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What is G.K Chesterton's view of America and Americans?

Updated on October 16, 2015

G.K. Chesterton


What is America?

G. K. Chesterton in America

a review of "What is America" from "What I saw in America"

Some of the best observers of American culture have been from elsewhere. At times Americans are the worst critics. One observer that I have liked very much is G.K. Chesterton, An English journalist who visited America in the 1920s, but I believe his observations are still relevant. The creator of the Father Brown stories also had view on the Constitution of the U.S.

Chesterton is probably best known for his mystery series of short stories about Father Brown, an unassuming priest, who solved crimes. He was also something of a religious writer and wrote on politics and culture. Although known as a conservative, he often criticized Puritans and inflexible thinkers. He is also known for his use of Paradox or seemingly contradictory statements that may nonetheless be true. He starts his essay talking about how people might stay at home and love people from everywhere but if they travel they meet other people in reality some of their illusion might be challenged. He feels it is not unusual or even wrong for one to find other people and customs to be odd or funny. What he did find to be wrong is to not look deeper and try to seek understanding. “I do not blame them for being amused; it is perfectly natural to be amused at a Dutchman for being Dutch or a Chinaman for being Chinese. Where they are wrong is that they take their own amusement seriously.”

He goes on to explain his own first impressions of America. When he went to the American for his passport, he expected that the American consulate would be American. Consulates, in general, he says are like little islands within another land and oddly maintain their home habits. The officials he met were, indeed, very American in that they were very polite. He has always found Americans to be polite.

He was given a form to fill out which turned out to be very different from any form he had ever had to fill out before. The questions he found were very odd, such as “are you an anarchist?” and “are you in favor of subverting the government?”

I do not know if our forms still ask such questions, but it is not hard to understand Chesterton amusement. At first one might think that the American Constitution is like the Spanish Inquisition, he says. However, one must think a little deeper. Certainly American officialism is peculiar but rather than thinking America is peculiar. What is peculiar about America.. Than one must think more about what America is.

“America,” he says, “ is the nation is the world founded on a creed. The creed is set forth with dogmatic and even theological lucidity in the Declaration of Independence, perhaps the only piece of practical politics that is theoretical politics and also great literature.”

One of the favorite complaints I hear in today’s politics is that America is not perfect and that it has not lived up to the ideals. It seems to be that many want a utopia. However I would point out and agree with what Chesterton says, at this point. “Nobody expects a modern political system to proceed logically in the application of such dogmas . . . The point is that there is such a creed.”

Chesterton goes on to talk about the great American experiment o democracy of diverse races . . . a melting pot. “America invites all men to become citizens: but it implies the dogma that there is such a thing as citizenship.”

I think that he made an important point here because there is a great tendency in today’s politics to downplay the importance of citizenship and not demand that immigrants respect the country, its laws and customs. Without the bond of citizenship, I think, the society is in great danger of falling apart.

“What is unique is not America but what is called Americanization.” No other country is trying to make nationals out of such diverse peoples, he explains. I really think this may have pertinence for our times as I have heard and read that European countries are having difficulty assimilating groups of Muslims.

There is something in the Declaration of Independence which is absent from the British constitution, Chesterton declares. It is theory “which people who can practice it call thought.”The theory of equality.’

I think Chesterton’s observations have a great deal of relevancy for today. The founding documents of our country are probably the most profound political documents ever written. As Chesterton notes, no country lives up to all of its ideals, but that does not invalidate the ideal as something to strive for. I’m disturbed by those who want to downgrade the constitution rather than make it work. Yet, I have hope that a free people will continue to try to make the American experiment work.

If you have found this to be an interesting read, please vote for it and leave a comment.

© 2009 Don A. Hoglund


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    • dahoglund profile imageAUTHOR

      Don A. Hoglund 

      6 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

      Thanks for reading and commenting. Chesterton has always been a leading man of thought in my opinion.

    • Perspycacious profile image

      Demas W Jasper 

      6 years ago from Today's America and The World Beyond

      "Hope springs eternal." "Where there's life, there's hope. Etc." God old G. K. zeroed in on what makes us unique, but only as long as we don't give in to being ordinary, or fail to uphold our laws and traditions. God thoughts to ponder, as he intended we should.

