Hugo Münsterberg.

The Americans online

. (page 1 of 10)
Online LibraryHugo MünsterbergThe Americans → online text (page 1 of 10)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


Produced by Richard Tonsing and the Online Distributed
Proofreading Team at (This file was
produced from images generously made available by The
Internet Archive)










_Copyright, 1904, by_


_Published November, 1904, N_

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -


In the Preface to my “American Traits,” in which I defended German
ideals and criticised some American tendencies, I said, some years ago:
“It has been often questioned whether I am right in fighting merely
against American shortcomings from a German point of view, and in trying
to destroy prejudices on this side of the water; whether it is not, in a
still higher degree, my duty to attempt the same for the other side;—for
German prejudices concerning the United States are certainly not less
severe, and the points in which Germany might learn from American
culture not less numerous. The question is fair, and I shall soon put
before the German public a book on American life—a book which deals in a
detailed way with the political, economic, intellectual, and social
aspects of American culture. Its purpose is to interpret systematically
the democratic ideals of America.”

Here is the book; it fulfils the promise, and it might appear that no
further explanation is needed. And yet, in sending a book into the
world, I have never felt more strongly the need of prefatory
excuses—excuses not for writing the book, but for agreeing to its
translation into English.

To outline American life for readers beyond the sea is one thing; to
appear before an American audience and to tell them solemnly that there
is a Republican and a Democratic party, and that there are troubles
between capital and labour, is quite another thing. To inform my German
countrymen about America may be to fill a long-felt want; but, as a
German, to inform the Americans on matters which they knew before they
were born seems, indeed, worse than superfluous.

When I was urged, on so many sides, to bring my “Americans” before the
Americans, it was, therefore, clear to me from the outset that I ought
not to do it myself under any circumstances. If I had translated the
book myself, it would have become simply an English book, written in
English by the author; and yet its only possible right to existence must
lie in its reflected character, in its having been written for others,
in its coming back to the New World from the Old. My friend, Dr. Holt,
who has been for years my assistant in the Harvard Psychological
Laboratory, has assisted, therefore, in this social psychological
experiment, and translated the book from the German edition.

I have been still more influenced by another consideration. If the book
were chiefly a record of facts, it would be folly for a foreigner to
present it to the citizens; but the aim of the book is a quite different
one. To make a real scientific study of the facts, I should have felt
utterly incompetent; indeed, it may be doubted whether any one could
hope to master the material of the various fields: a division of labour
would then become necessary. The historian, the politician, the
economist, the jurist, the engineer, and many others would have to
co-operate in a scholarly investigation of American events; and I have
no right to any of these titles. I am merely a psychologist, and have
not set out to discover new material. The only aim of the book is to
study the American man and his inner tendencies; and, perhaps, a truer
name for my book would have been “The Philosophy of Americanism.” For
such a task the outsider may be, after all, not quite unsuited, since
the characteristic forces make themselves more easily felt by him than
by those who have breathed the atmosphere from their childhood. I am,
therefore, anxious to insist that the accent of the book lies on the
four chapters, “Spirit of Self-Direction”, “Spirit of Self-Realization,”
“Spirit of Self-Perfection,” and “Spirit of Self-Assertion”; while those
chapters on the economic and political problems are the least important
of the book, as they are meant merely by way of illustration. The
lasting forces and tendencies of American life are my topics, and not
the problems of the day. For this reason the book is translated as it
appeared six months ago in Germany, and the events and statistical
figures of the last few months have not been added; the Philosophy of
Americanism is independent of the happenings of yesterday. The only
changes in the translation are abbreviations; for instance, the
industrial tables, which every American can get easily from the
government reports, are abridged; and, above all, the chapters which
deal with the German-Americans are left out, as better remaining an
esoteric discussion for the Germans.

