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American Heritage Book Selection

Reading, Writing And History

July 2024
14min read

Conscience and Midnight

A national conscience can be a very strange thing, especially when the nation involved is America. It is not quite the same as the conscience of an individual human being, the chief difference being that it tends to operate after the event; that is, it functions less to keep society from sin than to bring about a return to first principles after the sin has been committed. It is the embodiment of the nation’s prevailing moral values, the deep essence of the lasting beliefs that give the nation its character; to trace its history is to examine the faith of an entire people and to see how that faith is perennially readjusted under the pressure of a changing environment.

Such a historical study is performed by Roger Burlingame in a brooding, thoughtful book entitled The American Conscience. Its great virtue is that it provides a new viewpoint from which to survey what the American people have done and what they have failed to do, and it leaves one once more with the feeling that the American experience has been deeply and significantly unique.

At the base of the national conscience, says Mr. Burlingame, lies the hard core of Calvinism that goes straight back to New England. But although this core was, and is, uncommonly tough, it has been profoundly wrought upon by three things peculiar to America—by the physical and spiritual isolation of Americans, by the immense influence of the frontier (wide open, steadily retreating, and then finally closing forever), and by the incredible natural wealth which was waiting to be exploited. The result was a strange sea change, not anticipated by the founding fathers. The harsh rigidities of the old Puritan doctrine became transmuted into a warm and intimate faith, broad enough to embrace the ideals of freedom and liberty that could unite an entire people.

Out of all of this, says Mr. Burlingame, we got an unexpected mixture: a strong basic morality which always enables the nation to recover from its worst lapses, overlaid by memories which at times provoke a desperate desire to regain an earlier dream. Isolation is gone and the frontier is gone, and the illimitable endowment of natural wealth has changed beyond recognition; yet a people whose inner faith leads it constantly to look to the future is impelled, periodically, to try to get back to a time when those things had not changed and when life seemed a great deal simpler and more reassuring. So we do odd things; we try to re-establish the old isolation, we try to live again by frontier law and customs, we give lip service to slogans and catch phrases that were born when a virgin continent was only beginning to yield its riches. It never works—and when these foredoomed longings lead us into deplorable excesses (which does happen, now and then) we come to, finally, with a re-examination of our conscience and a determination to try to do better hereafter.

For the chief service of this American conscience has perhaps been the deep resilience with which it has equipped the American character. Our ethical sense may at times lie inactive in the face of the grossest misbehavior, but it always compels us, eventually, to look back, to lament the wrongs that have been done, and to make a fresh start toward the future. As Mr. Burlingame points out, the true significance of the famous Salem witch hunt was not the fact that a number of innocent people were hanged, but that the New England conscience arose afterward and led to a salutary public repentance.

Furthermore, we are driven at times to put our noblest ideals into words by which we thereafter are obliged to live. There is, for instance, the Declaration of Independence—which, as Mr. Burlingame remarks, was essentially a creed, “a body of doctrine on which much of the social and political philosophy of a nation has been built.” The authors of the Declaration set forth such concepts as the God-given equality of all men as self-evident truths. At that moment, however, those truths were not self-evident at all; they were nothing more than the statement of a compelling ideal which was taking shape inside the American heart and mind, and we have been working ever since to put them into practical effect. Generation after generation, here is the profession of faith which Americans can never forget; “It keeps coming back to wake us at night, to shame us into reforming legislation, to stir us, indeed, to war against those who exploit the inequalities of man.”

The American Conscience, by Roger Burlingame. Alfred A. Knopf. 420 pp. $6.75.

Out of this have come the bitter struggles to end slavery, to wipe out racial discrimination, and to maintain an undying opposition to the monstrosities of the police state. Hand in hand with these struggles, to be sure, have come moments of bleak forgetfulness; we wholeheartedly ground the Noble Red Man into the dust in order to possess his hunting grounds, we took by force of arms an empire away from Mexico, and in our war to bring Negro slavery to an end we neglected to pay much attention to the rights of other southerners. Yet we have never been able to be really complacent about such things. We can always recognize a wrong after we have committed it, and if it is then too late to undo it we usually do try to make such repairs as may be possible.

It would be a great deal better, to be sure, if we could refrain from the wrongs in the first place, and a conscience which leads to repentance rather than to unvarying rectitude is probably somewhat defective. But the important thing is that in a cynical and materialistic world we do retain the abiding faith that we live in a world of profound moral values.

Victor’s Conscience

Probably it is conscience (among other things) that impels us to keep re-examining the Civil War. That war left us with a fearfully complex heritage, a singular blend of victory and defeat—victory and defeat not merely for the armies engaged but for the ideals and the hopes that were taken into the war. As a part of this heritage we have an uneasy conscience, and the striking thing is that this uneasy conscience belongs to the victors rather than to the vanquished.

