America! What a wonderful word. America! A word that has carried with it hopes and dreams, promises and possibilities; a new start and second chances. It has meant freedom, opportunity, and prosperity. Only in America!
For many in faraway lands the word “America” still carries with it connotations of a better life, liberty, and enterprise. But what do these ideas really represent? In the America of today, answering that is not an easy task.
Is liberty or paternalism the real America?
Does America represent individual freedom and personal responsibility, or welfare dependency and government-guaranteed security? Is it a land of free enterprisers innovatively satisfying the wants and improving the standards of living of everyone in society, while being guided by the self-interested and peaceful profit motive? Or is it the regulatory state with government’s influencing the direction of society through fiscal manipulation and interventionist commands and controls?
Is America a unique place made up of multitudes of people originating from many other countries but who become one people on the basis of a philosophy of individualism and personal rights? Or is it a house divided with a collectivist philosophy of racial and gender and “social class” tribalism in which the individual is a prisoner of an ideologically fashioned group identity?
Is America a land of limited government with impartial rule of law meant to protect each person’s rights to his life, liberty, and honestly acquired property? Or is it a country of increasingly unlimited political power in which legislation is a tool of mutual plunder and special privilege arising from a democratic process of corrupting envy and shortsighted emotionalism?
Only by looking into the past can we have a better idea and appreciation of the America that inspired so many, and attracted tens of millions to leave their native lands, to undertake the uncertain journey to what was called the “New World” that was far away from the “Old World” with its monarchical tyranny, pervasive poverty, and seemingly endless wars.
It is said that no one shows as much sincere enthusiasm as a new convert to a discovered faith or cause. Someone born into an ongoing community or a prevailing set of ideas easily takes it all for granted and does not see how it may look to a person coming from a totally different social environment, who sees the contrasts and differences between where he came from and to where he has come.
One such person who saw and told about that contrast between the Old World and the New was a Polish nobleman named Count Adam de Gurowski. Born in 1805, he was twice expelled from school when he was a teenager because of his radical Polish nationalist ideas against the Russian rulers of his country. While in his 20s, he was accused of being involved in a plot against the Russian tsar, which resulted in his need to flee Poland and in the Russian government’s confiscating his estates.
Gurowski went to Prussia and studied with the famous German philosopher G.W.F. Hegel at the University of Berlin. He also taught political economy for a brief time while living in Prussia. Whether out of conviction or a more pragmatic desire to return home by getting into the good graces of the Russian government, he renounced his Polish identity and declared himself to be an advocate of Pan-Slavism, with Russia as its heart.
Finding a new home in America
But soon after returning home he again fell out of favor with the Russian authorities because of his criticisms of government policy, and once more had to leave the country. Living for a time in Paris and London, he decided to leave Europe behind and made his way to America in 1849.
Unsuccessful in finding a university teaching position, he became a journalist for the New York Tribune, under the famous editor Horace Greeley. In that role, Gurowski strongly opposed various articles written for the Tribune by one of the newspaper’s European correspondents, Karl Marx!
Gurowski moved to Washington, D.C., and found work in the U.S. State Department in 1861 in the administration of recently elected Abraham Lincoln as a translator of foreign government documents, since he was fluent in more than half a dozen languages. He strongly supported the Union cause to crush the Southern Confederacy and bring an end to slavery.
But he was in no way a blind admirer of the president, considering Lincoln to be a highly ineffective political leader and a mostly incompetent commander in chief. Gurowski bombarded Lincoln’s office with letters criticizing the president’s actions and suggesting what policies should be followed instead. Indeed, Lincoln once jokingly told his bodyguards that he considered Gurowski and his criticisms to be a greater personal threat to his safety than any possible Confederate assassin!
It is no surprise, then, that Gurowski was finally let go from his State Department position. Through- out the Civil War, he kept a detailed running diary of his observations and criticisms of the Lincoln administration and various personalities and events during the conflict. The diary appeared in print in three separately published volumes during and just after the end of the war, and still remains a fascinating commentary on the times. The last of the three volumes was published in 1866, just around the time of his death, at age 60.
Harmony and welcoming arms in America
What is of significance for understanding American liberty as it appeared in that earlier time is Adam Gurowski’s 1857 book, America and Europe. After being in the United States for eight years and having visited different parts of the country, he decided to try to explain and sum up the uniqueness of this young America and its people compared with the much older Europe and its long-established institutions and culture.
Whatever Gurowski’s changing political views when he still lived in the Russian Empire or Imperial Prussia, in America he discovered the idea and practice of liberty that awakened in him the most sincere belief and dedication. America was a land that opened its arms to everyone from almost everywhere, including him.
