Before the United States was even founded, in our collective mind, America was seemingly always a nation in decline. As a tenet of our national identity this sense of entropy crosses ideological barriers, in a country divided the idea that we’re rapidly collapsing seems to be one shared belief. This fear of the polity imploding under its own decadence, or injustice, or immorality (and which you identify as the catalyst depends on your politics) is central to our belief in American exceptionality, which again, for better or for worse, seems to cut across partisan lines.
If you go to the top floor of the New-York Historical Society on Central Park West, you can see a remarkable series of five interrelated massive paintings created by the Hudson Valley School painter Thomas Cole from 1833 to 1836 (sadly the gallery is being currently restored, so the paintings are in storage). This series, collectively entitled The Course of Empire, depicts the rise and fall of an imaginary society from its pastoral, agrarian past through republicanism and imperialism to a post-apocalyptic future.
The name of the series alludes to the eighteenth-century Anglo-Irish philosopher George Berkley’s poem “Verses on the Prospect of Planting Arts and Learning in America,” where he wrote “Westward the course of Empire takes its way,” identifying the western hemisphere as the location for the messianic closing act of human history, where “Time’s noblest offspring is its last.” Berkley’s poem, though it makes no reference to religion, clearly expresses a secularized version of a distinctly eschatological theology. Borrowing from the classical trope of translatio studii et imperii and the biblical concept of a millennial Fifth Monarchy, Berkley conceptualized the New World in a utopian, or even chiliastic sense. This belief, of America as the “last, best hope of earth” (as Lincoln put it) laid at the core of what historian Ernest Tuveson has called the tenet of the “redeemer nation.”
Yet where a sense of covenantal and providential mission defined national identity there is also a profound fear of breaking that covenant. Witness that though Cole’s painting series references the Berkeley poem, he advertised his exhibition with a different one by his near-contemporary Lord Byron. The English poet wrote of the natural cycle of civilizations and empire, “First freedom and then Glory – when that fails, /Wealth, vice, corruption – barbarism at last. /And History, with all her volumes vast, /Hath but one page.” Byron may have been exhibiting a fashionable Romantic pessimism, but it spoke to particularly American currents in Cole’s mind – that if America is the teleological culmination of history the threat of profound failure was that much more possible, and damning.
The first painting in the series, “The Savage State,” depicts Indian-like hunters and gatherers in an Edenic, dramatic, lush, forested landscape, a craggy mountain rising in the distance. As if to comment upon eternal nature in opposition to the mercurial rise and fall of human societies, the mountain remains the one constant across the series. The second painting “The Arcadian or Pastoral State” depicts a primitive, Bronze Age gathering of people, whose culture is a seeming fusion of ancient Greece and Britain (a stone monolith is visible in the front of the scene). “The Consummation of Empire,” the third painting, shows a growing pre-imperial city of white marble and alabaster, colonnaded and columned, depicting the stability of Republican Athens or Rome – or neo-classical Washington. The fourth painting – “Destruction” – shows an opulent city in the process of being burnt to the ground, massive public art being destroyed, civil strife and violence. “Desolation” – the final painting – shows us a world returned to stasis, the ruins of the once great city overtaken by nature from the first painting, the environment reclaiming its dominion over what men had once created.
Cole performs for a nation what the eighteenth-century British artist William Hogarth did for an individual in The Rake’s Progress; he provides a didactic cautionary tale about the perils of national greatness. His art takes part in a popular classicism at the time, inherited from the revolutionary generation and viewing the United States through the prism of Roman history. But despite its classicism, it also harkens towards Abrahamic themes. The series is a visual jeremiad, it takes part in what historian Sacvan Bercovitch identified as that most American of rhetorical genres, which bemoans our failure at living up to our end of the bargain in a contractual deed concerning our country’s destiny. In 1620 aboard the Arbela, John Winthrop famously declared that New England should be as a “city on a hill,” but warned that the experiment should be as a byword throughout the world if they were to fail. It only took a generation for theologians and ministers like Samuel Danforth and Increase and Cotton Mather to preach about our failure to live up to our prophetic promise. The trope of jeremiad has remained central to American political discourse since the seventeenth-century, engaged across the political spectrum. Indeed every single presidential candidate this season offers a version of the jeremiad, a claim that we embody a particularly unique promise, but that if we abuse this almost-divine gift we call upon the fate of either painting four or five of Cole’s series. In the twentieth-century, the only president who didn’t embody this sort of millennial-turn-apocalyptic vision of the nation was perhaps Jimmy Carter, whose anti-millennial orthodox Augustinianism was on display in the bemoaned (yet mature) “malaise speech” – which tellingly remains a singularly unpopular address. Americans don’t like to be dissuaded of their myths.
Berkley’s poem with its evocation of the five kingdoms of history might seem particularly biblical, and Cole’s painting a reflection of Enlightenment classicism (even with its Romantic veneer), but this need not be a contradiction. The Victorian critic Matthew Arnold spoke of western civilization existing between two poles of “Hebraism” and “Hellenism,” and indeed so is the case with our myths of decline. Puritan ministers in seventeenth-century Boston may have spoken of our sacred national experiment falling short of the faith of Jerusalem, and republican deists in eighteenth-century Philadelphia may have warned that our political attempt must live up to the ideals of Athens, but these positions are really not so different. As the German philosopher Carl Schmitt argued, “All significant concepts of the modern theory of the state are secularized theological concepts.” So to with the doctrines of what sociologist Robert Bellah calls “American civil religion,” an anxiety that a post-American world may be a post-lapserian world, where a perceived decline in national greatness means a decline in humanity as well. For as much as we view ourselves as the end result of history, an exceptional nation on the Earth, we also are endlessly obsessed with imagining our own destruction, as seen with the dictum that holds that the more famous monuments that are destroyed on the film screen, the more money a movie will make.
If presidential candidates today declare that America’s greatness is in its past, it’s sobering to remember that this sort of rhetoric was common when the country was only a half century old, and yet the nation is still here. No doubt there are serious problems that need to be addressed, concerning income inequality, the environment, and other issues, but these are questions of policy, not mythopoesis. Myths are the collective dreams of a culture, and they can provide guidance, but an oppressive myth can also be an albatross. Writers in the early Republic feared a declining future of bread and circuses, but we are under no obligation, nor is it inevitable, that we have to attend games at the coliseum. We can decide to turn the reality television show off. The specter of a declining civilization is one that is self-created and then projected onto reality, but narrative need not be destiny. Every citizen’s responsibility is to prevent the future from becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Ed Simon is a PhD candidate in English at Lehigh University, where he studies early modern religion and literature. He is a contributor at several sites, and can be followed at both edsimon.org and on Twitter @WithEdSimon.