It took a special breed of folk to come to the New World in the 17th century. The vast majority of the earliest European settlers died very soon after arriving yet they were always replaced quickly. The flow increased year by year despite the near-certainty that the results would be fatal.
Even after relatively stable settlements were established, life was tough and for those not living in the few towns, a great deal of independence was essential. The myth of the American as a “rugged individualist” wasn’t really a myth at all. They really were rugged.
At the time of our founding, we had developed a very thoughtful class of well-read individuals, especially in Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Massachusetts. They were a small minority, however, and were always mindful that the great majority of Americans were skeptical of the gentlemen’s arts, preferring instead a tested pragmatism to political and social theories.
This rugged individualism, though somewhat domesticated on the East Coast once we had formed ourselves into a nation, remained a prominent characteristic of the American style until that great watershed in American history, the Civil War. Perhaps in large part because the War required a degree of cooperation unknown in America since the Revolution, we emerged a more mutually interdependent people than any had even wanted up ’til then.
We continued to think of ourselves as rugged individualists for another century. John Wayne built a whole movie career on being the stereotypical American hero. In fact, however, our self-image had more to do with nostalgia than with reality. The rugged individualist was more of a misfit than a hero, more of an outcast than a creator of the American character.
We truly are ready for a new image of what it means to be an American. The problem is that we are such a complex culture now that one image may not be conceivable. Are we typified by Wall Street tycoons, scientists in their labs, young adventurers bungee jumping, or. . . ?
We don’t know who we are as a people. We are, it seems, a truly bewildered people, lacking a unifying vision. In the South, many want us to return to the antebellum days when government was minimal and the strong were permitted to impose racism and slavery on others. Others think the most important thing is for government to get out of the way by reducing the regulation of business and finance. Still others believe we’ve got to evolve into a society in which government takes on more and more of the tasks that have now grown too big for private interests, such as caring for the weak and needy.
What most of the varying views have in common, I notice, is that the question is the role of government. My sense is that as long as we keep the debate at that level, we will make little progress. Government is important but it is not the key to the American character. Character is a matter of personal qualities and values. Government can threaten or it can guard character but it cannot create character.
From the time we humans first put a handprint on the wall of a cave, a great many thousands of years ago, until today, the human heart has changed little if at all. We still need to be individuals — “That’s my handprint!” — and we still need one another. We still need to respect and be respected, to cherish and be cherished, to encourage and be encouraged, to love and be loved.
Our American Founding Fathers knew what we have recently tried to deny, that human rights have been established by our Creator, not by government or mutual consent or mere chance. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights. . . That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. . .”
The loss of the theological convictions underlying the Declaration of Independence has done immeasurable harm to the American spirit. There is no longer any consensus, any mutually accepted foundation by which we can say the government or any other major institution exists by the consent of the governed.
It is no accident that we now have a president who stands against the fundamental American values. Character — whether we think in terms of integrity, simply honesty, compassion, kindness, respect or whatever — is completely lacking in our president and the team he has gathered around himself. He flaunts our laws, admires tyrants, coddles Russia, tries to dominate the checks-and-balances kind of government we have, seeks to discredit the free press, and makes no pretense of using his position for anything other than personal gain. We’ve got what we’ve deserved.
Now the question is whether the shock of seeing our lack of character mirrored in our president will awaken in us a hunger to find again the fundamental realities of the human spirit as a reflection of the image of our Creator. It remains an open question.
America is not a beginner. We’ve laid a good foundation but we certainly don’t know what comes next.