The old cult of the new
In order to understand the cultural aspects underneath this continuous process of birth and rebirth, we must review several idiosyncrasies which define the American thought. All the political figures which I have previously mentioned were, to a certain degree, the prototypical images of a new generation, of a new kind of leadership, of a new kind of politics. I will not discuss the historical relevance that FDR, JFK and Jimmy Carter had when they were elected, because I think that it should be clear that they meant a wipe clean change from the previous historic tendencies. The ideal to choose the future over the past, to look forward and forget what was left behind is deeply rooted in the American mentality from the 18th century to our days. As Richard W. B. Lewis wrote in 1955, the idea to create a future without reference to the past had captivated American settlers even before independence. The Puritan settlers that arrived at the Massachusetts coast went to America in order to create a New Jerusalem and an exceptional place. In John Winthrop’s words, this first settlers
(…) shall be as a citty upon a hill. The eies of all people are uppon us. Soe that if wee shall deale falsely with our God in this worke wee haue undertaken, and soe cause him to withdrawe his present help from us, wee shall be made a story and a by-word through the world. Wee shall open the mouthes of enemies to speake evill of the wayes of God, and all professors for God’s sake. Wee shall shame the faces of many of God’s worthy servants, and cause theire prayers to be turned into curses upon us till wee be consumed out of the good land whither wee are a goeing. (Winthrop 47)
Therefore, we can see the seed of this fascination towards the future at the very early stages of the American history.
It might be thought that this approach was attached to the deeply religious congregations at the Massachusetts Bay. I can’t deny the fact that the ideal of the American exceptionalism do have deep religious roots. However, it was not kept in isolation into these groups and it was assimilated by many political thinkers of the pre-revolutionary America. Thomas Paine, who was not really a pious man, wrote in 1791 that
the case and circumstances of America present themselves as in the beginning of a world; and our enquiry into the origin of government is shortened, by referring to the facts that have arisen in our own day. We have no occasion to roam for information into the obscure field of antiquity, nor hazard ourselves upon conjecture. We are brought at once to the point of seeing government begin, as if we had lived in the beginning of time. The real volume, not of history, but of facts, is directly before us, unmutilated by contrivance, or the errors of tradition. (Paine ch. 4)
Even the third president of the United States, Thomas Jefferson, believed that a nation should regularly renew itself.
What country before ever existed a century & a half without a rebellion? & what country can preserve its liberties if their rulers are not warned from time to time that their people preserve the spirit of resistance? (…) The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots & tyrants. It is its natural manure. (Jefferson)
Nonetheless, it was not until 1812 that the United States really set free from the chains of tradition and started to create their own history. This attitude was perfectly captured in the article The Great Nation of Futurity, published by the Democratic Review  in 1839:
The American people having derived their origin from many other nations, and the Declaration of National Independence being entirely based on the great principle of human equality, these facts demonstrate at once our disconnected position as regards any other nation; that we have, in reality, but little connection with the past history of any of them, and still less with all antiquity, its glories, and its crimes. On the contrary, our national birth was the beginning of a new history, the formation and progress of an untried political system, which separates us from the past and connects us with the future only. (…), we may confidently assume that our country is destined to be the Great Nation of futurity. (Democratic Review -Editorial- 426)
The article is really clear in the fact that we (Americans) have no interest in the scenes of antiquity because the expansive future is our arena and for our history (Democratic Review -Editorial- 427). Thus, the United States were defined in terms of industrial progress, which clearly was a step into the future, of individual freedom and universal enfranchisement, despite slavery was still a common practice at the time. This self-image of the Americans was related to Richard W. B. Lewis’ formulation of the American hero in the mid 20th century. This American Adam was an idealized representation of an independent individual, embodying the Romantic ideal of no concessions to the demands of a conforming civilization. However, at the same time, he was a friend of that civilization, furthering its progressive imperatives not for a political vision but simply because he wanted to.
The American Adam: characteristics.
