanied the emergence of this new republican scholarship have less to do with the political and economic principles of liberalism and civic humanism, than with a fundamental crisis in the Jeremiad, the rhetorical structure for supporting civicand individual meaning within Anglo-American political identity.4 The Jeremiad is a rhetorical formula for expressing anguish over past 2 Richard Nelson political failure, and at the same time, hope for the future through redemptive suffering. Its name and form are derived from the Prophet Jeremiah's bitter complaint against a profligate chosen people, while prophesying a hidden promise, through chastisement, for a new beginning. Following the failure of the Puritan errand and the success of the American Revolution, that stylized complaint, rooted in the expectation of a coming "New Jerusalem," came to express the hope of combining political glory with spiritual wholeness in a harmonious national community of republican virtue. The Jeremiad offered a vision of redemptive political power established through a cycle of promise, decline and renewal, which was at once liturgical in its form and progressive in its movement. It provided a language for mediating public promises for social renewal through the private acknowledgment of sin and failure. In this way, the Jeremiad preserved the ideal of political exceptionalism by codifying the meeting of time and eternity as well as of power and morality, resolving the contradiction in the effort to construct a progressive movement of history upon the tragic limitations of mortal men and women. Only in the twentieth century, however, with the failure of political exceptionalism to survive the disappointments brought by technological, economic and military progress, did _the Jeremiad become self-consciously recognizable as a literary convention for expressing religious and political meaning within American national life. Once laid bare, the conventions of this Progressive synthesis of power and morality lost their ability to sustain historical narratives based upon a political faith in a redemptively unfolding American future. Instead, the failure of the Progressive synthesis brought an end to the possibility of a positive formulation of the Jeremiad. For the inability to affirm a faith in political exceptionalism removed the basis upon which an organic evolutionary promise of a unique political and economic destiny could be established. 5 The counter-Progressives reformulated the Jeremiad into self-conscious criticism of its own disintegration as a positive promise of political and economic redemption. For the first time, the Jeremiad was defined negatively in order to bemoan America's lost promise as a redeemer nation and still preserve the redemptive hope offered through moral reproof. The ironic mode of cultural critics such as Reinhold Niebuhr mediated this transvaluation of defeat into a victory, through a claim to a higher realism about human sinfulness...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1710-114X
Print ISSN
0007-7720
Pages
pp. 1-16
Launched on MUSE
2019-01-02
Open Access
No
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