From ........ The Way of the WASP

By Richard Brookhiser

From book jacket ....... The Way of the WASP

How It Made America, and How It Can Save It, So to Speak

In the early stages of his election campaign, America's most prominent WASP George Bush, thought it prudent to distance himself from his roots to evade the fashionable literary perception of WASPs as a pale, bloodless elite. But the way of the WASP is in reality much more than white bread and Scotch. In his witty and thoughtful book Richard Brookhiser examines one of the most-talked-about and most misunderstood groups in American life, discussing their rise, their fall, and what they must do to rise again.

America, he argues, was originally a country the WASPs built. Their values - industry conscience, civic-mindedness - structured American life, and later immigrants were, on the whole, happy to emulate and adopt these virtues. But for a long time, too many WASPs have been tearing down their handiwork.

Brookhiser discusses Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Adams, Woodrow Wilson, and modern liberal churchmen as WASP renegades - with serious consequences in every area of American life: from Wall Street, to the arts, to religion, and to education.

"For decades - for a century in some cases - Americans have been turning away from WASP ways of thinking and behaving, with disastrous results....."

"Here then is how white Anglo-Saxon Protestants and their history and habits are actually written and thought about these days:

This is a broad consensus of literary gents, some eminent, many popular; of experts and would-be experts in the field; of purveyors of mass culture. It also happens to be wrong...."

"If the only living and healthy values to which the whole country has access are WASP values, then anything restorative or profitable we try to accomplish has to draw on them"

From Chapter 1 ................ Bush-Bashing, WASP-Bashing

pages 25-31 ...............


Early America was a country of Protestants. In 1785, out of a total population of about 3 million, there were 24,500 Roman Catholics, white and black, fewer than Quakers, and no more than 3,000 Jews - a tenth of 1 percent of the population.

American Protestants were a certain kind of Protestant. John Updike, interviewed by Henry Bech, "bitterly inveighed against the term Wasp [sic], which implies, he said, Calvinism where he had been Lutheran." This is a real distinction.

There were Lutherans in the colonies, as well as Anglicans; both were Protestant churches, hostile to Rome, but emphatic in their retention of hierarchy and sacraments. But most of the English colonists who were religious professed varieties of Puritanism - Presbyterian, Congregationalist - or faiths further to the ecclesiastic "left" - Baptist, Quaker.

Even the Anglican church in early America was less hierarchical than it had been at home. Vestries performed many of the functions normally reserved in England for rectors or vicars; there was no Anglican bishop for the colonies, and rumors that one might be appointed touched off a political storm in the 1760s. Since many of the Germans and nearly all of the Dutch and French were Calvinists, the proportion of Americans who fell in or beyond the Reformed band of the Protestant spectrum, by belief or cultural background, was very high.

What did it mean to be on that end of the spectrum? Among other things, an emphasis on the inner experience of God's direction.

George Fox, English founder of the Society of Friends (he visited the colonies in the 1670s), described it this way in his Journal:

Such events occur in all Christian literature, from Saul on the road to Damascus to Dostoyevsky in prison. It is the primary Christian event.

What is striking about the varieties of religious experience that flourished in America is that they offered little else of equivalent importance - neither apostolic church nor miraculous sacraments. The significance of externalities for low-church Protestants diminishes accordingly. Puritanism, as Perry Miller put it, cast men "on the iron couch of introspection.''

Partisans of frontier and immigrant explanations of America hold that the dispersion of the population and the diversity of the populace ultimately produced the First Amendment. But it also mattered what was dispersed.

Calvinists had their flings with theocracy; the Puritans came here to set one up, and for seventy years they maintained it over most of New England. Yet it was an inherently unstable enterprise. When it collapsed, it was as much from squabbles over who could be said to have had a saving religious experience as from the inexorable intrusions of non-Puritans. It carried its own doom within it. Other Reformed Protestants, such as the Baptists, were never so tempted. Nor could Lockean rights theory alone have produced America's way with church-state relations.

The churches had to want it themselves, and they all came to do so.

It is possible to overstress the religiosity of early America. Then as now, the country went through cycles of rising and falling fervor. The period thirty-five years before the Revolution, the Great Awakening, was a peak. George Whitefield, the English evangelist who barnstormed the colonies, has been called "the first American celebrity." The Revolution and its aftermath were a trough. Several of the founders were Masons or dabblers in other eighteenth century monotheisms.