Viewed long-range the war did accomplish a good deal, but a frightful human cost was paid. We have been haunted ever since by the feeling that somehow there ought to have been a better way to settle things. In recent years a highly industrious school of historians has begun asking whether the war should have been fought at all and whether it was perhaps not more the fault of the North than of the South. Seeking to revise earlier judgments they have become known as the revisionists, and one of the most gifted and studious of them all is Avery Craven, whose The Coming of the Civil War, issued fourteen years ago, is one of the landmarks of revisionist literature.

Mr. Craven now appears with a new and revised edition of this famous book, in which he appears to modify some of his earlier pronouncements a little— or, if not to modify them, at least to set people straight on his actual findings. He has not (he says) tried to untangle all of the complex factors that led to war, he has not characterized it as “a needless war,” and he has emphatically not tried to defend the institution of slavery. What he has done is try to figure out why the democratic process failed so dismally, in the generation just before 1860, that war finally became inevitable. It was an “irrepressible” conflict, at last, despite the revisionists; the tragedy lies in the way in which that word “irrepressible” finally got into the phrase.

We still have, you see, a national conscience, and this is one of the things about which it wakes us up in the small hours. We muffed one; we brought an infinity of tragedy, loss, and bitterness on a green and smiling land; there was some way by which we could have averted it—and what did we do, specifically, that was wrong?

As Mr. Craven says, the conflict was not built-in from the beginning. Physical and social differences between North and South did not make the war inevitable. There was sectional rivalry for a long time, but it was something reasonable men could handle—up to a certain point. Then slavery somehow became the symbol of a conflict between two societies. Men got past the point where they could reason. Rights and wrongs became involved, the difficulty being that men of the two sections saw them differently. At last, “good men had no choice but to kill and to be killed.” Why?

If our national conscience does nothing more for us than this, it justifies itself. That is, it is forever compelling us to ask that question why? The attempt to find an answer is at least a good start on the upward path, and to this genesis Mr. Craven makes a substantial contribution.

As a nation, we were expanding prodigiously, and the expansion magnified sectional differences. Old balances of power shifted, and because Americans are what they are, deep questions of right and wrong became involved in matters which originally had no moral connotation. The national parties which had formerly claimed men’s allegiance broke up under the strain; when the moral issues (seen so differently by men from different parts of the nation) became dominant, compromise became impossible. The maintenance of principle became a matter of honor—and then, somewhere between the Missouri Compromise and the bloody troubles in Kansas, the war in fact did become inevitable. The possession of a national conscience—especially one which is vague enough to permit it to be split two ways—can be a costly heritage.

The Coming of the Civil War, by Avery Craven. Second edition, revised. The University of Chicago Press. 480 pp. $5.

There were many significant turning points along this road. The most portentous, as Mr. Craven sees it, was probably the John Brown raid on Harper’s Ferry in 1859. This stirred the North, but it stirred the South even more; for out of this pitiable fiasco—it accomplished nothing, physically, and it never could have accomplished anything—came the parting of the ways. Now the two sections had to see themselves as estranged, men seeking different goals and living by different ideals; the race question was shoved into the middle of a political dispute, and men turned to emotion instead of to thought. Politicians and reformers were through. Now the fighting man had to be called on, simply because everyone else who had been called on had failed.

We do see things from the moralist’s viewpoint. It is an unhandy sort of arrangement, from the practical standpoint, for it can involve us in conflicts which we might otherwise avoid—of which the most costly are the conflicts with our own spirit, which was the essence of the Civil War. Perhaps the historian’s greatest responsibility, in America, is to weigh the advantages against the losses and see what the whole business has amounted to.

A Simpler Era

Things were easier, once, when the world was a little less complex and when that blind Samson, man, had not yet placed his hands on the pillars of the temple, with a leverage under his feet which would enable one contraction of his muscles to bring the roof down about his ears. For slightly more than a century Americans have been deeply concerned about Hungary’s despairing effort to win a little freedom for its people. The Hungarian revolt of 1848–49 aroused enormous sympathy in this country, and the sympathy was boldly outspoken; the one of 1956 aroused equal sympathy, but this time the sympathy was tempered by a great deal of caution. One false move, nowadays, could drive the pillars apart and bring the roof down, and we are forever aware of it.

In any case, Andor Klay brings up a forgotten bit of American history in a book called Daring Diplomacy, which tells how the America of a century ago, not bothered greatly by the pale cast of thought, invited the Austrian empire to make something, if it dared, out of American sympathy for Hungarian revolutionists.

