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Phi Beta Kappa Oration: "The Anglo-American Scholar?"

7.1.04

By Niall Ferguson

 

President Summers, President Friedman, fellow members of the Chapter (old and new), ladies and gentlemen:

It is a very great privilege to have been invited to address this, the oldest continuously existing chapter of the most venerable honor society in the United States. My especial thanks go to Professor [Benjamin] Friedman, whose idea it was to invite me (so now you know whom to blame). It is a daunting assignment. There really will be few other occasions in my life…when I can say that I stand in lineal succession Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt, who delivered this address in, respectively, 1909 and 1929.

Without further ado, let me offer my heartiest congratulations to those of you who have graduated with such distinction from the best university in the world. Of course, that's not a controversial opinion in company like this. But the real mark of Harvard's distinction is that that opinion is equally uncontroversial wherever I go. To excel at Harvard, ladies and gentlemen is truly to excel. Your parents and other loved ones have reason to be proud of you - though I would advise you against being overly proud of yourselves. Better to feel conscious of how much can now legitimately be expected of you in the world beyond Harvard Yard. Today you are, in Miss Jean Brodie's immortal phrase, the crème de la crème. It remains to be seen whether you will keep, or go off.

Phi Beta Kappa dates back to the period of the American Revolution - which some historians prefer to think of as the Second British Civil War. That war was raging when the Harvard chapter was founded in 1779. Two years later, the partition of British North America was a fact. It remains a fact.

To you, the American War of Independence was the birth of your nation. To me, it was a non-fatal secession on the periphery of Britain's global empire.

As a British historian who is very shortly to join the Faculty of Arts and Sciences at Harvard, and who is about to buy a house in the heart of revolutionary Boston, the recollection of these events is not entirely a cause for satisfaction. There is no getting away from the fact that in the 1770s a great political schism rent asunder what Churchill called "the English-speaking peoples." And there is no getting away from the fact that independence from British rule has done little visibly to hamper the astonishing ascent - both material and cultural - of the United States.

Yet somehow both sides have succeeded in regarding our political parting of the ways as but a minor interruption of our otherwise cordial relations. Considering how much was at stake at the time Phi Beta Kappa was created - and how much blood had been split since the first shots of war had been fired not far from here - the extent of subsequent Anglo-American amity remains truly amazing. In a world of interminable blood feuds, ours was a very short spat.

We were reminded only this weekend of what our peoples have achieved when they worked in unison. The men who landed on the beaches of Normandy 60 years past on Sunday were overwhelmingly Americans, Britons and - let us not forget - Canadians. That was the year when the title of the Phi Beta Kappa oration was "The Nature of a Free Society." (It is revealing that the title of the 1942 oration was "Reflections on Unpreparedness.")

We were reminded, too, by the death on Saturday of Ronald Reagan, of the friendship that developed during the 1980s between him and Britain's boldest post-war Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, at a time when the Soviet threat still seemed far from moribund. Their engagingly flirtatious friendship came to embody a distinctive and important phase of what the British still fondly call "the Special Relationship."

Today, many people on both sides of the Atlantic believe that their successors - George W. Bush and Tony Blair - must be held to account for the failings of the most recent Anglo-American undertaking, in Iraq. But those failings ought not to distract us from the reality that, in the immediate aftermath of the attacks of September 11, 2001, it was the British Prime Minister, more than any other world leader, who showed himself ready to assist the United States, with both words and deeds, in one of its darkest hours. No other foreign leader in my recollection has been received as warmly in Washington as Tony Blair was when he addressed both Houses of Congress in July last year.

And yet according to recent opinion polls, more than half of British voters think Mr. Blair has become a liability to the Labour Party. Fully 60 percent of them right now regard him as untrustworthy. The special relationship, it appears, has fatally damaged Mr. Blair's special relationship with his own public.

Under these circumstances, it seemed to me appropriate to offer you some historical reflections - some of them, I should warn you, downright heretical - about the relationship between the United States and the United Kingdom.

I should say that I have my own autobiographical motives for wishing to do so. Throughout much of my life, the United States has seemed to be tapping on my shoulder, urging me to quit the Old World for the New. But let me distinguish between my own personal Americanophilia and my assessment as an historian of the relationship between your country and mine. For it has long seemed to me to be something of a British illusion there really is such a thing as a special Anglo-American relationship, in the sense of a relationship based on mutual and equal advantage.

