Politics / We The People

Remembering the American Spirit: Who We Are and Why it Matters

Lincoln mob justice Waters American spiritThis article originally appeared in Volume 12 Issue 3 of the Amac Advantage Magazine. As we celebrate Independence Day, we reflect upon the meaning of American patriotism and remember the unique qualities that make our Constitutional republic so remarkable.

In 1861, when the nation was far more divided than it is now, President Abraham Lincoln’s first Inaugural Address appealed to the “better angels” within every citizen. Lodged in his passionate appeal was an awareness that America’s destiny – then as now – depends not on what we say, but on what we believe, and then what we do.

Lincoln knew what had gone before had not come easily. He knew what lay ahead would be hard, objectively the hardest test of unity America had ever faced. In a few short years, he would stand on blood-soaked ground at Gettysburg, referring to that awesome vow made “four score and seven years ago,” to preserving liberty and equality. Through it all, he believed. Many Americans do today. While Gallup polls suggest a gentle downward drift of those “extremely proud” of America between 2004 and 2016, another major poll places the national average over that period at 85 percent for Americans who considered themselves “very patriotic.”

While numbers are notoriously sterile and imprecise, especially measuring something as ethereal as love, they can be illustrative, offering a rough bearing. Notably, while the country is fractured by identity politics, patriotism seems to be on the rise among differing cohorts. Perhaps predictably, 98 percent of Republican veterans are “extremely patriotic,” but fully 64 percent of Americans own an American flag, a majority own patriotic clothing, and there is far more discussion today about “what patriotism means” than in decades.

We are in a time of restored appreciation for America’s historic greatness, an open discussion about love of liberty, aspirations for equal opportunity, rights to free speech, worship and association, the value of self-defense, defense of others, fairness, forthrightness and faith.

But all this begs the bigger question. What is love of country? Why does it matter? Love of country – patriotism – is the way we preserve, protect and faithfully pass forward the extraordinary gifts bequeathed to us, we Americans who live today. We cannot pass these gifts forward if we do not understand and speak about them.

Our greatness is rooted in an appreciation for and fidelity to democratic institutions and limited government, our history-changing Constitution and Bill of Rights. These are made real through a spoken and unspoken intergenerational commitment to rule of law.

Our greatness as a People, however, goes beyond black letter law, and love of what the letters prompt. Americans are – and have always been – a people bound by enormous heart. Our culture is one of mutual caring. We actually care – have a part of us always partially focused on charity – for neighbors.

Having spent time working, living, and travelling in more than 50 countries, I can say that Americans are different. Our culture reinforces cheerful resolve, redoubled effort under pressure, and personal strength in crisis. While individuals the world over can have this attitude, there is a cultural emphasis on resilience, never giving up, constantly working to make things happen – getting things done – in America.

This is not a small thing, and it relates directly to why we – who live today – rise and call ourselves proud patriots, and should be “extremely proud” of who we are. Think Valley Forge and Yorktown, Ticonderoga, Cowpens, Lexington and Concord. Think Revere and Washington, Patrick Henry and Thomas Jefferson, Adams, Madison, Monroe, Nathanial Greene, Anthony Wayne and Betsy Ross.

Wind the clock ahead and think of people and courage in the Civil War, what drove and lifted Lincoln, Grant at Vicksburg, Chamberlain at Gettysburg, Harriet Tubman and the “underground railroad,” but also the tenacity, inner conflict and personal courage of General Lee, whose home was confiscated to create Arlington National Cemetery. Think about what America has survived, the resilience of our people as well as the union.

Jump ahead again and think, if time allows, about the Armistice signed on the 11th hour of the 11th day or the 11th month – one hundred years ago this year – to end World War One. That horrific war would not have ended the way it did, without selfless Americans rising, against their disposition for war, to fight, die and help bring it to a close.

In World War One, four million Americans mobilized to save Europe, more than 116,000 died and more than 200,000 came home wounded.

Again, in World War II, as humanity frayed, the Earth shook, and Europe and the Far East trembled with the real specter of evil prevailing, Nazi domination of Western civilization and ruthless Japanese imperialism dominating free peoples, American kids – because that is really what they were at age 16 and up – rose again with that indescribable attribute of can-do, must-do and mission completion, to end that war.

Think places like Normandy, Anzio and Monte Cassino. Think of Americans at Iwo Jima, Guadalcanal, Battles of the Bulge, Britain, Coral Sea, Luzon, Midway, and Berlin. Think about the Doolittle Raiders who flew their suicide mission for America and freedom, after Pearl Harbor.

In short, at home and abroad, in peace and at war, there has always been a unique blend in America and Americans, from the Founders and freedom fighters of yore to recent heroes, of deep idealism and practical can-do.

We are a people of good will and unbreakable spirit, who hope and believe in who we are. That, in the end, is the magic and meaning of American patriotism. We are painfully real about each day, and unapologetically persistent in pursuit of what others deem unrealistic dreams – only we have made those dreams real, again and again. And in this, there is much to be proud of.

There was something about our culture, commitment to each other that was unique, intriguing, self-correcting and truly “great” – partly our willingness to embrace the “uncomfortable face to face” to resolve problems, partly our unstoppable can-do approach to life, and partly idealism made real.

As the French Alexis de Tocqueville observed at one point, almost whimsically: “The greatness of America lies not in being more enlightened than any other nation, but rather in her ability to repair her faults.” Our patriotism is rooted in believing not that we are omniscient or omnipotent, but that anything is possible, because we have – from the beginning through World Wars I and II to now – made it so.

Wrote Lincoln: “I am loath to close. We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”

Surely, Lincoln was right. And surely we are right to believe, with all our hearts, in the greatness of this wonderful, good and unquestionably blessed nation. We Americans are a lucky, plucky lot. May we always stay that way.

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