Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Wyndham Lewis on Jefferson and Hamilton: "a perfect political polarity"

Writer, artist, and literary critic Wyndham Lewis (1882-1957) offered a kaleidoscopic view of American history in America and Cosmic Man (Doubleday, 1948) one of a score of books that commented on the bold new shape of the geopolitical world after World War II. 

Although the title would suggest a kind of 
mystical world-to-come, these personal and political essays are pragmatic and often conservative in their tone, more than a bit cynical of developing government control, and sometimes wide of the mark: the hard reality of post-war politics in Europe and America far outpaced the hopes of the artist, who wrote most of these essays in 1946. He hoped America might lead the way to the end of the "plural sovereignty" of nations, "now that the earth has become one big village, with telephones laid on from one end to the other, and air transport, both speedy and safe."

As one critic 
remarked about the clash of ideals and realities that developed of the Cold War, Korea, and McCarthyism, "Little did Lewis realize what a rotten example the American average man would set." Though world events -- and his own checkered history as a conservative provocateur -- proved his conclusions at times faulty, Lewis's sharp wit makes for entertaining reading. From a chapter simply entitled "American History," here he outlines the "perfect polarity" between two of the nation's Founding Fathers, Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton.

The history of America is compact, because so short, and -- in consequence of America's remoteness -- not mixed up with those of other people's. Up to the "shot that rang around the world," or more formally, up to July 4, 1776, when America declared its independence, Americans were Englishmen. ... 

The new state duly came to birth in the year 1776: it was an English civil war, a Whig putsch against George III, engineered by a group of ambitious English colonists. The colonists participated, as Whigs and Tories, in English politics. When the King's army was defeated, the American Whigs drove out all the Tories -- the "fifth columnists" of that day -- and confiscated their property.

 (The Constitution) is venerated as if Jehovah had stepped out of a cloud and handed it to General Washington. Its terms have been religiously observed ever since, by Swede, Swiss, Pole, Chinese, Jew, and even by the Irish. Only Lincoln acted as if it were not there and p
aid with his life for this sacrilege. ... 

As history, that of Americans is fascinatingly simple ... The great landmarks are 1776, when the U.S.A. started, and 1861-65, when the Civil War occured. The next big date is 1914-18. Everything in between is just a story of bigger and bigger, and of more and more. (One cannot describe it as a story of better and better.)

The Republic, with its "rigid" Constitution -- except for this big hiatus in the sixties, given over to fratricide -- has run smoothly along: chopping down trees, killing Indians, and building up larger and larger factories, taller and taller houses. 

American history has a further advantage: namely its provision of a perfect political polarity, in the persons of the two most important Founding Fathers, Jefferson and Hamilton. (Washington is not important, except as a symbol.) Right at the outset came this faultless pair of opposites. The former is the model radical, the latter the model conservative. 

All American politicians today are in theory Jeffersonian, in practice Hamiltonian. It is highly confusing for the European ... It was Jefferson who insisted upon a Bill of Rights, whereas Hamilton typically opposed it in 
The Federalist, comparing such a document to "a treatise of Ethics." ... For him ethics had nothing to do with government. But for Jefferson they had everything to do with it. ...

(Self-portrait, above: "Wyndham Lewis as the Tyro," 1921)

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