This is certainly not the place to debate the rights and wrongs of last year's Anglo-American invasion of Iraq. What I would like to do is to suggest two reasons why, at least from Mr. Blair's perspective, the special relationship has proved so especially discomfiting in the past 15 months.

One way of understanding the transatlantic divergence I have in mind is to compare two books I have read in the past few days. The first is by a Harvard man, this University's Samuel Huntington, and is entitled Who Are We? The second is, appropriately enough, by an Oxford man, Timothy Garton Ash, and is called Free World. Each is fundamentally concerned with his own country's identity.

Now I leave aside what Huntington has to say about Mexican immigration, which I must say does not persuade me. The meat of his argument, however, seems to be that the United States remains, despite waves of immigration, an indelibly British creation. The "Anglo-Protestant culture" of the Britons who settled the northeastern seaboard of this continent is still, he insists, "central ... to American national identity." There is, I think, rather more truth in this than his critics have allowed. For there is no bigger cultural difference between the United States and Europe today than the persistence, and indeed the resurgence, of Evangelical Portestantism, a consequence of the fourth "Great Awakening" in American religious history.

The exceptionally high and rising levels of faith and observance among Americans testify to the reality that - despite the formal separation of Church and State - the United States remains a fundamentally Protestant society. The American "creed" is still firmly rooted in that Old Testament sense of being a chosen people with a manifest destiny. Even the extraordinary work ethic of modern American society looks like part of that Anglo-Protestant legacy (posthumously vindicating the great German sociologist Max Weber).

Certainly, the distinctive features of American national identity picked out by Huntington sound familiar to any historian who has studied nineteenth-century Britain. A resurgent Evangelical Protestantism is precisely what historians like Boyd Hilton see as the key to Victorian politics. A patriotism inflamed by a sense of religious mission and strategic insecurity - that's precisely what Linda Colley believes turned us into both Britons and imperialists. A powerful, individualistic work ethic, leading to an increase of the raw labor input as well as higher productivity - this, rather than a vast investment in capital goods, was one of the driving forces of the British industrial revolution. (To which one might add a raging appetite for imports.)

Let me take the argument one step further. If Americans today in so many ways resemble Britons in the age of empire, then is it more than coincidence that they find themselves waging wars in the classic Eurasian battlegrounds of the nineteenth-century "Great Game" of empire?

Yet as an imperial power, the United States affects something of that distinctive modesty that characterized the post-Victorian British Empire. After the British occupied Egypt in 1882, they spent the next seven decades promising to leave and restore sovereignty to the Egyptians. When they marched into Baghdad in 1917, they piously proclaimed: "Our armies do not come into your cities and lands as conquerors or enemies, but as liberators." If that sounds familiar, then it should.

The point I want to emphasize, however, is the extent to which this Anglicization of the United States - its unnoticed "morphing" into a Second Anglophone Empire - has coincided with a a Europeanization of America's most loyal ally. Now, by Europeanization, I do not mean to suggest that the British public is uniformly enthusiastic at the prospect of European integration as embodied by the European Union, much less the euro. On the contrary, as Timothy Garton Ash points out in his book, the British remain deeply divided about the future of their own identity - between Atlanticists and Europhiles, as well as between globalists and Little Englanders.

But what marks them out, nevertheless, as European in their outlook - and thereby signals a distinct break with the Victorian past - are the decline of their religious faith and observance; their altogether more European than American attitudes towards both work and welfare; and their skepticism about patriotism (which is noticeable throughout Europe except where soccer is concerned). Applying Huntington's criteria to British identity, one sees not only how very Old British the Americans remain, but also how very un-American the New British have become. And this, I think, is what Tony Blair has not understood.

