America First!: Its History, Culture, and Politics

America First!: Its History, Culture, and Politics


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America First! is a rarity among political books: first published in 1995, it remains more timely, relevant, and even urgent than ever.

Lively and iconoclastic, it explores the rich heritage, the turbulent present, and the possible future of the political and cultural tendency known as "America First." Bill Kauffman, a columnist for the American Conservative, examines the nineteenth-century underpinnings and twentieth-century eruptions of American isolationism and nationalism, which are the fault lines along which the politics of the twenty-first century are cleaving.

In a new preface and epilogue written especially for this reissue, he traces the evolution of America First sentiment over the past twenty years: from its near-eclipse in the war hysteria of the George W. Bush administration to its revival in 2016 with the populist campaigns of Donald Trump and Senator Bernie Sanders.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781633883093
Publisher: Prometheus Books
Publication date: 09/06/2016
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 294
Sales rank: 868,487
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Bill Kauffman is the author of eleven books, including Dispatches from the Muckdog Gazette, which won the 2003 national “Sense of Place” award from Writers & Books, and Look Homeward, America, which the American Library Association named one of the best books of 2006. He also wrote the screenplay for the feature film Copperhead (2013). Kauffman is a columnist for The American Conservative. He and his family live in his native Genesee County, New York.

Read an Excerpt

America First!

Its History, Culture, and Politics

By Bill Kauffman

Prometheus Books

Copyright © 1995 Bill Kauffman
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-63388-310-9


Ham 'n' Amos: The Populist and Patrician Roots of America First

"The patriot never under any circumstances boasts of the largeness of his country, but always, and of necessity, boasts of the smallness of it."

— G. K. Chesterton, The Napoleon of Notting Hill (1904)

Thomas Fleming, the editor of Chronicles — and perhaps the only man ever to listen reverently to both the Tennessee agrarian novelist Andrew Lytle and the avant-garde rock-and-roll band the Velvet Underground — has called the incipient Middle American revolt of the 1990s a battle of "Nebraska against New York." This powerful populist metaphor has yet to be concretized: no two glamorous senators are closer than Omaha's Bob Kerrey and Pat Moynihan of New York's Hell's Kitchen (or, as the waggish ex-Mayor Ed Koch put it, "Hell's Condominium"); the prairie schooners of revolt in North Platte and Hastings are not leading war parties against Manhattan.

Still, Fleming's trope is a brilliant one, for the roots of the present rebellion against the American Empire can be found in the midland states of a century ago. And no better guide exists than the self-proclaimed "son of the middle border," Hamlin Garland, whose fury and scattershot lit the skies of an age in which Nebraska, in the person of the sweating "missionary isolationist" William Jennings Bryan, really did wage war against the New York of J. P. Morgan and Theodore Roosevelt and the dragon Wall Street.


Hannibal Hamlin Garland, named for Lincoln's first vice president, was born in 1860 in Green's Coulee, Wisconsin, "a delightful place for boys." His father, Richard, had been a Maine carpenter who spent a lifetime moving west, ever optimistic that the cornucopia lay over the next meadow. The Garlands moved to Minnesota, and then to Iowa, where Richard took a town job as buyer for the Grange, the farmers' cooperative which acted as seedbed for the coming agrarian revolt. Hamlin went to school at the Cedar Valley Seminary, where he developed a wicked sinker ball. After a period of wanderlust and a teaching stint, Hamlin rejoined his family in the Dakota Territory, where Richard and his wife, Isabel, were struggling to be like novelist Ole Rolvaag's giants in the earth. Hamlin staked his own claim, with an eye toward turning a profit; but a winter spent "in a pine-board shanty on a Dakota plain with only buffalo bones for fuel" made him "eager to escape the terror and the loneliness of the treeless sod." So with the brash and engaging heedlessness of his pioneer father, Hamlin set off for Boston to make his mark.

"No Jason ever sought a Golden Fleece with less knowledge of the seas before him," Garland later recalled. He was a brown-bearded mbe in a "Prince Albert frock of purplish color"; Stephen Crane, whom he would befriend, said he looked "like a nice Jesus Christ." Garland rented a room on Boylston Place, "a dismal blind alley" near the public library, which he haunted for ten hours a day, taking time out for the fifteen-cent lunch of bread and meat which sustained the penurious pilgrim. Discouraged that he was not permitted to check out books without an endorsement, Garland worked up the nerve to pay a visit to Edward Everett Hale, whom he remembered as a name on a card from the "Authors" game he had played as a boy on rainy days. Hale kindly assisted the rough-hewn mendicant, and Garland was on his way.

