This American government — what is it but a tradition, though a recent one, endeavoring to transmit itself unimpaired to posterity, but each instant losing some of its integrity.

  1. What does "what is it but a tradition" mean?
  2. Can we use "though" and "but" together?
  3. Does "each" mean "each posterity"?
  • It's hard for me to choose the best answer as I'm not a native English speaker, so majority rules. @FumbleFingers Thank you for your answer. There're lots of questions I want to ask about on the duty of civil disobedience.
    – Leon Zero
    Oct 12, 2016 at 14:47
  • Well, I am a native speaker, so I already know everything pertaining to the use of English in both answers. It seems to me they both address and should resolve all the specific points you query, but the very fact that I'm not a learner myself means it's not easy for me to see whether either might be significantly clearer than the other. But others will vote besides you, and hopefully on average, they'll tend to upvote the one that they find easiest to understand. They're both accurate, so that's not really a factor, but clarity should be (and I'm always clear to myself! :) Oct 12, 2016 at 16:17

2 Answers 2


What is it but xxx

Is a more poetic way of saying

It is no more than xxx

The author is saying that "American government" is considered by some to be a carefully crafted construction but (says the author) it is only a pattern of behaviour that we repeat from generation to generation; it is nothing more than a tradition.

The use of though and but is valid because they both introduce separate qualifications to the main idea.

The American government is a tradition endeavoring to transmit itself to posterity.

First the author qualifies tradition. Unlike some traditions that are many hundreds of years old, American (US) government dates only to 1776.

The American government is a tradition, though a recent one, endeavoring to transmit itself to posterity.

Second the author says that as the tradition transmits from generation to generation changes occur. So the transmission from one generation to the next loses integrity. So the but is explaining that the endeavour to transmit is not completely successful.

The American government is a tradition, though a recent one, endeavoring to transmit itself to posterity, but losing some integrity.

The each refers to the instant; the passing of time leads to loss of integrity.


The What is X but Y? construction is effectively a rhetorical question, meaning What is X if it's not Y? (equivalent to Do I/we/you think X is something other than Y? No! - obviously X is exactly Y!).

This use of but is covered by oxforddictionaries.com...

but (conjunction, definition 2) [with negative or in questions]
Used to indicate the impossibility of anything other than what is being stated.
‘one cannot but sympathize’
‘there was nothing they could do but swallow their pride’
‘they had no alternative but to follow’

You can't use though and but "together" (i.e. - with both making the same contrast), but the cited example is fine because they refer to different things...

1: even though it's a recent tradition, it's still a tradition
2: the tradition tries to copy itself into the future, but it's constantly changing

Finally, each instant losing some of its integrity is a "poetic, flowery, prolix" way of saying...

As every moment passes, the "tradition" we're talking about (i.e. - the US government) loses some more of the elements that make (made) it an "integral, coherent, unified" thing.

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