Washington Times on April 26, 2015, published a review by Peter Hannaford of a seminal 1999 bok on American beliefs by John Harmon McElroy. Excerpts below:

This is not a new book (it came out in 1999), but it will remain fresh as long as there are readers who care about the sources of our nation’s particular qualities. The author sums it up as “culture,” which he writes, “may be thought of as a set of beliefs expressed in behavior.” He says, “it is acquired by successive generations of a people through imitating the behaviors of their elders that express certain beliefs. Culture in this sense is the possession of a whole people.”

America became independent from Europe more rapidly than the other Western Hemisphere “colonies,” he says, for five reasons: (1) It had a mix of Christian faiths; (2) it did not restrict the number of incoming immigrants, and those who came had a high birthrate; (3) it was the only ethnically mixed immigrant population; (4) most the people worked for themselves and their families; and (5) the majority was free and not held in subjugation.

The earliest colonists in what became the United States were, for the most part, self-selected, desiring to be free of religious and other restrictions. In this wild land, they realized that everyone must work, people must benefit from their work, and manual work was respectable. There was no place for straw bosses.

When the colonists encountered native tribes, the relationships were largely live-and-let-live. There was a huge amount of land — enough for all. Gradually, the Europeans tamed the land of the Atlantic coastal plain to create farms, then towns to serve the farm population. Land ownership became widespread — much more so than in the other European colonies. The author asserts, “This general ownership of land proved fatal to the European conception of colonies as places that should remain subordinate to the interest of the monarchy that authorized them.” From this the seeds of independence were sown.

From early days, labor-for-hire was scarce and land was cheap, which gave rise to the widespread property ownership and the concept of working for oneself (the roots of the American trait of self-reliance).

As immigration increased and became more and more diverse, three principles seemed to grip each new arrival: improvement is possible; opportunities must be imagined; freedom of movement is needed for success.
Let us hope that most Americans want to put the emphasis on the first of his two statements about human nature.

In sum, this is a refreshing, straightforward account of what makes America exceptional among nations; and the beliefs that give us unity, regardless of where we or our ancestors came from.

• Peter Hannaford was closely associated with the late President Reagan for a number of years. His latest book is, “Presidential Retreats” (Threshold Editions).

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