The purpose of finding the deeper impulses in American life necessarily
demands a certain ignoring of the shortcomings of the hour. If we aim to
work out and to make clear the essentials of the American mission in the
world, we cannot take the attitude of the reformer, whose attention
belongs, first of all, to the blunders and frailties of the hour; they
are to us less important by-products. The grumbler in public life sees
in such a view of the American, of course, merely a fancy picture of an
imaginary creature; he is not aware that every portrayal involves
abstraction, and that a study in Americanism means, indeed, a study of
the Americans as the best of them are, and as the others should wish to

But the optimism of my book has still another source. Its outspoken
purpose has been to awaken a better understanding of Americans in the
German nation. Whoever fights against prejudices can serve the truth
merely in emphasizing the neglected good sides, and in somewhat
retouching in the picture the exaggerated shadows. But just here arises
my strong reluctance. The optimism and the style of a defender were
sincere, and necessary to the book when it addressed itself to the
Germans; is it necessary, is it, indeed, sincere, to place such a eulogy
of Americanism before the Americans? I know too well that, besides the
self-direction, self-realization, self-perfection, and self-assertion
there is, more vivid still, the spirit of self-satisfaction, whose story
I have forgotten to include in this volume. Have I the right to cater to
this spirit?

But is it not best that the moods of criticism and optimism alternate?
The critical eagerness of the reformer which attacks the faults and
follies of the day is most necessary; but it turns into discouraging
pessimism if it is not supplemented by a profession of faith in the
lasting principles and deeper tendencies. The rôle of the critic I have
played, perhaps, more often and more vehemently than is the foreigner’s
right. My book on “American Traits” has been its sharpest expression.
Does that not give me, after all, a moral right to supplement the
warning cry by a joyful word on the high aims of true Americanism? My
duty is only to emphasize that I am myself fully aware of the strong
one-sidedness, and that this new book is not in the least meant to
retract the criticisms of my “American Traits.” The two books are meant
to be like the two pictures of a stereoscope, which must be seen both
together to get the full plastic effect of reality. It is certainly
important to remind the nation frequently that there are political
corruption and pedagogical blundering in the world; but sometimes it is
also worth while to say that Americanism is something noble and
inspiring, even for the outsiders, with whom naturally other impulses
are stronger—in fact, to make clear that this Americanism is a
consistent system of tendencies is ultimately, perhaps, only another way
of attaining the reformer’s end.

Only one word more—a word of thanks. I said the aim of the book was to
bring the facts of American life under the point of view of general
principles, but not to embody an original research in American history
and institutions. I have had thus to accept the facts ready-made, as the
best American authors present them; and I am thus their debtor
everywhere. Since the book is popular in its style, I have no foot-notes
and scholarly quotations, and so cannot enumerate the thousand American
sources from which I have taken my material. And I am not speaking here
merely of the great standard books and specialistic writings, but even
the daily and weekly papers, and especially the leading monthly
magazines, have helped to fill my note-books. My thanks are due to all
these silent helpers, and I am glad to share with them the welcome
which, in competent quarters, the German edition of the book has found.


October 25, 1904








5. JUSTICE 101










The Silver Question 279

The Tariff Question 289

The Trust Question 301

The Labour Question 318





17. SCIENCE 425


19. ART 473

20. RELIGION 496






_The Spirit of Self-Direction_

Whosoever wishes to describe the political life of the American people
can accomplish this end from a number of starting points. Perhaps he
would begin most naturally with the Articles of the Constitution and
expound the document which has given to the American body-politic its
remarkable and permanent form; or he might ramble through history and
trace out from petty colonies the rise of a great world-power; or he
might make his way through that multitude of events which to-day arouse
the keenest public interest, the party strifes and presidential
elections, the burdens and amenities of city and state, the transactions
of the courts and of Congress. Yet all this would be but a superficial
delineation. Whoever wishes to understand the secret of that baffling
turmoil, the inner mechanism and motive behind all the politically
effective forces, must set out from only one point. He must appreciate
the yearning of the American heart after self-direction. Everything else
is to be understood from this.