In a fairly general way, I would like to briefly describe this new role model, emphasizing the major characteristics defined by 19th century American culture. Then, these characteristics will be used in order to describe the present-day situation of the American president figure as the reincarnation of the American Adam in the 21st century. Therefore, I will argue that the adamic figure is still very much alive, long after its genesis passed away .
- The American Adam is a lonely figure. He chooses to be alone, with no past, ancestors, tradition or even a home of his own. Unlike his Biblical namesake, the American Adam has no traditional faith or system of moral absolutes: He is creature of his own making and answers only to his conception of himself. Thus, his extreme individualism has an enormous potential for something new, something which transcends conventional notions of good and bad.
- The guarantee of the American Adam ability to resist social contamination to maintain his purity is his constant capacity to be in motion. In fact, he lives primarily for the motion itself, not for motion as a means to a particular destination .
- The American Adam has a unique relationship to time, because he has no past and does not associate himself with any historic community. Since he defines himself as the rejection of both, he has no historical identity. His life is a moment-by-moment encounter between himself and the world, bringing no sense of history. In Melville novel The White Jacket, that reaction towards the past and the blind folded faith in the future is clearly represented in this extract:
The Past is, in many things, the foe of mankind; the Future is, in all things, our friend. In the Past is no hope; the Future is both hope and fruition. The Past is the text-book of tyrants; the Future the Bible of the Free. Those who are solely governed by the Past stand like Lot’s wife, crystallized in the act of looking backward, and forever incapable of looking before. (Melville 45) .
- The American Adam’s relationship with space is also a characteristic worth mentioning. Space exists as something to move through, as an alien setting which has to be subdued. He is indifferent to the landscape, and it is defined just as a source of the events which characterize him or nourish him. It brings no mystical sense whatsoever.
- The American Adam lives in a world dominated by men.
- In his encounters with the unknown on the frontier, the American Adam relies upon his own inner sense of what is appropriate. He is always ready to react quickly and spontaneously, with no respect for any traditional ways of behavior. In many cases, he often solves problems with violence, which becomes an important affirmation of his personal qualities.
- Finally, the American Adam is not particularly materialistic. He just needs the right tools, which are few and portable. He is fascinated with modern technology and quick to discard it if a newer and better model comes along. The idea of building a car or even a house to last a lifetime is very foreign to him.
Politics: The factual realization of the adamic icon.
I hold it that a little rebellion now and then is a good thing, and as necessary in the political world as storms in the physical.
A letter from Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, January 30th, 1787
Underneath the role model of the American Adam, one may conclude that each generation of Americans could always start over and transform the country. Under the famous quotation above from President Jefferson, it lays one of the political truths that have been repeated through the American history again and again: The new generations should not be obliged to follow the same steps of their fathers, but to have the liberty to choose their own path. In other words, the past should not control the future, but the other way round. This controversy is, almost by definition, what characterizes the very essence of politics. In Ralph W. Emerson’s words, politics are a clash between the party of Conservatism and that of Innovation. Such an irreconcilable antagonism (…) is the opposition of Past and Future, of Memory and Hope, of the Understanding and the Reason (Emerson). In this conference, Emerson describes the dichotomy between the conservative party , obsessed by the future, and the progressive party, looking forward towards the future .
It [conservatism] affirms because it holds. (…) it will not open its eyes to see a better fact. The castle, which conservatism is set to defend, is the actual state of things, good and bad. The project of innovation is the best possible state of things. Of course, conservatism always has the worst of the argument, is always apologizing, pleading a necessity, pleading that to change would be to deteriorate; (…) deny the possibility of good, deny ideas, and suspect and stone the prophet; whilst innovation is always in the right, triumphant, attacking, and sure of final success. (…) We are reformers in spring and summer; in autumn and winter, we stand by the old; reformers in the morning, conservers at night. Reform is affirmative, conservatism negative; conservatism goes for comfort, reform for truth. (…) Conservatism makes no poetry, breathes no prayer, has no invention; it is all memory. Reform has no gratitude, no prudence, no husbandry. It makes a great difference to your figure and to your thought, whether your foot is advancing or receding. Conservatism never puts the foot forward (…). (Emerson) 
Emerson, in this case, is clearly in favor of the reformers. His celebration of the new and the future possibilities and the rejection of the old as the best actual state of things is a clear representation of what D. F. Lawrence would eventually call the true myth of America in his definition of Fenimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking Novels: The Leatherstocking novels create the myth of [a] new relation. And they go backwards, from old age to golden youth. That is the true myth of America. She starts old, old, wrinkled and writhing in an old skin. And there is a gradual sloughing of the old skin, towards a new youth. It is the myth of America (Lawrence 58). This myth runs through the American literature from the 19th century to our days, and it frequently reemerges in American politics.
