America's Two Faces to the World

Herman Melville (1819-1891), the American novelist, essayist and poet, from his vantage point of the nineteenth century, speculated about America’s future role in the world. He defined two faces that America could show to the world:

Intrepid, unprincipled, reckless, predatory, with boundless ambition, civilized in externals but a savage at heart, America is, or may yet be, the Paul Jones of nations. [1] (from The Writings of Herman Melville, 8 vols, ed. Israel Potter)

We Americans are the peculiar, chosen people – the Israel of our time; we bear the ark of the liberties of the world. God has predestined, mankind expects, great things from our race; and great things we feel in our souls. The rest of the nations must soon be in our rear. We are the pioneers of the world; the advance guard, sent on through the wilderness of untried things, to break a new path in the New World that is ours. (from White-Jacket)

The history of twentieth and twenty-first centuries have given us ample evidence of both faces, and much still turns on which countenance is now presented to the world.


[1] Paul Jones (1747-1792) is regarded as the founder of the American Navy and he developed a reputation as a skilled and ruthless sea captain. Disraeli, one of his early biographers, saw him as more a pirate than anything else.


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