"Outwardly seedy, hungry, pale and lonely, I inhabited palaces and spoke with kings," Garland later recalled. He read with desperate avidity, mindful of the inexorable dwindling of his $140 stake. He read Herbert Spencer, Walt Whitman, and the economist Henry George. This unlikely triad nurtured in Garland a confluence of sentiments that made him a walking, talking, fire-snorting omnibus of American populism. He was a romantic individualist whose pulse raced with what Thomas Wolfe would call "the richness, fabulousness, exultancy and wonderful life of America." Yet he saw clearly the bleakness and desolation of life on the pitiless frontier: "no beauty, no music, no art, no joy — just a dull and hopeless round of toil. What is it all worth?" Garland asked after a trip home in 1887. He was a staunch Jeffersonian, a believer in widespread distribution of private property, a decentralized and minimal state, and "individual liberty as opposed to the socialistic ideal." Yet Garland parted company with the Sage of Monticello on one critical issue: while he detested paternalistic government he preached Henry George's doctrine of common land ownership.

As a lecturer, a book reviewer, and then a short story writer, Hamlin Garland conquered literary Boston — at least its non-Brahmin precincts. William Dean Howells, dean of American letters, was taken with the nervy young outlander who interrupted him at dinner to expound his theory that "American literature, in order to be great, must be national, and in order to be national must deal with conditions peculiar to our own land and climate. Every sincere writer must write of the life he knows best and for which he cares most."

Garland found a patron in Benjamin O. Flower, publisher of the quirky monthly The Arena. Flower played Maecenas to a stable of bards, visionaries, and kooks. While one critic called him "an egregious fellow, ready and willing to swallow any proposed reform without the slightest preliminary examination," Flower's enthusiasm and generosity fueled Garland's determination to play the unheard music: "I was feeling my way toward a delineation of life in Iowa and Dakota, a field in which I had no predecessor."

Joseph Kirkland, whose Zury: Meanest Man in Spring County (1887) was Illinois's best-known work of local color, encouraged Garland with all the hyperbolic rhetoric of friendship: "You are the first actual farmer in literature. Tolstoy is a make-believe. You are the real thing."

Garland was young and green enough to buy it. Benjamin Flower brought out Garland's first book, a collection of six stories titled Main-Travelled Roads (1891), whose tone was set in the dedication and epigraph. The book was for "my father and mother," Garland wrote, "whose half-century pilgrimage on the main-travelled road of life has brought them only toil and deprivation." (Isabel thanked her son for this curiously condescending inscription; the proud Richard said nothing.) The main-traveled road, claimed the author, was "long and wearyful, and has a dull little town at one end and a home of toil at the other." The stories depict farmers and their wives beaten by the elements, dumb luck, and a rigged system into slack-jawed hebetude. Though Garland was later to sing, "Youth and love are able to transform a bleak prairie town into a poem, and to make of a barbed-wire lane a highway of romance," the transmutative properties of love are absent here. Even a weary Union private coming home to his "beautiful valley" in Wisconsin "is looking down upon his own grave." Fellow feeling and kindness, the currencies that were to circulate so freely in the Friendship Village stories of another Wisconsin writer, Zona Gale, rarely obtrude, though one farmer does allow, "When I see a man down, an' things on top of 'm, I jest like t' kick 'em off an' help 'm up. That's the kind of religion I got, an' it's about the only kind." (Deliverance, according to the story "Under the Lion's Paw," was simple: adopt Georgist libertarianism!)

William Dean Howells spoke of the book in glowing terms: "If any one is still at a loss to account for that uprising of farmers in the West which is the translation of the Peasant's War into modern and republican terms, let him read Main-Travelled Roads." Angry, credentialed, and itching for a fight, the young radical took his place on the front lines of agrarian revolt.

On The Arena's money, Garland spent 1891-92 riding the rails — some 30,000 miles worth, he estimated — "meeting all the leading advocates of revolt in the South and West." The author claimed, "I'm going west to listen mainly," but he wrote, too: in 1892 alone Garland published four books, three of them (Jason Edwards, A Member of the Third House, and A Spoil of Office) fervent propaganda novels on behalf of the People's, or Populist, party.