During times of confusion or dissatisfaction, caused by economic recessions or deep cultural changes, the American Adams reemerges in the political arena under the idealized image of a young and new politician who would change the world to fit the new needs of his times. We have a clear example in the presidential elections in 1960, where a young senator from the liberal state of Massachusetts defeated the actual vice-president of the United States. John F. Kennedy would represent one of the most important adamic icons which would be exported to other parts of the world, and his message of change and hope would be popular and well-known. In his own words, liberty (…) is endangered if we pause for the passing moment, if we rest on our achievements, if we resist the pace of progress. For time and the world do not stand still. Change is the law of life. And those who look only to the past or the present are certain to miss the future (Keneddy).
The American Adam was born in the 19th century American literary context, but its factual realization in the contemporary history of the United States was drawn in the political arena and under a certain number of political icons. The ideals of change and hope in an individual who can change the world alone and start a new one from scratch has been present in the American literary world for decades: In novels, poems and films. This idea has been exported to the political arena, by marketing counselors who saw the potential of this icon. From president Kennedy to our days, history has seen different presidents who, more or less, followed the lead which started FDR and JFK: James E. Carter was a complete stranger in the national political arena in 1976; Ronald Reagan was portrayed as a lonely cawboy who would change the previous liberal policies drawn by 20 years of Democrat presidents; Barack H. Obama image was exploded as the first Afro-American who would drastically change things after the big depression of 2008.
Barack H. Obama as the incarnation of the 21st century American Adam.
The new image of the American Adam has been exploited by the actual president of the United States: Barack H. Obama. His slogan during the presidential elections was a clear reminiscence of an old theme: Look forward and forget the past. His “Change; we can believe in” was a clear marketing use of the internalized American ideal of the American Adam. Under the young and exotic figure of Barack Obama laid a familiar message to most Americans, that of an abrupt change from the past policies represented by President George W. Bush towards a new change. The message was so successful, that it was even exported internationally. Such a motto has been already used at various points in history at election times, but in 2008 it was rescued. An example can be seen home, at the 37th Federal Congress of the Spanish Socialist Party (PSOE), where its slogan reminded in a very obvious way that of Barack Obama: “La fuerza del cambio”. In this particular case, there was not really a race for change, because the incumbent president was that of the Socialist Party. This slogan was used to remind the voters the political change that started in 2004 and which needed to continue in 2008 elections.
The figure of President Obama fits perfectly as the 21st century icon of the American Adam for different reasons. I would try to develop this thesis by means of a series of features that support this rebirth of the adamic icon in the actual figure of the first Afro-American president throughout American history. First, there is the obvious question of race and the African origin of his family. There is no other topic on which Americans need a clean break from the past than that of race. We must bear in mind the black civil rights movement expansion began in the 1960s, so there is still a deep contemporary racial problem in the nowadays America. Secondly, Obama represented everything which was against Washington. He was considered an outsider from the central government from Washington, despite his position as Senator from Illinois from 2005 to 2008. Thirdly, Obama’s independency from Washington was emphasized by his radical centrism. This ambiguity created a political icon in its own right, half way between the Democrat and the Republican Party. This ambiguity could be seen by the fact that, during the first primaries, Barack H. Obama was not the official candidate from the Democrat Party, but Hillary R. Clinton.
