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EDUindex News

What Makes America American

Von Steuben has some thoughts on the matter.
“Americans may belong more to the West than to Asia, but they are not Europeans, they are different. Nobody expressed this better than the great Prussian officer sent by the French to instill some discipline in Washington’s ragtag troops at Valley Forge in 1775. He was Baron von Steuben: ‘The genius of this nation is not in the least to be compared with that of the Prussians, Austrians, or French. You say to your [European] soldier, “Do this,” and he doeth it, but I am obliged to say, “This is the reason why you ought to do that,” and he does it.’”
I found this passage in Seymour Morris, Jr's book "American History: Revised." It is not blind duty but right reason that motivates the American, according to Morris. Here is another author's take on the same passage:
'Washington appointed him [Steuben] inspector general of the Continental Army in the hope that Steuben would shape his ragtag mass into a fighting force, and so he did, but not at all in the way that Washington had expected. In the manual Steuben wrote for this American army, the most remarkable theme was love: love of the soldier for his fellow soldier, love of the officer for his men, love of country and love of his nation's ideals. Steuben obviously intuited that a people's army, a force of citizen-soldiers fighting for freedom from oppression, would be motivated most powerfully not by fear but, as he put it, by "love and confidence"—love of their cause, confidence in their officers and in themselves. "The genius of this nation," Steuben explained in a letter to a Prussian officer, "is not in the least to be compared with that of the Prussians, Austrians, or French. You say to your soldier, 'Do this,' and he does it; but I am obliged to say, 'This is the reason why you ought to do that,' and then he does it."'
This is from James R. Gaines' "Washington and Lafayette" in the Smithonian Magazine. Here it is not duty imposed by the threats of an autocratic ruler but the shared passionate values that motivate the American to join his fellow citizens in their common cause: individual liberty.
While Steuben was being inspired by the American ethos, back home in Prussia, Immanuel Kant was arguing for the duty-bound ethics that Steuben found so typically European. Practical reason (ethics) was not to be instrumental; it was a categorial imperative, a duty.
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