In Europe, ancient feuds and historical conflicts separated people into hostile camps who found it difficult to peacefully live in each other’s company. But in America, “On this soil fusion operates, ancient hereditary alienations melt and evaporate. One common patriot-ism embraces and inspires them all; reason, freedom and humanity are its watchwords,” Gurowski explained.
America had no immigration barriers. Most people in the United States warmly welcomed the new arrivals, offering support and assistance in finding their way in this new land. Said Gurowski,
The immigrants to America are received without any restriction, with the most unparalleled social and political generosity. The whole sanctuary of institutions is thrown open, is accessible to them. The liberty of action, enjoyed without limit by the American, is conferred on the newcomer. His mental and social sores and ulcers are cared for, and this alike by the political institutions, and by private sacrifices. The humane establishments, public charities and private benevolence here surpass most of the like institutions in Europe….
This constitutes one of the loftiest and warmest features of American society. These charities grow out of inward generous impulses. All the social shadowings participate therein; the men furnish money and their time, the women of the wealthier classes their care, tutorship and instruction, to the poor…. All these establishments are principally beneficial to the foreign-born population, grown up as well as children.
The spirit and practice of self-government
The social and political cradle of American character that made the people so open, welcoming, and positive in their attitudes toward their long-established neighbors as well as the new arrivals wanting to make America their home was the practice and institution of self-government, Gurowski insisted.
In Europe everything was hierarchical and imposed by the political authority that was far above and commanding over the remainder of the society. Everyone looked to the state for security, employment, and the social and cultural needs and enjoyments of the community.
But from the earliest of colonial times, Gurowski said, the American settlers were separated from and de facto independent of the daily commands and controls of those in political power on the other side of the Atlantic. The settlers acted and viewed themselves as self-governing free men.
They gathered together in their town halls, and discussed, debated, and decided among themselves, as more or less equals, concerning the common interests and affairs of their communities in the wilderness. Any voice might be heard, and each of those voices was expected to have something relevant and reasonable to say, and to have it listened to by their neighbors.
Society, in this new America, emerged and took shape not from the top down as in Europe, but from the bottom up directly from the interactions of the free individual citizens, and not imposed by historical and hereditary power coming from on high. This bred in people a sense of both political freedom and equality: freedom in that no man should be ruled without his participation and consent; and equality in that every individual was taken to have the same individual rights and self-responsibilities as everyone else within the community.
The self-governing individual and private enterprise
But self-governing freedom, Gurowski also explained, did not only refer to participation in the common political affairs of the community and wider society. It also and more importantly referred to the self-governing individuals who, on their own or in consort with others through the voluntary institutions of civil society, went about the affairs of everyday life. That was key to understanding the essence of America, Gurowski emphasized:
Every thing great, beneficial, useful in America, is accomplished without the action of the so-called government, notwithstanding even its popular, self-governing character. Individual impulses, private enterprise, association, free activity, the initiative pouring everlastingly from within the people, are mostly substituted here for what in European societies and nations forms the task of governments….
But by far the larger number of monuments, works and useful establishments, for industry, trade, for facilitating and spreading tuition and mental culture, universities, schools and scientific establishments, are created and endowed by private enterprise, by private association, and by individual munificence….
Neither individuals separately, nor the aggregated people look to the government for such creations; private association and enterprise, those corollaries of self-government — untrammelled by governmental action — have covered the land with railways and canals….
All this could not have been miraculously carried out, if the American people had been accustomed to look to a government for the initiative, instead of taking it themselves. Without the self-governing impulse, America would be materially and socially a wilderness.
Nor was any of this progress by private initiative at an end in America. It was just beginning. Gurowski was certain that private enterprise would not only continue to do all that it was already doing, but many things still taken for granted as duties for government even in the United States would pass into the superior hands of private enterprisers, including aspects of national defense and foreign affairs:
The superiority of private enterprise over any so-called governmental centralizing action is daily evidenced here. In many branches of administration the government remains behind what an individual enterprise fulfills. Thus the carriage of letters and the whole branch of postal administration is successfully rivaled by private expresses. Many other administrative branches seem destined in the course of time, to be superseded by private enterprise.
A time may come, when even armaments and armies may be levied on the account of states, but by private individuals. Armories and navy docks would today be better managed by private than they are by governmental administration. Even external relations are better secured by the numberless threads of private interests, between America and Europe, which extend and cross each other, than by official representatives, or by the stipulations of treaties and conventions.