The American main stream political discourse has traditionally boasted of being the country of Freedom. This idealized vision, which has its root in the Declaration of Independence, was a common thought throughout the 19th century, despite of slavery and the continuous American-Indian relocations. Even after the Civil War, when slavery was constitutionally abolished, there still were serious race problems in the southern states. It was not until the 1960s and the civil rights movements that Afro-Americans have not been able to enjoy equality in legal terms. Even though there have been other Afro-American politicians who have also tried to claim for a place in the Democrat Party as a candidate in the Presidential race, the radicalism of their speeches and their race-specific remedies have prevented them to succeed. Obama has been able to use his image in order to break with the past and confirm that Afro-Americans can also reach the White House.
The blackness of Barack H. Obama might have been a handicap in certain social strata, but many White young Anglo-Saxon Protestant Americans have voted for Obama exactly for the race role that he might be playing in the future. This sentiment was not only present in the citizenry, but it was also expressed by many newspapers. We can find a clear example in the editorial from the Dallas Morning News, which stated that
(…) it is undeniable that America has failed to heal its racial wounds, including here in Dallas. We need a motivated leader capable of confronting the problem, and no candidate is better equipped than Mr. Obama. His message isn’t about anger and retribution. It’s about moving forward (DMN editorial board recommends Barack Obama for the Democratic nomination). 
At this point, we can see that the not-yet-candidate for the presidency was identified with a clean break from the past , and a figure whose main aim was to improve the future race relations among the different ethnicities that are coexisting in the present day America.
Obama’s personal background has also played a key role in the creation of his adamic icon. He is part of the black America because his father was from Kenya. Even though his mother was white, the young Obama had to suffer the same discriminatory grievances than other Afro-Americans, because blackness in the United States has traditionally been a social category. However, his family has never suffered slavery, and his blackness was mitigated by the fact that he was brought up by white relatives in Hawaii and he attended elite white schools. Despite his attachment to the black America, he was removed from it and from its political history. Therefore, he became an Adam figure with respect to the country’s oldest and most painful conflict. This disconnection from the race problem was also emphasized by the fact that Senator Barack H. Obama was not willing to embrace race-specific remedies. Such an idea is clearly emphasized in Obama’s bestseller “The Audacity of Hope”, when he says that
An emphasis on universal, as opposed to race-specific, programs isn’t just good policy; it’s also good politics (…) Proposals that solely benefit minorities and dissect Americans into “us” and “them” may generate a few short-term concessions when the costs to whites aren’t too high, but they can’t serve as the basis for the kinds of sustained, broad-based political coalitions needed to transform America. On the other hand, universal appeals around strategies that help all Americans (schools that teach, jobs that pay, health care for everyone who needs it, a government that helps out after a flood), along with measures that ensure our laws apply equally to everyone and hence uphold broadly held American ideals (like better enforcement of existing civil rights laws), can serve as the basis for such coalitions—even if such strategies disproportionately help minorities (Obama, The audacity of hope : thoughts on reclaiming the American dream. ch. 7).
Obama’s message throughout the presidential campaign was very much that of the successful immigrant who had miraculously transcended the racial division. In a famous speech in Kansas, Barack Obama depicted himself as the actual realization of the American Dream: One’s own past or social status does not really matter, as long as you work hard, you would succeed in life. This traditional and deeply American message was clearly present not only in this specific speech, but all along the three-month-campaign around the United States.
Our family’s story is one that spans miles and generations; races and realities. It’s the story of farmers and soldiers; city workers and single moms. It takes place in small towns and good schools; in Kansas and Kenya; on the shores of Hawaii and the streets of Chicago. It’s a varied and unlikely journey, but one that’s held together by the same simple dream. And that is why it’s American. This will not be easy, but America’s story tells me it’s possible. My story tells me it’s possible. What began here in Kansas all those years ago tells me it’s possible (…). It’s a dream that we can find a job with wages that support a family. That we can have health care that’s affordable for when we get sick. That we can retire with dignity and security. And that we can provide our children with education and opportunity (Obama, Gov. Kathleen Sebelius Endorses Barack Obama in El Dorado, Kansas [Organizing for America]).
