Those of you reading this who are not native-born Americans and who are therefore able to view us from a foreign perspective might find something to agree with in the following article dating from over a century ago (“The American Mind Dissected,” The Literary Digest, September 9, 1911):
XERXES REMARKED sadly that nothing is so bitter to bear as vast aspirations that result only in failure. That is where the American has the advantage of Xerxes, it appears. A writer in The Weekly Scotsman (Edinburgh) declares that the very fact that the American loves great things, delights in the statistical details that insure their attainment, and has a passion for power, has given him that boundless success in politics, commerce, and mechanics which at present sways the world.
Who better, says the editor, to judge Americans than a Scotsman?
The American loves skyscrapers as the Egyptian loved pyramids. He loves big things, he loves statistics, he has a hunger for the immense, and at the same time the American is “a new kind of man,” says this bright writer. The opinion of a Scot on such a subject is valuable. The Scot has been among the most pushing, the most tireless, the strongest and most successful of his congeners. Scotland has given lord chancellors and archbishops to England, premiers and professors to Canada.
Big, bigger . . .
The opinion, therefore, of a leading Scottish journal on the American character is not to be passed by, for the Scot is a good judge of men, and an impartial critic of human capacity and qualifications. He says he has heard the American characterized as “an overrated man.” He sets out to show the error of this opinion. The American is great and does great things because he loves great things, vast schemes, and his passion for the interminable details that insure success is proved by his “passion for statistics,” of which we read:
. . . about the “modern Egyptian”:
“The American has a passion for statistics, and there is nothing more striking than the display of figures given in the reports of business firms, of clubs, of colleges, and of every kind of institution where an annual statement is customary. Take, for example, the Y.M.C.A. It tells the public how many members have enrolled, the ratio of increase, the amount of expenditure, the income, and all the usual details of a balance-sheet; but it goes on to inform us that 183,225 meals have been served in the dining-rooms, and that there have been 6,553 haircuts and shaves in the barber’s shop on the premises. Than this I can find no better illustration of the American love of figures, and it comes upon the English mind with a strangeness, almost a weirdness, that suggests we are built in an altogether different mental mold. So we are. And, to tell the truth, this is partly why we call the American an overrated man, whereas in point of fact, he just different, that is all. He is a modern Egyptian, who loves big things like pyramids and skyscrapers; and he has the same liking for the occult, because it means power on the plane of the real.
Home on the range:
“It comes in part from the sense of space, the space of a great country, and from the vast opportunities thereby afforded. This is the land of distances where the small perspectives of some other countries are impossible, and even the foreigner with narrow sympathies finds himself taking the mental measures of his new acquaintances.”
Our Scotsman’s notions of Americans and how they have maximized their freedoms are due in large part to this country’s wide open spaces, but if that’s the primary reason for America’s success then how would he explain the perpetual failure of the people of Russia, a country 75 percent larger, to rid themselves of totalitarianism? Like de Tocqueville he should have also taken into account all of the various aspects of American culture growing out of its Constitutional roots; after all, it takes more than just land to make a civilization.