 

I know these are supposed to be literary exercises. However, in the presence of so many distinguished scientists and economists - not least President Summers himself - I feel it would be wrong not to introduce some quantitative data in support of my hypothesis. So here are some. The percentage of the Amerian population affirming strong religiosity is, according to recent surveys, 65 per cent. The equivalent British figure is 38 per cent. The average number of hours spent working every year in the United States is nearly 2000 hours. In the United Kingdom it is a little more than 1,700. The percentage of Americans who say they are very proud of their nationality is 81 per cent. The percentage of comparably patriotic Britons is just 55 per cent. Finally, the percentage of young Americans affirming they are ready to do something for their country is 81 per cent in the United States. Fewer than one in two British youths feel such a sense of obligation.

The problem with the special relationship today, in short, is that Americans have become more British, in the way that we used to be, than the British themselves, who have almost unwittingly become Europeans. To put it bluntly, you have become us, even as we have stopped being us. You have become the British Empire, even as we have become just the seventh state of the European Union.

It was, as I have said, not long after 1779 that British rule over the 13 founding states of the Union was consigned to oblivion. But of course this did not mark the end of the British Empire. On the contrary, its expansion elsewhere was gathering momentum. On June 2, 1781, Samuel Johnson pointed out to James Boswell the following passage from the former's Rassalas: Prince of Abyssinia

 

"By what means (said the Prince) are the Europeans thus powerful; or why, since they can so easily visit Asia and Africa for trade or conquest, cannot the Asiaticks and Africans invade their coasts, plant colonies in their ports, and give laws to their natural princes? The same wind that carries them back would bring us thither."-"They are more powerful, Sir, than we, (answered Imlac,) because they are wiser. Knowledge will always predominate over ignorance ... But why their knowledge is more than ours, I know not what reason can be given, but the unsearchable will of the Supreme being."

 

It is indeed knowledge above all else that today makes the United States seem to many of its critics - and even a few of its friends - like a new empire, the heir to that British Empire that involuntarily spawned this great republic. For knowledge, as Imlac said, truly is power.

You who become Phi Beta Kappa members today have knowledge in abundance. Many of you are graduating as citizens of the most powerful country in the world, and all of you owe a debt to it. The question I would ask you is simply this. What do you propose to do with your knowledge - and your power - in relation to Africa, to Asia, and to the rest of the world?

Last night I read - for the first time, I confess - the most famous of all the Phi Beta Kappa orations, Ralph Waldo Emerson's "The American Scholar." delivered here in 1837. What struck me at once was how plausibly it could still be given to an American audience today; whereas a British audience would be quite baffled by John Ruskin's comparable Inaugural Lecture as Slade Professor, given at Oxford in 1870. That is because Emerson's message is quintessentially American in its gung-ho individualism, its brash disdain for what he calls "the Mind of the past," its faith in unbounded activity and personal experience.

 

The book, the college .. stop with some past utterance of genius. ... They pin me down. They look backward and not forward. But genius always looks forward. ... Books are for the scholars' idle times. When he can read God directly, the hour is too precious to be wasted in other men's transcripts of their readings. .. Life is our dictionary.

 

I beg to differ with this, and much else that Emerson says.

"Ask not," he counsels, "what is doing in .. Arabia"; embrace ordinary American life: "the ballad in the street; the news of the boat." Wrong. What is doing in Arabia is a thousand times more important than the latest ballad. "Know thyself," says Emerson; trust yourself. More important, say I, to know the enemy, and not to trust him an inch. "The world is nothing," says Emerson, "the man is all. ... If a single man plant himself indomitably on his instincts, and there abide, the huge will world will come round to him." No, sorry. The individual man is nothing. The world is what counts. And your indomitable instincts alone will not enable you to understand it.

"We have listened too long," declares Emerson, in another characteristic flourish, "to the courtly muses of Europe." Well, perhaps this courtly muse of Europe had better come to a conclusion.

The reality of our predicament today, I have tried to suggest, is that an imperial United States may not for much longer be able to count on a post-imperial United Kingdom to help manage its hegemony. On the contrary; we may be witnessing the Indian summer of a special relationship that ceased some time ago to be in the interests of the United Kingdom.

A British historian who comes to Harvard in 2004 therefore comes not as an emissary from an old, but dependable ally, a junior partner in the continuing story of Anglophone empire, but as just another European immigrant, attracted by this University's astonishing accumulation of knowledge and hoping to contribute something towards the way that knowledge is used.

May you all use the knowledge you have gained here well.

Thank you.