Obama is mentioning in this speech a difficult journey, which is a characteristic of the American Adam that we have discussed in the previous section. Interestingly enough, Obama strongly emphasizes the possibility to fulfill this journey towards a better future. The accomplish this dream, Obama continuously repeats the slogan “we can”, in order to emphasize that we will be able to accomplish all our dreams in a better future. As it can be observed from this extract, Obama is not actually mentioning any political measure in order to accomplish this dream. He is talking to the soul of his fellow Americans, making them believe that the American dream is possible and that the future will be a much better place with him. Therefore, his condition as Afro-American is a living proof of the American dream, which is in fact a really intelligent way to use his ethnic origin as a marketing device. Obama’s discourse about the future, the American dream and the need to act in order to improve the world is a characteristic deeply rooted in the figure of the American Adam.
vs. Washington with a central policy.
Another direct relation between the American Adam and Barack H. Obama was his opposition not only to the White House policy under George W. Bush, but against Washington itself. Obama’s main complaint as U.S. senator for Illinois was that Washington’s discourse seemed to be dominated by ideologically driven politics that had characterized the pre-Progressive era. Most Americans, Obama insisted, were
(…) weary of the dead zone that politics has become, in which narrow interests vie for advantage and ideological minorities seek to impose their own versions of absolute truth. Whether we’re from red states or blue states, we feel in our gut the lack of honesty, rigor, and common sense in our policy debates, and dislike what appears to be a continuous menu of false or cramped choices (…). Perhaps more than any other time in our recent history, we need a new kind of politics, one that can excavate and build upon those shared understandings that pull us together as Americans.
The feelings of general distrust towards the government, specifically the federal one, and hostility towards political parties go back to America’s founding. From Thomas Paine to Andrew Jackson, the government has been considered a necessary evil. This suspicion of lasting institutions is closely linked to Americans’ dismissal of the past, which would be used by Obama in his campaign in order to ask for a new kind of politics.
Again, there is nothing new in flagging the anti-Washington banner. In 1976, a complete unknown to the American citizens became the Democrat candidate for the presidency and, eventually, won the executive election to the incumbent president. However, James E. Carter and Barack H. Obama are not the norm. Throughout the last 30 years, several presidential candidates have attempted to highlight their opposition towards government and have not succeeded: John Anderson (1980), Gary Hart (1984), Jerry Brown (1980 & 1992), Ross Perot (1992 & 1996) and Bill Bradley (2000). Whatsoever, there is a clear relation with the American Adam dismissal of the past with the historic anti-government tradition in the United States. This relation has been successfully used in the Obama’s campaign, and it has probably helped in his final victory in November.
Nevertheless, this supposed independency brought the candidacy of Barack H. Obama in 2008 towards a centralistic line of thought. This radical centralism of Obama helped to emphasize a political statement of his own right, with clear references to the Democrat Party but also winking at the less conservative wings of the GOP. Even though the United States have been traditionally a two-party country, the last century has seen the development of a new kind of voters: The Independents. These independent vote indistinctively Democrat or Republican, in relation to the image of moderation and independency from Washington that the candidate is able to convey. For instance, George W. Bush was able to get most of the independent vote in the 2000 elections because he was seen as alien to Washington, in comparison with the Washington–tainted Al Gore. In 2008, independents were well represented at Obama’s rallies, and have overwhelmingly supported him in November. Obama’s image as an outsider to Washington and his moderate political message helped him to create his own image, away from the senior management and much more popular than that of John S. McCain.
The American Adam is a figure that has been present in the American psyche from the 19th century to our days. There are thousands of examples in the literary Arts of Adamic characters, from novels, poems to films. This idealization of way-of-live has been also exported to the political arena, where many politicians have adapted their image to this icon and expanded their role nationwide. From Theodore Roosevelt to Barack Obama, there has been a change in the representation of the Adamic figure, but the essence is still the same.
