Infancy, Manhood, and Decline

Portrait of Niccolo' Machiavelli
Portrait of Niccolo Machiavelli. By: Santi di Tito.

The political spirit of the colonies in the 1700s, while unfamiliar in many respects, has parallels to the modern political landscape in America. The colonies political thought was closer to Niccolo Machiavelli and Montesquieu, rather than John Locke.

The colonists generally “did not conceive of society in rational, mechanistic terms; rather society was organic and developmental.” Gordon Wood, Creation of the American Republic: 1776-1787, 29. One of the common views at the time was: “It is with states as it is with men, they have their infancy, their manhood, and their decline.” Id. quoting Stow Persons, “The Cyclical Theory of History in Eighteenth-Century America,” American Quarterly, 6 (1954), 147-63.

This theory of nations and people presented “a variable organic cycle of birth, maturity, and death, in which states, like the human body, carried within themselves the seeds of their own dissolution,” with the speed of dissolution “depending on the changing spirit of the society.” Gordon Wood, Creation of the American Republic: 1776-1787, 29 quoting Stow Persons, “The Cyclical Theory of History in Eighteenth-Century America,” American Quarterly, 6 (1954), 147-63.

In contemporary America, these beliefs regarding the cyclical nature of nations would resonate with many. Even if most modern Americans do not think in terms of analogizing nations with men, the rise and fall of nations is still a popular subject.

Notably, Americans, and their immediate predecessors, have always been painfully aware of the seemingly temporary nature of prosperity in the strongest of nations. Optimistically, Americans have always hoped to devise a system of government and a culture that was capable of avoiding what seems to be inevitable decline.

Whether that is possible or not, this American hope fuels an insecurity of decline and a desire to study history so as not to repeat it. Perhaps this insecurity can prevent or mitigate the most common causes of decline and even significantly delay decline, but can it stop decline from happening altogether? It is doubtful.

Decline and Decay

Washington, D.C., 1871.

In the late 1790s, Constantin Francois Volney published Ruins; or, Meditations on the Revolution of Empires, one of the most popular publications of its day. This publication not only attacked monarchical tyranny, but it reinforced amongst Americans ideals familiar to Americans then and now: that nations are fragile and seem to inevitably decay and decline. Gordon Wood, Empire of Liberty, 552.

This keen awareness to the “mortality of all states” reinforced Americans’ “desire to build in stone and marble and to create depositories in order to leave to the future durable monuments of America’s cultivation and refinement.” Id.

Further, Comte de Volney’s book hinted that “an uncorrupted republican government might evade the decline and decay that had beset all other governments.” Id. citing Constantin Francois Volney, A New Translation of Volney’s Ruins; or, Meditations on the Revolution of Empires (Paris, 1802).

There are two points of analysis from the popularity of Comte de Volney’s book in the years of the early Republic.

First, this book and underlying American beliefs combined to form the nearly uniform desire for America to not just be a powerful country in the modern world but to perpetuate itself and to be in the annals of the world as one of the most extraordinary countries to have existed. From the beginning, Americans have been keen on memorializing its most important buildings to stand the test of time. This is most obviously evidenced in the government buildings both on the federal and state levels. Washington DC itself is testament to America’s desire to build a legacy to last.

Second, Comte de Volney’s book reinforces the notion that nearly all Americans share: that somehow, the United States can avoid inevitable decline. In support of that hope, many look to the fact that in the history of the world, there has never been such a democracy on the scale of the United States with the emphasis on rights and values that characterize America. On the other side of the argument, many would argue that success breeds complacency which breeds inefficiency, leading to decline.

The truth about decline is probably somewhere in between the two positions. Neither success nor decline is inevitable, particularly in light of the fact that America’s model has never been tested before.

The words of George Washington could not be truer: “The establishment of our new Government seemed to be the last great experiment for promoting human happiness.” George Washington, January 9, 1790. That experiment is ongoing and hopefully will be for many centuries to come.