When Louis Kossuth’s rebellion was put down by the Austrians (with the essential help of Russian troops) a Hungarian freedom-fighter named Martin Koszta fled from his homeland, filed the first papers which showed his intention to become an American citizen, and then took temporary refuge in Turkey. In 1853 agents of the Austrian government kidnapped him and put him in the brig of an Austrian man-ofwar in Smyrna harbor; he would be taken back to Austria and there, inevitably, he would be executed. The rulers of the Austrian empire then were nearly as ruthless and vicious as any present-day totalitarian state; the only difference was that they did not quite have modern efficiency.

Daring Diplomacy: The Case of the First American Ultimatum, by Andor Klay. The University of Minnesota Press. 240 pp. $5.

In any case, Koszta’s arrest raised a storm. Among those who were hit by it were the American consul in Smyrna, Edward S. Offley, and the skipper of an American warship which just happened to visit Smyrna at the time, Captain Duncan Nathaniel Ingraham. These two concluded that although Koszta was not actually a full-fledged American citizen he was a freedom-loving human being who was about to be railroaded off to execution; as such, with his flimsy claim on American legal protection, he had an ironclad claim on the American conscience, and they set out to rescue him.

They did it in the simplest way imaginable—by the open threat to use unlimited force. After much posturing, negotiating, and parading, Koszta was at last turned loose. The government in Washington sustained its ardent agents in Smyrna, America’s willingness to intervene on behalf of a fighter for freedom was duly emphasized, and the doughty Captain Ingraham received a handsome medal by vote of the United States Congress. When he returned to this country he found himself a national hero … and in 1861, when the country broke apart, he followed his state (he came from South Carolina), took a commission in the Confederate Navy and helped General Beauregard in the bombardment of Fort Sumter.

All of which proves nothing much, probably—except that it was, on the whole, simpler and easier for America in 1853 to take a firm stand in favor of freedom for Hungary than it was in 1956, even though the issues were much the same. Conscience could operate then without taking counsel of its fears. Today it cannot; or, at least, does not—will not. And somehow the Koszta-Offley-Ingraham incident makes refreshing reading right now.


The stakes, really, are always just about the same. In the end they come down to a national willingness (or lack of it) to put everything on the line for the sake of something believed in. The price is always high; in our own Civil War it went almost beyond enurance, but there are times when men take the risk.

There was, for instance, the Battle of Gettysburg—one of the frightful incidents in the war which, as Mr. Craven has remarked, might not have happened if the democratic process had not collapsed under the weight of overcharged emotions. Gettysburg has been described many times, but the story somehow is always fresh, and a good retelling is provided in Edward J. Stackpole’s They Met at Gettysburg.

Mr. Stackpole is not trying to get the overtones in; he is simply telling the story of Gettysburg, from the moment when Robert E. Lee decided to invade Pennsylvania down to the despairing hour when he took his beaten army back to the crossing of the Potomac and headed for Appomattox. Yet this is one of those poignant, moving American stories for which the reader supplies his own overtones. Each regimental movement, each decision made in the heat of action by this or that overtried commanding officer, carries fate with it; all of the might-have-beens in the American legend, together with the still unresolved intangibles which go along with what actually did happen, cluster about each attack, each repulse, each incredible feat of heroism and endurance on that dreadful field of battle.

So here, once again, is Gettysburg, spelled out on a play-by-play basis, with a minimum of emotion on the part of the writer and a vast amount of care to get all of the details right. On the face of it, this was just another battle in just another war. Actually, it was one more chapter in the story of the unfolding of the American conscience. In a sense, this was where the roof did fall in, and many values were buried under the debris; but this, too, is where 150,000 Americans lived up to the imperative which the national conscience had laid upon them.

They Met at Gettysburg, by Edward J. Stackpole. Eagle Books, Harrisburg, Pa. 327 pp. $4.95.

The Earthquake

New England, the Mason-Dixon Line, Smyrna, Gettysburg—and then Lisbon, Portugal, in the year 1755: the step is a long one, and yet it has its own bearing on this study of what conscience does to us in America. For the national conscience is not yet through with us. It is confronted, every so often, by the necessity to take a new set of values into account, and when that happens Shakespeare’s dictum holds good—it makes cowards of us all. We can face physical threats in this country without batting an eye; it is the fear of things unseen that really hurts.

So what happened in Lisbon in November, 1755, has a bearing on our own American story.

