The Why, How and What of America
Readings to appreciate the making of our nation and its continuing miracle.
I’m not really big on purple mountain majesties. I’d love America if it were a hole in the ground though yes, it’s beautiful. I don’t love it only because it’s “an idea,” as we all say now. That strikes me as a little bloodless. Baseball didn’t come from an idea, it came from us — a long cool game punctuated by moments of high excellence and utter heartbreak, a team sport in which each player operates on his own. The great movie about America’s pastime isn’t called “Field of Ideas,” it’s called “Field of Dreams.” And the scene that makes every grownup weep is when the dark-haired young catcher steps out of the cornfield and walks toward Kevin Costner, who suddenly realizes: That’s my father.
He asks if they can play catch, and they do, into the night.
The great question comes from the father: “Is this Heaven?” The great answer: “It’s Iowa.”
Which gets me closer to my feelings on patriotism. We are a people that has experienced something epic together. We were given this brilliant, beautiful thing, this new arrangement, a political invention based on the astounding assumption that we are all equal, that where you start doesn’t dictate where you wind up. We’ve kept it going, father to son, mother to daughter, down the generations, inspired by the excellence and in spite of the heartbreak. Whatever was happening, depression or war, we held high the meaning and forged forward. We’ve respected and protected the Constitution.
And in the forging through and the holding high we’ve created a history, traditions, a way of existing together.
We’ve been doing this for 243 years now, since the first Fourth of July, and in spite of all the changes that have swept the world.
It’s all a miracle. I love America because it’s where the miracle is.
In celebration of that miracle, three books that touch on the why, how and what of loving America.
Start with E.B. White on why. America should be loved, tenderly, for a large and obvious reason: because it is a democracy. In July 1943, at the height of World War II, he tried to define what that means.
“Democracy is the recurrent suspicion that more than half of the people are right more than half of the time,” he wrote in the New Yorker. “It is the feeling of privacy in the voting booths, the feeling of communion in the libraries, the feeling of vitality everywhere. Democracy is a letter to the editor. Democracy is the score at the beginning of the ninth. It is an idea which hasn’t been disproved yet, a song the words of which have not gone bad.”
That’s from the recent book “E.B. White On Democracy.” In the introduction Jon Meacham notes that Franklin D. Roosevelt loved White’s short essay. One of his speechwriters, the playwright Robert E. Sherwood, said FDR read it aloud at gatherings, in his unplaceably patrician accent, often adding a homey coda at the end: “Them’s my sentiments exactly.”
There’s a lot of sweetness in this collection.
Here’s an argument on how to love America:
There was a young man in 1838, an aspiring politician almost too shy to admit his ambition to himself or others, who gave a talk to a Midwestern youth group. It was a speech about public policy, but it showed a delicate appreciation of psychology, of how people feel about what’s happening around them.
America’s Founders — “the patriots of ‘76,” he called them — were now all gone, James Madison having died 19 months before.
In their absence Americans felt lost. Those men stood for this country, they modeled what it was in their behavior. Admiration for them had united the country. Now, without them, people felt on their own. First principles were being forgotten, mob rule was rising. In Mississippi, they were hanging gamblers even though gambling was legal. “Next, negroes, suspected of conspiring to raise an insurrection, were caught up and hanged in all parts of the State; then, white men supposed to be leagued with the negroes; and, finally, strangers from neighboring States, going thither on business.”
It was madness, and it threatened the republic. If people come to understand “their rights to be secure in their persons and property” were now at the mercy of “the caprice of the mob,” their affiliation with the American government will be destroyed.
The answer? Transfer reverence for the Founders to reverence for the laws they devised. “Let reverence for the laws … become the political religion of the Nation.” Let all agree that to violate the law “is to trample on the blood of his father.”
Unjust laws should be replaced as soon as possible; the citizenry has the means. “Still while they continue in force, for the sake of example, they should be religiously observed.” But only “reverence for the constitution and laws” will preserve our political institutions and retain “the attachment of the people” now that the founding generation has “gone to rest.”
You have already guessed the speaker was Abraham Lincoln, then only 28. It is from his address to the Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield, Ill., and it is a small part of a stupendous compilation of the best things said by and to Americans called “So Proudly We Hail,” edited by Amy and Leon Kass and Diana Schaub. Its diverse contributors include Philip Roth, Ben Franklin, Willa Cather and W.E.B. Du Bois.
My friend Joel, an America-loving New York intellectual, gave me the book as a gift. He opens it every night at random and always finds something valuable. Now so do I.
As I read I thought of those who today oppose illegal immigration. They are often accused of small and parochial motivations. But I believe at the heart of their opposition is a delicate understanding that when the rule of law collapses, as it does daily on the southern border, everything else can collapse. Many things are more delicate than we think, and those most inclined to see that delicacy are most dependent on responsible leaders who will keep the laws of the nation strong and operable.
Here, quickly, on what you love when you love America.
A few years ago the historian David McCullough was asked to be commencement speaker at the 200th anniversary of Ohio University. In researching the school’s background and the area’s history, he came upon a rich trove of stories of the largely unknown Americans who in 1788 went to the Northwest Territory and settled “the Ohio.”
“The Pioneers” is about the remarkable New Englanders who insisted from the beginning that there would be absolute freedom of religion, that there would be a major emphasis on public education, and that slavery would be against the law.
It is an inspiring story, harrowing too. They suffered and caused some suffering, too. And yet, Mr. McCullough notes, historians would see that the ordinance that allowed the pioneers into Ohio “was designed to guarantee what would one day be known as the American way of life.”
To read it is to feel wonder at all the sacrifice that went to the making of: us. And our continuing miracle.
A happy 243rd Fourth of July to the great and fabled nation that is still, this day, the hope of the world.
Reprinted by permission from peggynoonan.com.