One of William F. Buckley’s later books was titled simply Gratitude, which is, when you think about it, one of the cardinal conservative virtues. The spirit of gratitude was amply on display this past week at a symposium jointly sponsored by the Bradley Foundation and the Hudson Institute titled “True Americanism: What It Is and Why It Matters.” Spoiler alert: It matters.
Panelists took as their starting point an indispensable new book by Leon and Amy Kass and Diana Schaub called What So Proudly We Hail, a selection of stories, songs, and speeches about “the American soul” that should become the Book of Virtues for patriots. From the Mayflower Compact to Flannery O’Connor, and from Ralph Ellison to George S. Patton Jr., this collection ranges across American history, lighting upon the words that have shaped and reflected us. Whether we continue to cherish the uniqueness of America was one of the questions tackled by the panel, which included Charles Krauthammer, Prof. Robert George of Princeton, Daniel Henninger of the Wall Street Journal, and Sen. Lamar Alexander, among others.
Although there were disputes on some points, the panelists were agreed that what makes America exceptional is its dedication to enduring principles, its willingness to confront and overcome failings and sins, and the great blessing of having been founded by a collection of political geniuses unequaled in human history.
Liberals always worry that a celebration of American greatness will descend into chauvinism, triumphalism, or denial of the mistakes and crimes of American history. Juan Williams, another panelist, mounted just such an objection.
The danger, at the moment, seems quite the reverse. Our national embrace of multiculturalism, grievance mongering, and internationalism, along with a distorted and biased version of our national story (such as can be found in nearly every textbook in America) threatens to blind us to the sources of our strength. We don’t need a sanitized edition of American history in order to be proud of our heritage — we can handle the truth. But we do threaten the survival of liberty if we fail to instill in those lucky enough to have been born here a deep reverence for what is unique about this country.
On that subject, it’s worth quoting at length from one of the essays in What So Proudly We Hail, by one of America’s most thoughtful philosophers of government: Calvin Coolidge. Coolidge was president when the nation celebrated the 150th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, and he delivered a speech to mark the occasion.
He began by stressing that it wasn’t the fact of seeking to break away from the mother country that distinguished the American Revolution: It was not because it was proposed to establish a new nation, but because it was proposed to establish a nation on new principles that July 4, 1776 has come to be regarded as one of the greatest days in history.
It may surprise contemporary readers to learn that Coolidge upheld the principle of equality as the most important in the Declaration. It sprang, he argued, from the religious sensibilities of the American people. “They preached equality,” he said, “because they believed in the fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man.”
In words that could easily have been penned in our own generation, Coolidge defended the eternal validity of the founding documents: About the Declaration there is a finality that is exceedingly restful. It is often asserted that the world has made a great deal of progress since 1776, that we have had new thoughts and new experiences which have given us a great advance over the people of that day, and that we may therefore very well discard their conclusions for something more modern. But that reasoning cannot be applied to this great chapter. If all men are created equal, that is final. If governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed, that is final. No advance, no progress can be made beyond these propositions. If anyone wishes to deny their truth or their soundness, the only direction in which he can proceed historically is not forward, but backward toward the time when there was no equality, no rights of the individual, no rule of the people. Those who wish to proceed in that direction can not lay claim to progress. They are reactionary. Their ideas are not more modern, but more ancient, than those of the Revolutionary fathers.
And finally, this, from the man who held the presidency during the Roaring Twenties: “If we are to maintain the great heritage which has been bequeathed to us, we must be like-minded as the fathers who created it. We must not sink into a pagan materialism. We must cultivate the reverence which they had for the things that are holy.”