In his social life the American is very ready to conform to the will of
another. With an inborn good-nature, and often too willingly, perhaps,
he lends himself to social situations which are otherwise inconvenient.
Thus his guest, for instance, is apt to feel like a master in his house,
so completely is his own will subordinated to that of the guest. But, on
the other hand, in the sphere of public life, the individual, or a more
or less restricted group of individuals, feels that it must guide its
own activities to the last detail if these are to have for it any value
or significance whatsoever. He will allow no alien motive to be
substituted—neither the self-renunciation of fidelity or gratitude, nor
the æsthetic self-forgetfulness of hero-worship, nor even the
recognition that a material advantage would accrue or some desirable end
be more readily achieved if the control and responsibility were to be
vested in some one else. This self-direction is neither arbitrary nor
perverse; least of all does it indicate a love of ease or aversion to
toil. In Russia, as a well-known American once said, serfdom could be
wiped out by a stroke of the Czar’s pen, and millions of Russians would
be freed from slavery with no loss of life or property. “We Americans
had to offer up a half-million lives and many millions’ worth of
property in order to free our slaves. And yet nothing else was to be
thought of. We had to overcome that evil by our own initiative, and by
our own exertions reach our goal. And just because we are Americans and
not Russians no power on earth could have relieved us of our

When in any people the desire of self-direction dominates all other
motives, the form of government of that people is necessarily
republican. But it does not conversely follow that every republic is
grounded in this spirit of self-direction. Hence it is that the republic
of the United States is so entirely different from all other republics,
since in no other people is the craving for self-determination so
completely the informing force. The republics of Middle and South
America, or of France, have sprung from an entirely different political
spirit; while those newer republics, which in fundamental intention are
perhaps more similar, as for instance Switzerland, are still not
comparable because of their diminutive size. The French republic is
founded on rationalism. The philosophy of the eighteenth century, with
its destructive criticism of the existing order, furnished the
doctrines, and from that seed of knowledge there grew and still are
growing the practical ideals of France. But the political life of the
United States sprang not from reasoned motives but from ideals; it is
not the result of insight but of will; it has not a logical but a moral
foundation. And while in France the principles embodied in the
constitution are derived from theory, the somewhat doubtful doctrines
enunciated in the Declaration of Independence are merely a corollary to
that system of moral ideals which is indissolubly combined with the
American character.

It is not here to be questioned whether this character is purely the
cause and not also the effect of the American system; but so much is
sure, that the system of political relations which has sprung from these
ethical ideals constitutes the actual body-politic of America. Such is
the America which receives the immigrant and so thoroughly transforms
him that the demand for self-determination becomes the profoundest
passion of his soul. Such is the America toward which he feels a proud
and earnest patriotism. For the soil on which his kingdom has been
reared he knows but scanty sentiment or love; indeed, the early progress
of America was always an extension of the frontier, an unremitting
pushing forth over new domain. The American may be linked by personal
ties to a particular plot of land, but his national patriotism is
independent of the soil. It is also independent of the people. A nation
which in every decade has assimilated millions of aliens, and whose
historic past everywhere leads back to strange peoples, cannot with its
racial variegation inspire a profound feeling of indissoluble unity. And
yet that feeling is present here as it is perhaps in no European
country. American patriotism is directed neither to soil nor citizen,
but to a system of ideas respecting society which is compacted by the
desire for self-direction. And to be an American means to be a partizan
of this system. Neither race nor tradition, nor yet the actual past
binds him to his countryman, but rather the future which together they
are building. It is a community of purpose, and it is more effective
than any tradition, because it pervades the whole man. Participation in
a common task holds the people together, a task with no definite and
tangible end nor yet any special victory or triumph to look forward to,
but rather a task which is fulfilled at each moment, which has its
meaning not in any result but in the doing, its accomplishment not in
any event which may befall, but only in the rightness of the motive. To
be an American means to co-operate in perpetuating the spirit of
self-direction throughout the body-politic; and whosoever does not feel
this duty and actively respond to it, although perhaps a naturalized
citizen of the land, remains an alien forever.

If the newcomer is readily assimilated in such a society, commonly, yet
it must not be overlooked that those who come from across the seas are
not selected at random. Those who are strong of will are the ones who
seek out new spheres of activity. Just those whose satisfaction in life
has been stunted by a petty and oppressive environment have always
cherished a longing for the New World. That conflict which every one
must wage in his own bosom before he can finally tear himself away from
home, has schooled the emigrant for the spirit of his new home; and only
those who have been impelled by the desire for self-direction have had
the strength to break the ties with their own past. Thus it is that
those of Germanic extraction adapt themselves so much more quickly and
thoroughly to the political spirit of America than those of Romanic
blood. The Latin peoples are much more the victims of suggestion. Being
more excitable, they are more imitative, and therefore as individuals
less stable. The Frenchman, Italian, or Spaniard is often a sympathetic
member of the social life of the country, but in its political life he
introduces a certain false note; his republicanism is not the American
republicanism. As a moral ideal he has little or no concern with the
doctrine of self-direction.

