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.



My Home Town

[Dedicated to my friend Dana Yost who is a small town guy, which is a good thing!]

I live in a small town of around 1200 people in West-Central Minnesota. It isn’t really near much of anything, though there is a larger small town of about 12,000  thirteen miles away. The residents of that town would never admit they live in a small town; they like to think it is a booming metropolis. But it’s really more like a pop than a boom. As one who grew up in Baltimore, I think I know a booming metropolis when I see one. Anyway, the town nearby doesn’t boom. It merely pops, in spite of itself. But it does have a Wal-Mart and a Menards, so maybe I’m wrong.

In any event, I go uptown in my small town to get milk and drinking water three or four times a week (the water that comes from the taps destroys the plumbing; I shudder to think what it would do to my interior). I go to the local grocery store that is hanging on by its fingernails trying to survive the onslaught from the box stores nearby. My wife and I eat low-salt, low-fat, and organic foods whenever possible, and the local grocery store doesn’t stock those items. Or much more as it happens. You know, there are a couple of dozen cans of soup and some cereal boxes on the front of the shelf with a lot of empty space behind them. And four of the six refrigerators have been shut down. But the owner and his son run it and they manage to hang in there. Somehow. I stopped in there yesterday morning and ran into the owner. We had the following conversation:

Hey,  how’s it going?

OK. I see you got two milks and a couple of waters.

Yep. I get two half-gallons of milk because we are saving the caps for our granddaughter.

Oh. Yeah? We don’t drink milk.


No. just chocolate milk sometimes.

How come, are you lactose intolerant?

Nope, we just don’t like white milk.

Oh, I see. Well, take care.

 ‘See ya.

This is typical of the conversations we have. In fact, I think we had that very same exchange a couple of months ago. The man’s son is usually there and we talk about the latest sporting event. Together we have fixed a number of the problems Minnesota’s  professional teams have had in the past few years. Not much for the mind to grab hold of, I admit. But I have my books, television, M.P.R., friends who read and write well. An amazing number of good writers in the region, in fact. And there are other compensations.

The folks are friendly. The plumber and his father-in-law who worked together for years drove three hours West through a blizzard several years ago to get us a new boiler when ours went out. And the younger man, who now runs the business, has a nifty triage system whereby he takes care of the customers with the more serious problem first. And he will come in the middle of the night if need be. Even came with a jacket and tie once to fix the furnace on his way out to dinner. He is entirely trustworthy and he doesn’t charge an arm and a leg, either.  We seldom lock our doors when we leave town, and while our two boys were growing up we never worried where they were. The town at that time had a siren that blew at noon, six o’clock, and ten o’clock. The boys would come home for lunch or supper when the whistle blew. And any kid under 16 had to be home before the ten o’clock whistle blew or the local cop would take him home! We no longer have a local cop and the whistle only blows for tornadoes so parents have had to rely on alternative modes of communicating with their kids whom they still don’t worry about. You guessed it, cell phones. Yep, even in my small town technology has taken over.

My take on small towns is rather different from that of William Gass who grew up in a small town in Indiana. He found “the rural mind [to be] narrow, passionate, and reckless” in matters of sports, politics, and religion. He was particularly put off by what he called the “surly Christian view,” which breeds prejudice and fear. I think there is some truth in this, though there may be differences between the folks in his rural area and mine. But, if one stays away from certain topics and doesn’t rock the boat too vigorously I find the folks around me to be open and friendly and the things they cherish not altogether different from the virtues practiced generally in this country at its founding — which, according to Clinton Rossiter, are such things as self-reliance, patriotism (shading off into jingoism at times), practicality, industry, and love of liberty. Folks in this town tend to cling to these values with both hands, for better or worse.

We bought our present home for $9,000.00 and had a good deal of work done on it, including an awful lot of our own “sweat equity.” A heck of a deal! Having lived in a truly booming metropolis, I will take this small town any day.