In Hamlin Garland, the most prolific Populist novelist and an accomplished speechifier, too — he crisscrossed Iowa in 1891 and 1892 stumping for the party — we find a populism that is both ardent and thoughtful, measured and radical, sanguine and morose. Garland was committed to populism by both blood and intellect. The Grange, the agrarian cooperative for which his father worked briefly, served — together with the more militant Farmers' Alliance — as kindling for the Populist brushfire. Richard was a county officer of the People's party in South Dakota; like most American fathers of writers he dismissed his son's vocation as sissified, though he wept with pride when at the Omaha People's party convention of 1892 Hamlin read "Under the Lion's Paw" to a thunderous ovation.

The convention cheered madly for the platform preamble, which was drafted and delivered by silver-tongued Ignatius Donnelly, the ex-congressman from Minnesota:

We meet in the midst of a nation brought to the verge of moral, political and material ruin. Corruption dominates the ballot-box, the legislature, the Congress. ... The people are demoralized. ... The newspapers are largely subsidized or muzzled, public opinion silenced, business prostrated, our homes covered with mortgages, labor impoverished, and the land concentrating in the hands of the capitalists. The urban workmen are denied the right of organization for self-protection, imported pauperized labor beats down their wages, [and] a hireling standing army, unrecognized by our laws, is established to shoot them down. ... The fruits of the toil of millions are boldly stolen to build up colossal fortunes for a few unprecedented in the history of mankind, and the possessors of these, in turn, despise the republic and endanger liberty. From the same prolific womb of governmental injustice we breed the two great classes — tramps and millionaires.

Solutions were plentiful, pullulating like mushrooms after a shower. While Populists generally shared a Jeffersonian bias toward the small producer, the family farmer, and the skilled workman, their remedies ranged from the free coinage of silver to widespread use of initiative and referendum to a Georgist land-tax to discourage speculation. (This final scheme was written into the platform by Garland and his ally, the great Kansas crusader Sockless Jerry Simpson.)

Conforming to Richard Hofstadter's caricature, Garland's political novels do feature villains waxing mustaches as well as coquettish damsels virginal beyond belief. But though suffused with the didacticism of the evangelist — "my grandiose plan for a panoramic novel of agricultural unrest degenerated into a partisan plea for a stertorous People's Party," Garland later admitted of A Spoil of Office — they teem with ideas, often pungently expressed.

No soapbox is safe when Garland takes pen in hand. In a typical passage from A Spoil of Office his alter ego Radbourn, a Populist journalist, catechizes: "Every year the army of useless clerks increases; every year the numbers of useless buildings increases. The whole thing is appalling, and yet the people are getting apparently more helpless to reform it. Laws pile upon laws, when the real reform is to abolish laws. Wipe out grants and special privileges. We ought to be legislating toward equality of opportunity in the world...." (A venerable judge in the novel criticizes the Grangers for demanding "class legislation" rather than "equal rights for all, special privileges for none.")

Garland the saturnine plowboy was also an indignant moralist. In A Member of the Third House lobbyists are "a body of corrupt men who stand between the people and legislation." Venality flourishes "in the fumes of whiskey and tobacco." Garland remained a staunch prohibitionist right up to the repeal of the Eighteenth Amendment. This is difficult to square with his passion for individual liberty, William Jennings Bryan, himself a teetotaler, perhaps had it better when he defended the legal sale and consumption of alcohol on the grounds of personal freedom.

In The Arena Garland explained the Populist creed: "We are individualists, mainly, let that be understood at the start. We stand unalterably opposed to the paternal idea in government. We believe in fewer laws and the juster interpretation thereof." As president of the Boston Anti-Poverty League he strenuously opposed government ownership of railroads, arguing that "we are advancing along the line of absolute freedom, and it is not freedom to put into governmental hands ... the running of trains." Garland's antimonopolism carried him so far as to bemoan the absence of competition in mail delivery.

"Free trade, free land, free men!" declared the pamphlets he often enclosed with his correspondence, to the irritation of such conservative friends as the novelist Mary E. Wilkins. ("Free love," on the other hand, was never a hobbyhorse: although his novel Rose of Dutcher's Coolly was denounced by bluenoses for hinting that farmgirls know whence babies come, Garland was in reality a prude who could be made apoplectic by a single cinematic glimpse of Clara Bow's gams.)