The American political system, therefore, by no means represents an
ideal of universal significance; it is the expression of a certain
character, the necessary way of living for that distinct type of man
which an historically traceable process of selection has brought
together. And this way of living reacts in its turn to strengthen the
fundamental type. Other nations, in whom other temperamental factors no
less significant or potent or admirable are the fundamental traits, must
find the solution of their political problems in other directions. No
gain would accrue to them from any mere imitation, since it would tend
to nothing but the crippling and estranging of the native genius of
their people.

The cultivated American of to-day feels this instinctively. Among the
masses, to be sure, the old theme is still sometimes broached of the
world-wide supremacy of American ideals: and a part of the necessary
paraphernalia of popular assemblages will naturally consist in a
reaffirmation that the duty of America is to extend its political system
into every quarter of the globe; other nations will thus be rated
according to their ripeness for this system, and the history of the
world appear one long and happy education of the human race up to the
plane of American conceptions. But this tendency is inevitable and not
to be despised. It must more nearly concern the American than the
citizen of other states to propagate his ideals, since here everything
depends on each individual co-operating with all his might, and this
co-operation must succeed best when it is impelled by an uncritical and
blindly devoted faith. And such a faith arouses, too, a zealous
missionary spirit, which wants to carry this inspired state-craft unto
all political heathen. But the foreigner is apt to overestimate these
sentiments. The cultivated American is well aware that the various
political institutions of other nations are not to be gauged simply as
good or bad, and that the American system would be as impossible for
Germany as the German system for America.

Those days are indeed remote when philosophy tried to discover one
intrinsically best form of government. It is true that in the conflicts
of diverse nations the old opposition of realistic and idealistic, of
democratic and aristocratic social forces is repeated over and over. But
new problems are always coming up. The ancient opposition is
neutralized, and the problem finds its practical solution in that the
opposing forces deploy their skirmish lines in other territory. The
political ideas which led to the French Revolution had been outlived by
the middle of the nineteenth century. A compromise had been effected.
The whole stress of the conflict had transferred itself to social
problems, and no one earnestly discussed any more whether republic or
monarchy was the better form of government. The intellectual make-up of
a people and its history must decide what shall be the outward form of
its political institutions. And it is to-day tacitly admitted that there
are light and shade on either side.

The darker side of democracy, indeed, as of every system which is
founded on complete individualism, can be hidden from no one; nor would
any one be so foolish, even though he loved and admired America, as to
deny that weaknesses and dangers, and evils both secret and public, do
there abound. Those who base their judgments less on knowledge of
democratic forces than on obvious and somewhat sentimental social
prejudices are apt to look for the dangers in the wrong direction. A
German naturally thinks of mob-rule, harangues of the demagogue, and
every form of lawlessness and violence. But true democracy does not
allow of such things. A people that allows itself to turn into a mob and
to be guided by irresponsible leaders, is not capable of directing
itself. Self-direction demands the education of the nation. And nowhere
else in the world is the mere demagogue so powerless, and nowhere does
the populace observe more exemplary order and self-discipline.

The essential weakness of such a democracy is rather the importance it
assigns to the average man with his petty opinions, which are sometimes
right and sometimes wrong, his total lack of comprehension for all that
is great and exceptional, his self-satisfied dilettanteism and his
complacency before the accredited and trite in thought. This is far less
true of a republic like the French, with its genius for scepticism, a
republic nourished in æsthetic traditions and founded on the ruins of an
empire. The intellectual conditions are there quite different. But in an
ethical democracy, where self-direction is a serious issue, domination
by the average intelligence is inevitable; and those who are truly great
are the ones who find no scope for their powers. Those who appear great
are merely men who are exploiting to the utmost the tendencies of the
day. There are no great distinctions or premiums for truly high

1 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10

Online LibraryHugo MünsterbergThe Americans → online text (page 1 of 10)