Our own Morgan Meis in The Smart Set:
In the 19th century, Americans really turned to the business of thinking about themselves. “What have we got here, anyway?” was the operational question. They came up with two big answers. The first answer was that America is nothing. The second answer was that America is everything. Simple and obscure all at once, just like so many Americans.
The nothing part was about wiping the slate clean. European civilization had come to America to be obliterated, and America happily obliged. The everything part was about what you're left with after the obliteration. For 19th-century America, the everything was in Nature, which you spelled with a capital “N” and then let Ralph Waldo Emerson do the rest. Ralph would write sentences like, “The moral influence of nature upon every individual is that amount of truth which it illustrates to him.” We had lost the culture of Europe, but we had gained a relationship with Nature that gave us direct access to Truth, Beauty, and God.
This exchange of culture for truth did, however, generate a sense of anxiety. There was the feeling that it might not last, that American purity would be lost with the onward march of civilization just as it had all gone wrong in Europe. Paradise, after all, has been known to lead to The Fall.