While some Populists urged socialist measures — usually nationalization of the railroads and utilities, industries that had battened on government subsidies and were now quite beyond the discipline of the market — most remained tenacious Jeffersonians. C. Vann Woodward has written of the populists of the 1890s:

Individualistic and middle-class in tradition and aspiration, they accepted the basic capitalist system. [Georgia Populist Thomas] Watson summed up their objectives: "Keep the avenues of honor free. Close no entrance to the poorest, the weakest, the humblest. Say to ambition everywhere, 'the field is clear, the contest fair, come, and win your share if you can!'"

Even Benjamin Flower, lover of the outré, communer with the dead, follower of barefoot prophets, declared Populism to be "a revolt of the millions against the assumption of paternal authority on the part of the general government, and the prostitution of this authority or power for the enriching of a favored few."

The old Populists, unlike their America First heirs, welcomed free trade; they held with John Taylor of Caroline, the farmer-theorist of early nineteenth-century Virginia, that tariffs create "a capitalist interest, which instantly seizes upon the bounty taken by law from agriculture; and instead of doing any good to the actual workers in wood, metals, cotton or other substances, it helps to rear up an aristocratical order, at the expense of the workers in the earth." The tariff is mother to the trust, went the shibboleth, and on this matter the children of Whitman and George and Herbert Spencer agreed.

But not all populists urged the wholesale repeal of laws. Platform author Donnelly, lovingly known as the "Prince of Cranks," had been a Minnesota congressman and indefatigable gadfly who mixed speculative books on Atlantis and Bacon's authorship of Shakespeare's plays with an almost frighteningly intense agrarian radicalism. In his dystopian novel Caesar's Column (1890), Donnelly envisions an America of 1988 in which the government owns all the guns; "newspapers are simply the hired mouthpieces of power"; and a stunted, mongrelized workforce toils for multinational megacorporations until the peons commit suicide "by the pleasantest means possible" and their corpses are burned in the huge furnaces that rage all through the night. "We are a republic in name, free only in forms," shouts one radical. Yet the author asserted, "We have but to expand the powers of government to solve the enigma of the world": certainly a Garlandian libertarianism did not constitute the whole of agrarian populism.

In Donnelly's novel — still a fast and exciting read, by the way, similar to Jack London's The Iron Heel — we see in stark outline the populist bogeys: overweening and meddlesome government determined to stamp out dissent; corporate media that are handmaidens to the state; large rootless financial interests that profit from war, the defenselessness of farmers, laborers, and small businessmen; and the alloying of the American population through immigration and annexation. Unfortunately, in Donnelly's nightmare "the aristocracy of the world is now almost altogether of Hebrew origin." This suspicion about Jews as clannish and not entirely trustworthy Americans, though repudiated by many populists and subsequent generations of America Firsters, was to become an albatross around their necks. Time and again we will see populist isolationists calumnied as anti-Semites — a baseless charge, in most cases.


Excerpted from America First! by Bill Kauffman. Copyright © 1995 Bill Kauffman. Excerpted by permission of Prometheus Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Preface 1

Foreword Gore Vidal 9

Introduction 13

Part 1 The Evolution of Populist Antiwar Sentiment

1 Ham 'n' Amos: The Populist and Patrician Roots of America First 27

2 There Are Left the Mountains: American Writers and the Perishing Republic 69

3 The Merchants of Death of Sunset Boulevard 85

Part 2 Let Us Now Praise Famous America Firsters

4 Alice of Malice: The Other Side of Rooseveltism 103

5 Sinclair Lewis: It's a Grand Republic 117

6 Patriotic Gore Vidal 129

7 Fulbright: The First Arkansas Bill 143

8 Edward Abbey: Parched in the American Desert 155

9 Jack Kerouac: The Beat Goes Right 165

10 Autumn in New England: The Last Jeffersonian 175

Part 3 America First Renewed

11 The New Party of the Old Republic 187

12 The Devil Thumbs a Ride: Buchanan, Perot, and the Middle American Revolt 209

13 The Coiled Rattlesnake: An America First Foreign Policy for the 1990s 235

Epilogue: The Road to Trump vii

Bibliography 257

Index 283

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