Feature 07.03.2024 5 minutes

America the Crazy/Beautiful

two bottles of beer

Raise a glass or three.

The 2021 Publius fellowship was a strong contender for the best three weeks of my life. For a young, intellectually eager conservative, it was as close to utopia as mankind had ever gotten. It was the eschaton, immanentized. Practically every other young conservative I know says the same. Even older conservatives, a decade or more removed from the experience, speak about it with a kind of reverence. (And left-wing scholars of conservatism speak about it with a profound and special suspicion, as a cabal-like breeding ground for far-right elites. They might be onto something, too).

Every Publius alumnus I know, to a man, talks about the fellowship’s July 4 festivities with a particular fondness. It’s the most famous and widely-recounted day in the Publius calendar, when fellows are taken to set sail on the harbor—flying the most obnoxiously oversized American flag in the Union—before gathering for a barbecue and reciting segments of the greatest speeches in the American political tradition: Washington’s Farewell Address, Lincoln’s First Inaugural, and so on.

I’m embarrassed to admit that my memory of this particular event is foggy, partially—well, okay, entirely—because of the excessive quantity of wine I drank as the day unfolded. I’m told that I engaged in a passionate 45-minute debate about Straussianism with Michael Anton. I’m even told that I held my own in that interchange, although that part might be an embellishment from friends retelling the story in such a way as to protect my ego. I can’t personally testify to how true any of it is, but I’ll take their word for it.

Then again, one could argue—perhaps not convincingly, but one could argue—that there is something appropriately American about celebrating our nation’s birthdate in such fashion. As some students of American history know, the founders themselves were not averse to tying one on, at least on special occasions—and for strictly patriotic purposes, of course. The bar tab of a 1787 farewell party for George Washington, celebrating the signing of the Constitution, was left intact, and its contents tell the story of a degree of alcohol consumption that would send most mortal men to an early grave: “According to the bill,” wrote USA Today, “the soon-to-be first president and 54 other guests [ordered] 54 bottles of Madeira, 60 bottles of Claret, 8 bottles of whiskey, 8 bottles of cider, 12 bottles of beer and seven ‘large bowls’ of punch. That would be about two bottles of wine, several shots and a few cups of punch and beer for every guest.”

The Founders were remarkable men in more ways than one.

Now, there is far more to the American character than drinking, and insofar as our tradition of drinking says much of anything serious about our character at all, it has much more to do with a deeper set of underlying traits, of which propensity for the occasional bout of debauchery is but a symptom—and not necessarily always a positive one. Every nation and people has a unique and distinctive set of characteristics, replete with their own vices and virtues. But the “vice” and the “virtue” do not exist as mutually exclusive categories; more often than not, they are inextricably married, as coinciding outgrowths of the same fundamental tendencies.

Ours is not, as the modern shibboleth goes, “a nation of immigrants,” but a nation of settlers and pioneers. America was born in the wilderness, long before the Constitution was a twinkle in James Madison’s eye. Our people were made in the colonial settlements of Jamestown and Roanoke; the taverns of Boston and Philadelphia, and the untamed expanse of the Wild West. This is, as I wrote recently, “a country built by irrepressible men, whose dreams were too great for the low horizons of the Old World.” The American character “was—and, to an extent, still is—a kind of insanity. To dream bigger, gaze higher, and venture further than any other people or nation in human history, America needed to be crazier than any other people or nation in human history, too. And that need was met, in great abundance. A bold and unremitting insanity is written into our national character, visible not just in our famous names and deeds but in the long-forgotten stories of nameless everyday Americans.”

There are many great works of American political rhetoric to read, great American traditions to observe, and great American food and drink to imbibe on this Independence Day. But the greatest service we can perform to our forefathers, in this context, is to remember who we are and where we come from, and to celebrate it, too—fearlessly, unrepentantly, without nuance or apology or modification. In an age where weaponized shame and perpetual self-flagellation has become the official position of our governing institutions, fierce love for our past—and the men and deeds contained within it —is a revolutionary act. And revolution, after all, is what July 4 is all about.

The American Mind presents a range of perspectives. Views are writers’ own and do not necessarily represent those of The Claremont Institute.

The American Mind is a publication of the Claremont Institute, a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization, dedicated to restoring the principles of the American Founding to their rightful, preeminent authority in our national life. Interested in supporting our work? Gifts to the Claremont Institute are tax-deductible.

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