    • dahoglund profile imageAUTHOR

      Don A. Hoglund 

      7 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

      ajwrites, I do think Chesterton had an exceptional insight into American culture. Thanks for commenting and sharing.

    • ajwrites57 profile image

      AJ Long 

      7 years ago from Pennsylvania

      Interesting Hub dahohglund. I've read some of Chesterton's works in the past--even have a volume of his work around somewhere. All the so called political pundits of our day would do well to read his works. So called open-minded people would benefit a great deal, too. A favorite quote I remember is "The thing I hate about an argument is that it always interrupts a discussion." (I had to look it up--didn't remember it correctly.) Society and government are so polarized in their views, a dsicussion never occurs. Thanks for the intersting Hub! Shared!

    • dahoglund profile imageAUTHOR

      Don A. Hoglund 

      8 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

      If you are not very familiar with Chesterton, he is note for having paradoxes in his writings. I personally like that but some people find it confusing.The paradoxes often give him an unexpected insight.Thanks for reading and commenting.

    • profile image

      Sophia Angelique 

      8 years ago

      Interesting article. I have to read up more of what he has to say. :)

    • dahoglund profile imageAUTHOR

      Don A. Hoglund 

      8 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

      Prairieprincess. Thanks for a thoughtful comment. Chesterton also felt that it is only the the "Creed" that holds a diverse society like America together where there are not common traditions like England has.

    • prairieprincess profile image

      Sharilee Swaity 

      8 years ago from Canada

      Very interesting article! I remember reading an essay by Chesterton in high school, and thinking he was quite charming. I like his observation that America is founded on a creed, and that that makes it different than any other place. Yes, that does help to explain the idealism and devout patriotism towards America that many Americans feel. America really is an idea, as well as a place. Great essay!

    • dahoglund profile imageAUTHOR

      Don A. Hoglund 

      9 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

      Hi Peggy W

      Thanks for your comment and observations.

      I think it was the second generation immigrants who were eager to learn English in the past. I once asked a Lutheran Pastor what it meant that some churches were designated "First" Lutheran or whatever. I found that these were the first churches of that denomination that built in the areea. Later a newer church would go up that spoke English-in Rapids we have a First English Lutheran-I believe which would be the first to have English spoken.

      The big problem today is the "multi-cultural" philosophy that does not think we should force everyone to assimilate. I notice that is tending to crash now in Europe.

    • Peggy W profile image

      Peggy Woods 

      9 years ago from Houston, Texas

      That used to be the way of immigrants from the past. Often they were so eager to become Americans that by choice they learned English as fast as possible and did not even pass their old spoken language on to their children. While that seems a shame...their intent was good. Today there are far too many people coming to this country illegally who do not even try to assimilate and expect us to adjust by teaching their children in their native tongue. Topsy turvy in my opinion.

    • dahoglund profile imageAUTHOR

      Don A. Hoglund 

      11 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

      a very relevant comment. I believe there is some value in remembering one's heritage but loyalty should be to thesociety and country one belongs to.

    • profile image


      11 years ago

      "I think that he made an important point here because there is a great tendency in today’s politics to downplay the importance of citizenship and not demand that immigrants respect the country, its laws and customs. Without the bond of citizenship, I think, the society is in great danger of falling apart."

      I agree with this comment 100%.

      However, I have,sadly, found that more immigrants who come to this great land LEGALLY, are far more proud to gain citizenship and to call themselves Americans, than those of of who have resided here all of our lives.

      There are too many GROUPS creating too much separation whithin our Country: African-American, Latin-American, German-American. To me we are all just Americans, no forename, just American. If everyone embraced this concept, those in power would not be able to use a "race card" and those who gain by racism, Jackson, Farrakan,Sharpton, would no longer be able to spread their hate and discontent.

      Just my Two Cents~

    • dahoglund profile imageAUTHOR

      Don A. Hoglund 

      11 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

      I tend to agree that humans are social beings who need some sorts of support groups at various levels.

    • profile image

      Bill Kinghorn 

      11 years ago

      Wyatt Cooper, in "Families", says that a man can't servive except as a citizen of a family, a town, a nation, eventhough he'll probably have enemies in all of those groups. The dimise of the extended family, he believes, is catastrophic. He also quoted Chesterton. Maybe it was: "If you strike a child, do it in anger. A blow in cold blood cannot, and should not be forgiven."


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