If you were an archaeologist ten thousand years from now, searching through the rubble of our civilization, how could you tell what Americans thought of their government, supposing all books had been burnt and all virtual records had vanished into the dissipated Cloud?
Before I suggest an answer, I’d like to note an ambiguity about the phrase, their government. For the verb embedded in government can have an active, a middle, or a passive force. If we think of it as active, the phrase suggests that Americans are governing: government is something they do in order to secure the common good. They are in charge. They say, to take an example from my youth, “Let us buy that land owned by the defunct coal company, level it, bury the coal-flakes under a few feet of earth, and build a ball field.” They say, to take another such example, “Let us finally get around to putting up signs on our streets, so that strangers, not to mention our own people, will know where they are going.”
If you think these matters are trivial, consider that much of what a national government does legitimately is but what a town would do, writ large. Consider also that before the seventeenth amendment mandating the direct election of senators, your local farmer down the road, representing your small district in the state legislature, might be a swing vote for deciding your state’s next senatorial election, and thus did local government hold a powerful lever, easily accessible to ordinary citizens, for moving the national government one way or another. Americans governed. The archaeologist would still have to determine to what extent they were able or were permitted to govern, and with what results.
If we take the verb with what grammarians call a “middle” sense, between the active and the passive, the phrase their government suggests that Americans are governing themselves. They are both the actors and those who are acted upon. I don’t mean that some Americans over here pass laws, which other Americans over there have to obey. I mean that the same people do the same things. They are the ones who ask whether, to take an example from my youth, it is a wise or a foolish thing to teach arithmetic to children by means of set theory rather than by the old methods of calculation. They are the ones whose job it is to ask whether, to take an issue that has gone to federal courts at tremendous expense of money and labor and attention, it is a good or bad thing for the football coach to lead his team in prayer at the beginning of that violent game. They, the common people, govern.
We can go a little farther in this middle sense. Much of what self-governors do, they do not by themselves and among themselves, but within themselves. I may practice the craft of sculpture by getting the feel of marble and learning what do to with a hammer and a chisel or a rasp and a file. But when I practice a virtue, my soul itself is the marble I am working on. To ask, then, whether or how or to what extent Americans governed themselves, you must ask about their virtues, especially those that involve some sweat or pain, or that subordinate the self to something or someone superior to it: virtues such as self-restraint, duty, honesty, diligence, piety. What kind of people were these self-governors? What did they aspire to? Did they in fact govern themselves?
And then there is the passive sense. There’s no evading it. To govern, we must be governed. What did Americans think about their government, that is, the creature or the mechanism that governed them? Here I am not talking about whether that government did its assigned tasks well or badly. Many a primitive tribesman may have had much to say about the folly of the current council of elders, comparing them invidiously to elders of bygone years. I am talking about what kind of thing they thought their government was, regardless of its merits. What was that creature, the State? Or were they the creatures of the State?
Without records, what might the archaeologist do? He might, I think, consider government buildings. I am thinking here of two courthouses, both from Kent County, Rhode Island-the county where my family and I lived for more than twenty years.
The old courthouse, now a town hall, is on the main street in East Greenwich. It is built on a human scale, in the so-called “federal” style. It has wooden sides and a slate roof, like many homes in its neighborhood. Surmounting the facade and echoing the shape and style of the front entry, there stands a triangular pediment, a visual allusion to the public buildings of ancient Greece and Rome- our cultural ancestors in democratic and republican government. Yet the courthouse is meant to be specifically American and with a New England flair; hence the dormer windows in front and the central watchtower and belfry, for looking out to sea and for ringing the curfew or the alarm. Those echo the steeples and belfries of the churches nearby. With good reason, since the town hall was a kind of civic manifestation of, or reflection of, the highest concerns of man, which involve his relationship with God, as both his Creator and his Judge.
Then there is the new courthouse. It is not in East Greenwich. Nobody really cares where it is, because it does not have any function embedded in any specific locale. In fact, it sits on a business-dominated access road to a highway. No one would walk to it. Just as it has no relation to any neighborhood, it has no architectural relation to any of the ordinary things people do. It does not look like a home. It does not look like a church. It is a five-story edifice made of aluminum, plate glass, and brick, in massive and mutually incoherent sections, without any of the small features that announce to the onlooker that a human hand once planed the beam or dressed the stone. On the grounds in front, near the street, stand five large concrete spikes, slanted toward the building, looking like the teeth of some imaginary beast. At the right, beside a massive brick wall with the words “Governor Philip W. Noel Judicial Complex” fastened near the top like a garish advertisement, there sits a graveled area, bounded with a chain-link fence and great loops of barbed wire, for those most guilty and unfortunate souls whom the Judicial Complex has got between its jaws. The building’s most interesting visual feature, the one thing you can imagine having something physically to do with the human body, is meant as a threat, to confine or to rip the flesh.
The old courthouse looked like a place where human beings did human things. You could imagine children milling about it, and in fact the people of East Greenwich have erected a couple of bronze statues of children to grace the lawn in front. The new courthouse looks like a place where human beings have things done to them, things they do not enjoy, and perhaps, after a certain point, things they have no say in. It is part machine, part monster. You see no trace of the Parthenon, or the Roman forum, or Notre-Dame de Paris, or Monticello, or a New England congregationalist church, or a farmhouse along the Connecticut River. It has no past; it acknowledges no present; it aspires to no future.
What does the archaeologist conclude? Perhaps this: it is the emblem of a people who were governed, but the power had passed from their hands into what they no longer controlled, and perhaps what they no longer could even conceive of except in the most abstract and bloodless terms. Had they lost their bearings? They had forgotten they ever had bearings to lose. They built big buildings, not great or grand buildings, and they allowed themselves not to be uplifted by them, but to be dwarfed or crushed.
America, must it remain so?