For all those things to be done, the American “could not wait for the permission or sanction of those urgings by a government, or submit to receive advice, or move in the leading-strings of governmental directions. All this is wholly incompatible with the nature of the American, with his mental habits, as well as with the combination of circumstances around him.”
The poison of slavery in America
Not all was well in America, of course; far from it. And Gurowski understood that very well. The deepest and darkest stain on the American landscape was slavery. He devoted a lengthy chapter to analyze and dissect the reasons and rationales used by those in the Southern states and their apologists in the North to justify this terrible institution.
Africans seemed to have a lower intellect and reasoning capacity than whites? How can any man, regardless of the color of his skin, develop normal and natural mental skills and rational faculties, if he is kept in illiterate ignorance and treated as a mindless creature of burden?
Black slaves showed no initiative, or forethought in their actions? What could you expect, when the natural desires of any normal human being to think and plan for the future with confidence that the rewards that could be his from any successful actions are denied to him, since he has no independent life and all that he might do is stolen from him for the plundering benefit of his cruel master?
In that chapter and in a later book, Slavery in History (1860), Gurowski detailed that every civilization around the world had had slavery. With conquest came capture, and if the victor did not kill you he enslaved you to do the work he could not or did not want to do. It had nothing to do with race, or skin color. Only one quality stood out with the particular American form of this immoral institution: the cruelty and insensitivity of the Southern masters concerning the inescapable humanness of those they held in perpetual bondage.
Immigrants and integration
Matters of more modern debate in America were already clouding the skies in Gurowski’s time. The 1840s and 1850s had seen a large and continuing influx of Irish and German immigrants. Gurowski would have nothing to do with the already emergent anti-immigration groups, such as the “No-Nothings,” who wished to restrict the entry of new arrivals and constrain their liberties for a new life once in their new land.
But he wondered, how do you easily integrate and assimilate into the wider American society large numbers of immigrants such as the Irish who had suffered for centuries from two types of tyranny: the political despotism of harsh British rule, and the hierarchical authoritarianism of Roman Catholic theology, and the mind control of the Church’s priesthood?
On the other hand, there was the large wave of German immigrants who were hardy and disciplined workers with skills, determination, and industry. But they wanted to cling to their German language and their German culture in a country geographically, culturally, and linguistically far removed from the homeland from which they had come.
Gurowski was generally confidant that time and immersion within the wider America society would succeed over a generation or two in making all such immigrants and their children participants and believers in the American ideals of individualism, independence, self-responsibility, and voluntarism, regardless of original culture, language, or religion.
The better means of educating to be an American
He considered that an element in the integrating process had been the local community common schools. Here all the children in a town or village came together in that “little red schoolhouse” and came to share in a common learning experience. He did not support or endorse any rigid or top-down mandatory schooling system, such as that which came to dominate the American landscape, especially in the 20th century. But he believed that the schoolroom served as a meeting place in which young minds came together to learn lessons about the values of a free people.
But if Adam Gurowski saw localized government schools as the means of integrating immigrants into American society, other classical liberal-oriented visitors to the United States had more faith in the free society, and less in even local government.
In the same year as Gurowski’s book on America and Europe, there appeared also in 1857 James Sterling’s Letters from the Slave States. Sterling was a member of the British Parliament, and on the basis of his own extensive travels around America, with particular emphasis on the travesties of slavery in the South, he came to a different and more negative conclusion about the role of government schools to prepare people as free citizens. Said Sterling,
The American puts his trust in his common schools. For my part, I have small faith in the power of spelling-books and catechisms to teach man his political duties. The life of the citizen, I take it, is the only school of citizenship. The American is educated by his freedom; he thinks and acts for himself, instead of having a prefect or a director of police to think and act for him. This is his true and ennobling self-government….
I confess it seems strange to me that the American, with his horror of a State Church, should take so kindly to a State-school. In principle they are identical: the essence of both is an authoritative molding of the human soul. Be this as it may, I should tremble for America if her common schools were her sole bulwark against mobocracy.
A better safeguard for liberty in America, was giving “free scope and natural expansion,” Sterling said, to the spirit of freedom of industry and enterprise for educating people into the values and importance of a free society.
By seeing through the eyes of new Americans such as Adam Gurowski in the 1850s, we can understand the meaning and importance of liberty, private enterprise, and limited government in ways that we who have come long after him have lost sight of. Listening to him, and others like him, gives us a better appreciation of the freer America we should and could regain if we but try.
This article was originally published in the June 2019 edition of Future of Freedom.