Lisbon in that year was struck by a prodigious earthquake. It wrecked a great part of the city, touched off disastrous fires, cost upwards of 10,000 lives—contemporary reports put the death list at 50,000 or more, but the reality was bad enough—and gave modern thinking a jar from which it was many generations in recovering. The story of it is told by T. D. Kendrick, director of the British Museum, in The Lisbon Earthquake , a book which has a good deal more timeliness than appears on the surface.

This earthquake struck in the middle of a pious and self-assured age. God was in His Heaven, from which place He looked down with an ever-mindful eye on His children on earth; nothing happened here without His express consent, and natural disasters—we still call them “acts of God” in our insurance policies—could have no other object than to punish the wicked and admonish the faithful. Floods, hurricanes, pestilences, earthquakes—these were not simply natural occurrences; they were blows struck by Providence, each one freighted with its own tragic significance.

Consequently the disaster that wrecked Lisbon compelled men to take thought. The immediate problem concerned the immediate survivors: should they scurry around, pick up the pieces as best they could, bury the dead and clear away the wreckage and strive to get the city back on a normal footing, or should they don sackcloth and ashes, forget all worldly considerations, and do whatever might be possible to save their souls and avert further wrath from on high? Practical considerations being what they are, most of the people of Lisbon buckled down to the former task. But the mere fact that the question had been so brutally posed jarred men’s thinking.

The Lisbon Earthquake, by T. D. Kendrick. The J. B. Lippincott Co. 250 pp. $4.

More fundamental, however, was the fact that men were compelled to ask once more what sort of world they were living in. Does everything on this earthly plane work out for the best for God-fearing men and women, or does evil itself exist as a concrete and inescapable fact, and are the virtuous quite as likely as the wicked to be struck down without warning by some appalling and unpredictable turn of fate? Not since the fall of Rome in the Fifth Century, says Mr. Kendrick, had anything so shocked the minds of Western men as did the Lisbon earthquake. Easy optimism was ended forever. Men were compelled to re-examine not merely the nature of Providence but the part which they themselves were called on to play in the great scheme of things.

And the Bomb

Which is where we touch modern America. We are living under the shadow of a Lisbon earthquake ourselves these days—an earthquake of our own making, which goes under that most fearful word in the modern lexicon— Hiroshima. Here was a catastrophe to make what happened to Lisbon look mild, and it was not sent down by an inscrutable Providence but was the product of our own ultrascientific planning. We did this, we Americans, after many generations of upward striving; we introduced this new horror into the world, we placed all mankind under the threat of destruction by earthquake, wind and fire, and we have an infernally restless conscience as a result. Once more, Western man is compelled to take another long look at himself and his place in the world.

This is pointed up in a profoundly moving little book, Nine Who Survived Hiroshima and Nagasaki , by Robert Trumbull, a reporter on the staff of the New York Times , currently the head of that newspaper’s Tokyo bureau. Mr. Trumbull has brought together the almost incredible stories of nine Japanese who, living through the catastrophe at Hiroshima, made their way to Nagasaki just in time to be under the second atomic bomb when it was dropped on that city. They lived through that explosion too—and here is what they have to say about it all.

To say that this book makes harrowing reading is to put it mildly. It is all but unendurable, not simply because it is a compact, strangely unemotional account of unimaginable horrors but even more because every American reader is compelled, as he reads, to live with his own share of the responsibility.

The Lisbon quake killed 10,000. At Hiroshima, somewhere between 50,000 and 60,000 people died in the moment of the explosion; at Nagasaki, perhaps 20,000 more were destroyed. Lisbon forced Western man to think long and hard about his beliefs regarding God’s Providence; Hiroshima and Nagasaki force Western man to think long and hard about man himself and about the terror which he has brought down on himself. There is material here to keep the American conscience astir for quite a time to come.

Nine Who Survived Hiroshima and Nagasaki, by Robert Trumbull. E. P. Button & Co. 141 pp. $2.95.

For the moment conscience has brought on fear— which, in the fullness of time, may be the beginning of wisdom. We find it hard now to take a firm and fearless stand for Hungarian freedom, as we did in 1853, regardless of the consequences; the consequences now may be more than any men dare to face. We are the prisoners now of what we ourselves did. Even our generous impulses are paralyzed.

We began with a stern Calvinism, we lived by ourselves and we pursued an expanding frontier, reaping the richest of rewards as we moved on, and we come down at last to the world of nuclear fission which is compelling us to recast our thinking down to its very tap-roots—to recast our thinking and to look deeply into our hearts.

Mr. Burlingame is right about it; something comes to us in the middle of the night to awaken us and make us reflect on what we have done. We are not today very far past that fateful midnight, and the dawn is a long way off. Perhaps the prodding of the American conscience, which is now at work with the sharpest of goads, will eventually bring us through to full daylight. It is about our only hope.

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