Marketing strategies have been present in the political world from very ancient times. Even so, its professionalization has increased its role in the modern campaign strategies, with the leading function of the nationwide mass media which can send a message and create a homogeneous image just in weeks. 2008 campaign is a clear example of how a candidate can create an image of himself in only 12 to 15 months. Obama has been able to exploit the American Adam icon in his favor, with his continuous allusions to the future, to the change that his presidency would create, to the independency that his victory against the official Democrat candidate in the primaries proved, to his anti-Washington aura which was emphasized by his lack of experience in National politics, and so on. All the idiosyncrasies of Obama’s background and personality were focused to emphasized his image as the new American Adam.
The American Adam was born as an idealized description of the American character: independent, looking forward, in continuous motion and modern. This idealized portrait of America has not really changed. However, it is no longer a romantic description, but a goal to achieve. In political terms, the aim to create an image related to the American Adam has political advantages, because it has sometimes proved to be the right path towards victory at the polls. In the global world we are living right now, this icon has expanded its extension away from the American borders, and the idealistic message of change and hope has penetrated also in other cultures and countries. We can say that, to a certain extent, the American Adam has gone global, in a similar way to Ronald McDonald or Mickey Mouse. Its globalization and commercialization has changed the nature of the American Adam icon, and Barack Obama is a perfect example of such a redefinition.
- Democratic Review -Editorial-. “The Great Nation of Futurity.” The United States Democratic Review 0006.23 (1839): 426-430.
- “DMN editorial board recommends Barack Obama for the Democratic nomination.” The Dallas Morning News 22 February 2008.
- Emerson, Ralph W. “The Complete Works of RWE – I – Nature, Addresses & Lectures.” The Conservative. Boston (MA): www.rwe.org, 1841.
- Jefferson, Thomas. The “Tree of Liberty” letter -From T. Jefferson to W. Smith- [The Atlantic Monthly Company]. 13 November 1787. 11 September 2010 <http://www.theatlantic.com/past/docs/issues/96oct/obrien/blood.htm>.
- Johnston, Ian. “God Rides a Harley in the Land of the Free.” God Rides a Harley in the Land of the Free. Nanaimo (BC – Canada): Liberal Studies department at Malaspina University-College, 1997.
- Keneddy, John F. “Address in the Assembly Hall at the Paulskirche in Frankfurt.” 25 June 1963. The American Presidency Project [online]. Ed. John T. Woolley and Gerhard Peters. 12 September 2010 <http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=9303>.
- Lawrence, D. H. Studies in classic American literature. Cambridge: CUP, 2003.
- Lewis, Richard W. B. The American Adam: Innocence, Tragedy, and Tradition in the Nineteenth Century. Chicago (IL): The University of Chicago Press, 1955.
- Melville, Herman. White Jacket. Ria Press (digital edition), 1850.
- Obama, Barack H. Gov. Kathleen Sebelius Endorses Barack Obama in El Dorado, Kansas [Organizing for America]. 29 January 2008. 17 September 2010 <http://my.barackobama.com/page/community/post/samgrahamfelsen/CGjBy>.
- —. The audacity of hope : thoughts on reclaiming the American dream. 1st Edition. New York: Crown Publishers, 2006.
- Paine, Thomas. The Rights of Man [Independence Hall Association]. 1971. 11 September 2010 <http://www.ushistory.org/paine/rights/c2-04.htm>.
- Winthrop, John. A Modell of Christian Charity [Hanover Historical Texts Project]. 1630. 11 September 2010 <http://history.hanover.edu/texts/winthmod.html>.
- A 19th century progressive magazine, available online.
- See Johnston for furhter detail.
- Unlike other famous travelers like, Odysseus, Robinson Crusoe or Chaucer’s pilgrims, he has no home and no destination.
- This novel is available online here.
- In that particular moment, the conservative party was the Whig Party.
- In that particular moment, the progressive party was the Democrat Party.
- Conference available online.
- Text available online here.
- In relation to other Afro-American politicians, such as Jesse Jackson or Al Sharpton, who took a much more radical and distinctive path.
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The old cult of the new por Iván Matellanes (Licenciado en Filologia Inglesa), a excepción del contenido de terceros y de que se indique lo contrario, se encuentra bajo una Licencia Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 Spain Licencia.