Tuesday, August 31, 2010

What Makes America American?

Von Steuben has some thoughts on the matter.
“Americans may belong more to the West than to Asia, but they are not Europeans, they are different. Nobody expressed this better than the great Prussian officer sent by the French to instill some discipline in Washington’s ragtag troops at Valley Forge in 1775. He was Baron von Steuben: ‘The genius of this nation is not in the least to be compared with that of the Prussians, Austrians, or French. You say to your [European] soldier, “Do this,” and he doeth it, but I am obliged to say, “This is the reason why you ought to do that,” and he does it.’”
I found this passage in Seymour Morris, Jr's book "American History: Revised." It is not blind duty but right reason that motivates the American, according to Morris. Here is another author's take on the same passage:
'Washington appointed him [Steuben] inspector general of the Continental Army in the hope that Steuben would shape his ragtag mass into a fighting force, and so he did, but not at all in the way that Washington had expected. In the manual Steuben wrote for this American army, the most remarkable theme was love: love of the soldier for his fellow soldier, love of the officer for his men, love of country and love of his nation's ideals. Steuben obviously intuited that a people's army, a force of citizen-soldiers fighting for freedom from oppression, would be motivated most powerfully not by fear but, as he put it, by "love and confidence"—love of their cause, confidence in their officers and in themselves. "The genius of this nation," Steuben explained in a letter to a Prussian officer, "is not in the least to be compared with that of the Prussians, Austrians, or French. You say to your soldier, 'Do this,' and he does it; but I am obliged to say, 'This is the reason why you ought to do that,' and then he does it."'

This is from James R. Gaines' "Washington and Lafayette" in the Smithonian Magazine. Here it is not duty imposed by the threats of an autocratic ruler but the shared passionate values that motivate the American to join his fellow citizens in their common cause: individual liberty.

While Steuben was being inspired by the American ethos, back home in Prussia, Immanuel Kant was arguing for the duty-bound ethics that Steuben found so typically European. Practical reason (ethics) was not to be instrumental; it was a categorial imperative, a duty.

Comments?

5 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

"it is not duty imposed by the threats of an autocratic ruler but the shared passionate values that motivate the American..."

One might contrast these motivations as not being externally-imposed, but internally-generated. The free individual operates from within. Similarly, education doesn't mean indoctrination, but eduction.

The contrast might also be expressed as not being coerced by government, but being guided by culture (which is essentially self-governance).


Allen Weingarten

9/1/10, 1:38 AM  
Blogger Speedy G said...

One set of values cannot exist w/o the other. Just as the morals of the "masters" can never match and be the same as those of the "slaves" or that of the "leaders" to those of the "led". Private self-interest must temporarily give way to public duty.

It's not a question of one set of values being "better" than another, it's more a question as to "when" and under what circumstances once should embrace one over another.

Aristocracy's (European) have always advocated a certain noblesse oblige for those in leadership roles. The same holds true of American "public servants". What is "irrational" is for the public to be made to feel it, as THEY are the raison d'etre for the State's very existence.

9/5/10, 12:01 PM  
Blogger Always On Watch said...

Trivia fact, there is a Von Steuben fort in Steubenville, Ohio, birthplace of Dean Martin.

Oh, the trivia I know.

Anyway, quite the irony here:

While Steuben was being inspired by the American ethos, back home in Prussia, Immanuel Kant was arguing for the duty-bound ethics that Steuben found so typically European.

9/8/10, 7:11 AM  
Blogger Angie Van De Merwe said...

I am certainly glad you comment on "American Creation", so that I could find your blog.

"Duty" smacks of military might, as duty is the response of those under a hierarchial military authority. The President being the "Commander in Chief".

The Founders did not desire for autocratic rule. America believes in the balance and accountability of power. Our whole system of government is formed to prevent abuse of power.

Thanks for this post! It was well written and true, indeed.

9/23/10, 9:00 AM  
Blogger Angie Van De Merwe said...

Yes, I do agree that it is the passion in regards to individual liberty that brings about commitment to our nation.

1/2/11, 6:11 PM  

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