Our Great Country

We hear a good deal of late about making our country “great” again. But we hear very little about what that might entail. Just what is “greatness” when it comes to nations, anyway? If Honoré de Balzac is to be believed, it is the principles, the things the people of that nation hold dear, that makes nations great. We might also call them “virtues,” to use a much neglected word. And if we are to make America great again I would assume that this means determining what the principles, or virtues, were that were prevalent at the founding of this country and attempting to restore them to life. According to American historian Clinton Rossiter in his book Seedtime of The Republic those principles prevalent at the founding of this nation were such things as industry, frugality, humility, piety, charity, honesty, love of liberty, self-reliance, courage, and community spirit — what Rossiter called “that special American blend.”

Henry Steele Commager, another American historian, was asked when this country celebrated its bicentennial if he could put his finger on the one thing that differentiated the country in 1996 from the country in 1776 and he said it was the deeply felt concern of the citizens in 1776 with the future, with future generations. In 1996 we were preoccupied with today. I will develop this theme in a bit, but at this point I would like to quote from a letter written in 1775 by the Rev. William Smith that provides broader perspective on the mind-set of so many of his countrymen in that era:

“Look back, therefore, with reverence look back to the times of ancient virtue and renown. Look back to the mighty purposes which your fathers had in view when they traversed a mighty ocean and planted this land. Recall to your minds their labors, their toils, their perseverance, and let their divine spirit animate you in all your actions.

“Look forward to a distant posterity. . . Think that on you may depend whether this great country, in ages hence, shall be filled and adorned with a virtuous and enlightened people; enjoying liberty and all its concomitant blessings . . . or covered with a race of men more contemptible than the savages that roam the wilderness.”

Now, putting aside his use of the politically incorrect term “savages,” and ignoring, if we can, the attempts that followed to eradicate native people from this continent, we might learn something about what it was that made this country great at the time it was experiencing the growing pains that accompany the founding of a great nation. We can do no better than to reflect on the list that Rossiter provided us with, the “special American blend.”

And what, we might ask, to follow-up on the hints that Commager gave us more than thirty years ago, would characterize America in our day? I would suggest that the qualities that define us today — I hesitate to call them “principles” or much less “virtues” —  are such things as a predominant materialism, concern for physical comfort, competitiveness, desire for success (measured in dollars), conformity, physical activity, efficiency, mastery of the world around us, pragmatism, and a fixation on “progress” and profits. And to make the point with emphasis, two years ago those electors who elect politicians determined that the man who embodied those qualities was to be elected to the highest office in the land, a man who embodied those qualities that characterize themselves.

In a word, if we are to make this country great again, we chose the wrong leader. But it will take more than the right leader to turn the tide that is sweeping this country today and return us to a time when things were as they appeared and people looked beyond themselves — a time when “civic virtue” was something all (or most) embraced wholeheartedly as they looked to the future.

 

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One Disturbed Texan

You really have to admire Steve Stockman’s enthusiasm even though you might want to question his knowledge of American history and the Constitution. Steve is a recently elected Republican member of the House of Representatives from the great state of Texas — you remember Texas? It wanted to secede from the Union after Barack Obama was reelected to the Presidency. The White House was required to respond to the petition and they said “No.” Pity! In any event now Steve wants to impeach the President because he has suggested that he might want to evoke executive privilege to curb violence in this country.

The story begins with Steve’s rant against the president’s outrageous suggestion:

“I will seek to thwart this action by any means necessary, including but not limited to eliminating funding for implementation, defunding the White House, and even filing articles of impeachment,” Stockman pledged. “The president’s actions are an existential threat to this nation. The right of the people to keep and bear arms is what has kept this nation free and secure for over 200 years. The very purpose of the Second Amendment is to stop the government from disallowing people the means to defend themselves against tyranny. Any proposal to abuse executive power and infringe upon gun rights must be repelled with the stiffest legislative force possible.”

Let’s take this slowly, pausing for breath — which is a pause Mr. Stockman apparently forgot to take. The President’s actions are said to be an “existential threat to this nation.” What, precisely, does that mean? It sounds like it might have come from Sartre or one of the other beat thinkers in the 1950s, but I doubt that Steve ever read those folks. He apparently hasn’t read his history either. In any event, I gather Steve thinks the country is endangered by the President’s threat to evoke executive privilege. He must be unaware that whatever steps President Obama takes to curb the violence in this country will be very small indeed, since it will require legislation to take giant steps and the Congress is the legislative body in this country — and not likely to do much of anything about gun control.

It’s not at all clear from what history I have read that the Second Amendment — which was adopted in 1791, fifteen years after the Declaration of Independence was adopted and almost ten years after the end of the revolutionary war — has been instrumental in “keeping this nation free for nearly 200 years.” I would have thought it was the Army, Navy, and Marines that did that, fighting wars on foreign soil with the loss of thousands of American lives, and not the militia at home with their muskets as guaranteed by the Bill of Rights.

It is true that the Founders were concerned about tyranny, but they saw that danger coming from across the pond, not from the head of our government here on this continent. And it is not clear how this president, or any president for that matter, could become a tyrant given the checks and balances that have been written into the Constitution. In fact, if you look at the list of nineteen things the president might do to curb violence in this country after the massacre at Sandy Hook, they seem fairly innocuous — and largely ineffective I dare say. And the President hasn’t even said he would take any of those steps. Steve seems to be overreacting.

One of the few steps the NRA and its Republican supporters are in favor of in the way of reducing violence in this country is better mental health coverage. This is an excellent idea and it is certainly something that people like Representative Stockman will want to take advantage of at their earliest convenience.