A nation out of exiles…


What I Saw in America begins as a travelogue but eventually becomes an extended reflection on what makes a nation a nation. However that is defined, America is the exception. It is a nation like no other. America, says Chesterton, is “the only nation in the world that is founded on a creed.” – Dale Ahlquist, Lecture: What I Saw In America

“The Americans are very patriotic, and wish to make their new citizens patriotic Americans. But it is the idea of making a new nation literally out of any old nation that comes along. In a word, what is unique is not America but what is called Americanisation. We understand nothing till we understand the amazing ambition to Americanise the Kamskatkan and the Hairy Ainu. We are not trying to Anglicise thousand of French cooks or Italian organ-grinders. France is not trying to Gallicise thousands of English trippers or German prisoners of war. America is the only place in the world where this process, healthy or unhealthy, possible or impossible, is going on. And the process, as I have pointed out, is not internationalization. It would be truer to say it is the nationalization of the internationalized. It is making a home out of vagabonds and a nation out of exiles.” (Selection from What Is America?)

“There is no basis for democracy except in a dogma about the divine origin of man. That is a perfectly simple fact which the modern world will find out more and more to be a fact. Every other basis is a sort of sentimental confusion, full of merely verbal echoes of the older creeds. Those verbal associations are always vain for the vital purpose of constraining the tyrant. An idealist may say to a capitalist, ‘Don’t you sometimes feel in the rich twilight, when the lights twinkle from the distant hamlet in the hills, that all humanity is a holy family?’ But it is equally possible for the capitalist to reply with brevity and decision, ‘No, I don’t,’ and there is no more disputing about it further than about the beauty of a fading cloud. And the modern world of moods is a world of clouds, even if some of them are thunderclouds.”  (Selection from The Future of Democracy)

There were many things about America that Chesterton clearly loved, including every person he met. He was encouraged when he saw that the heartland was dotted with small farms. But he worried about the creeping industrialization he saw in the cities, “forests of brick” and a “labyrinth of lifeless things” that was eating up the landscape. It was well worth worrying about. Since Chesterton’s last visit, the family farm has been decimated. And Main Street has been further populated with “half-educated people” who have no connection to “the historic things” because they have been utterly separated from the land. – Dale Ahlquist, Lecture: What I Saw in America

– G. K. Chesterton, Selections from What is America? and The Future of Democracy, What I Saw In America, 1922

Read the rest of the essay: What I Saw In America

Read the lecture: What I Saw In America


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