Jefferson wrote a home-made life of Jesus, all morality and no miracles. The percentage of Americans who were actual church members in 1776 has been put at 8 percent. Here, finally, is an effect to which the frontier clearly contributed. Until the invention of the circuit rider, backwoodsmen were obviously beyond the reach of organized religion.

But the reach religion had was strong. In the early 1830s, by way of comparison, Tocqueville observed that Christianity

- even though formal church members, as of 1830, accounted for only 13 percent of the population.

All the important founders respected the religions which surrounded them, even when they adhered to none of them. "All sects here, and we have a great variety," wrote the Deist Franklin of Philadelphia in the last year of his life, "have experienced my goodwill in assisting them with subscriptions for the building their new places of worship.'' More important, Protestants and ex-or non-Protestants spoke the same language. Jefferson's famous phrase "wall of separation," which has achieved Talmudic status as a commentary on the First Amendment, was written in a letter to a group of Baptists in Danbury, Connecticut. Whatever Jefferson meant, or whatever meanings later exegetes have assigned to him, the Baptists understood him to be engaged with them in a fight for freedom of religions, not from all religion.

The Protestantisms of early America were institutionally and doctrinally divided, but spiritually similar and culturally dominant.

These faiths were the faith of the country.

[------- re: the South deleted for brevity -------]

The South was different enough to break away, not different enough to stay away.

It makes more sense to consider the undeniable differences between North and South as the result of variations within an original American type, not of separate types. Time now to abandon such words and phrases as early Americans, colonial Americans, founders, settlers. What we have pieced together is the WASP, and WASPs pieced together America.

Other people might have done it instead, or prevented its being done: The Indians might have won a few more battles, the slaves could have revolted, France might have pushed Quebec all the way to the Delaware River. But white English Protestants preempted them.

Time now to examine their character.

WHEN BENJAMIN FRANKLIN decided to improve his own character, he drew up the list of virtues which so annoyed D. H. Lawrence. Originally there were twelve.

Virtues, which we hope to acquire, may be listed. Character, which is what we are, is more complex. The basic WASP character can be broken down into six traits, which may be arranged in the following mantra. Traits form pairs and connections across the pattern, as well as between neighbors.

Let us take the traits in order, starting at noon. "Conscience"

Conscience is the great legacy of P. [Protestant]

It is the way WASPs regulate their inner life and monitor their behavior.

You let your conscience be your guide. It guides by offering a clear vision of the way you should go. The way may be spelled out in law or scripture, but conscience is the window through which each man comes to see it.

All WASPs, not just Quakers, believe in the inner light.

Sight is the sense of conscience. George Fox in his perplexity heard a voice, and so did the born-again Englishman John Newton.

Yet after the first rearranging experience, sight and insight take over the management of life.

This was the WASP's point of contact with the Enlightenment and its self-evident (evident = completely seen) truths. This was also what Emerson, that subtle renegade, appropriated for his own project.

The way that conscience sees must be plain, or else what good is it for guidance?

The way that can be seen is not the way, said Lao Tzu, but the way that cannot be seen is not the way of the WASP.

Paradox and ambiguity are distractions, if not worse. The path is straight as well as plain. Byways lead to waste and confusion, if not actual Hell.

The punishment for ignoring the guidance of conscience is administered by conscience itself, in the form of guilt. Guilt, like conscience, is a private matter, inward and individual. No amount of external opprobrium can increase or enlarge it. It is a very different thing from shame. Shame is embarrassment before some one else - parents, friends, community. It is publicly displayed by the blush. Guilt is a pang. If it shows itself to the world, as in the mark that appears finally on the Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale's breast, it is only after long internal gnawing and a conscious act of self-exposure by the guilty party. Shame, being a public transaction, is a two-way street. It may be induced by peers or betters. The conviction of guilt is always in camera.

Wherever societies are small, tight, and stable, approaching the condition of oyster beds or coral reefs - peasant societies the world over - shame is the preferred method of discipline.

WASPs believe in guilt, which travels anywhere.

This is why conscience is the most effective monitor of behavior ever devised. It doesn't quit when the oracles fall silent or when the cops go off duty.

In societies ruled by conscience, people stop for red lights at three o'clock in the morning.

In societies with less alert monitors, people drive on the sidewalk.

Conscience is the source of whatever freedoms WASP society enjoys.

Since all consciences have an equally clear view of truth, who could presume to meddle with any man's?

But conscience also limits freedom, which becomes the freedom to do what you know you should do.

From ........ The Way of the WASP

By Richard Brookhiser

Pub. Free Press, a division of Macmillan, Inc., NYC 10022

ISBN: 0-02-904721-8