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Book Review 299: Hellfire Nation

November 12, 2013 - Harry Eagar
HELLFIRE NATION: The Politics of Sin in American History, by James A, Morone. 575 pages, illustrated. Yale paperback

James Morone’s “Hellfire Nation” is revisionist history in the best sense of the word. He is not out to say that previous histories have been misguided but that there is another, overlooked aspect to the creation of America. And he nails the case that it was important.

From the moment the Puritans arrived in New England to set up a novel commonwealth, they had to decide who was in and who was not. Indians? Women? Unproven “saints”?

Ever since, says Morone, established groups have asked “Who are we?” and they have usually provided a moral (I would say, moralistic) answer. And that answer almost always excluded women, newcomers, people of other religions, colored people. In fact, at various times it included everyone: women, children and teenagers; blacks, browns, yellows, reds and Reds; workers; Catholics, Jews, Quakers, Baptists and Muslims; drinkers and dopers; Irish, Italians and Slavs; Protestants who believed in being saved by works.

Over and over, panic developed that the newcomers were taking over, or at the least, they would enervate the true blue Americans.

Morone stands the whiggish narrative of individualism and liberty on its head, pointing out that it was the king in England who struck one of the first, shrewdest blows in the march toward American freedom by forcing the Puritans in New England to stop hanging Quakers.

More provocatively, he skewers the narrative of individualism and small government by showing that in almost every panic, the old guard gave its government new powers and that, once the panic subsided, the institutions of power remained.

Prohibition of liquor was repealed (except locally) but the apparatus of repression stayed and was refurbished to wage the war on drugs. The recurrent moral panics ratcheted up the size and reach of government. (This explains why a man like H.L. Mencken, a true conservative, despised “uplift” being imposed on everyone by the faux-conservative Puritans.)

The moral issues have often been absurd -- though not slavery -- and have generally been rightwingy, so it is ironic -- and satisfying to a liberal -- that the residue of most moral panics has been stronger, more tolerant government, extending American values as stated in the Declaration and the Constitution more broadly and deeply than before. The most amusing example came when the antediluvian racist Judge Howard Smith, chairman of the House Rules Committee, submitted a killer amendment to the Civil Rights Bill of 1965 to include women as a protected class. Instead of killing the bill, it got enacted, and the racists and rightwingers and Christian bigots are still paying for that.

Morone’s structure is more nuanced and subtle than I can convey in a short review, and he establishes several general propositions. Chief is the endless, never to be resolved tension between individualism and the Social Gospel (roughly, communitarianism, though he never mentions Amitai Etzioni).

He calls the four decades from FDR to Reagan the peak of the Social Gospel, and I agree that it was not until the New Deal that the supposed American values first began to be available to most of the population for the first time. He finds the Social Gospel in full retreat in the 21st century and launches a jeremiad of his own against the war on drugs. This is worth the price of admission all by itself, the first sustained attack I have seen that does not get itself entangled in individualistic or libertarian fantasies.

“Hellfire Nation” was written in 2004, and at that time it did seem that individualism and disdain for the weak was ascendant. The efflorescence of the Tea Party in 2010 seemed at the time to reinforce the feeling; and there’s no doubt that the hate-your-neighbor thread of American politics has a new champion.

But it was not quite so firm as all that, and -- as with Prohibition -- the free marketeers and individualists scotched their own success by crashing the economy, allowing the liberals back in. Lenin was right when he said that when capitalism was hanged, it would sell the rope to the hangman.

Morone lamented that the liberals had practically abandoned the field to the malefactors of great wealth and the religious bigots. But since this book was published, equal treatment for homosexuals has made big gains, and even the poor are being offered a taste of medical care through the Affordable Care Act. Barack Obama is hardly another Martin Luther King but he’s shown himself a successful coalition builder and expander of American values.

The moral panic that produced the Tea Party (or, more precisely, gave a temporarily respectable coloration to the John Birch Society, which is basically what the Tea Party is) does not seem to have created any new government apparatus, so in that respect it does not quite fit into Morone’s mold; but there were other moral drives in our history that were accomplished without moral panic, demonization of outsiders or entanglement with the Protestant religion, like the factory safety movement that followed the Triangle Shirtwaist fire; but Morone is not concerned to tell those stories.

Morone notes that class changes sometimes had much to do with the ebbing of moral panics, and it looks as if the browning of America is what will wash away the Tea Party; the racism that permeates it is turning off many voters, including the dramatic failure of socially conservative blacks and Latinos to vote for a socially conservative movement that disdains them.

The real “tea” will be the consummation of a prediction my father (a white Southerner) often made to me while I was growing up: someday, he said, Americans will be a tea-colored people.

And when that happens, the WASPy “us” will have been proven right: “they” will have taken over. But it won’t be for the worse.

While I find Morone largely persuasive, he does start a little late in the history of Euro-America. Before the Puritans, there were the Virginians, and they were really individualists and not greatly concerned about building cities on hills. They would have preferred to dig holes and find gold in them.

It is not so widely known, but the early Virginia colony was also subject to witch and heresy hunts of various sorts, but it does not make such a neat tale as following the New Englanders, for at least two reasons.

The Virginians did not provide such quotable idiots as Cotton Mather and Jonathan Edwards. And, here is the key difference, the drive for virtue was imposed on Virginia by a small, powerful elite (just as in most of the rest of the world), the Anglican establishment. The degree of persecution was about the same in both places, but in New England, Americans persecuted themselves.

And that is the true American exceptionalism. We are the only people who do that.


Article Comments



Nov-14-13 7:14 PM

When my Dad thought about tea, he thought about Lipton.


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