New Year’s Day is a time for resolutions. Most involve self-improvement, such as working out more or eating less. These things are important, of course, but they pale in comparison with the challenge our nation faces. How can we be healthy if our country is sick?
That observation led me to think about a different kind of resolution, one that would be every bit as personal but have perhaps a wider impact. If what we seek is American Greatness, then perhaps we ought to resolve to act in a manner that might make that greatness more likely to occur.
America’s greatness lies not in her power, immense as it is, nor in her wealth, abundant as that is. It’s greatness, rather, has always rested in the character of its people. America was founded for freedom’s sake, but not for the sort of freedom that is unrestrained by law or custom. America’s greatness rests instead on the idea that our system of government is both fitting for and helps to bring about a people who use freedom wisely.
Of all the virtues that such people are said to possess, among the first is self-reliance. Early Americans often asked their friends and neighbors for help, but rarely did they demand that their heart’s desires be provided by another as a matter of right. Charity or assistance was asked for—and provided—against the backdrop of a people who first did what they could to provide for their own needs and wants to the best of their ability. It follows that the first American Greatness resolution ought to be this: to provide for one’s own wants and needs as much as can be possible first through one’s own best efforts.
Another classic American virtue is entrepreneurship, or risk-taking. This virtue is a corollary to self-reliance: once one accepts that one is primarily responsible for one’s own fate, then the question of how much risk to take in the shaping of one’s fate rises to the fore. Early Americans were risk-takers, to be sure. They all braved hazardous voyages to come here, then often set off into a barely known wilderness populated by natives who could kill you. Yet they set off by the millions, taming a continent and creating an ethos that frontiers were made to be breached. Taking that extra risk in your own life, whether it is to form a business, take a new job, or just to have that difficult conversation with someone dear to you, is another step we can take each day to inculcate American virtues.
Community-mindedness is a third virtue that visitors to America often used to remark upon. Rather than wait for a lord, a minister, or an official to solve a community problem, early Americans did it themselves, whether through the voluntary associations so praised by Alexis de Tocqueville or through direct action. Today’s communities are not like those small places that typified early America. We don’t work, shop, play, and pray in the same place, which sometimes makes us wonder if community exists at all. But each of us lives in many different communities, often groups that exist apart from a specific place other than where such a group might meet. Spending time and treasure improving these communities, whether it be by volunteering time or money or just by helping out when someone needs it, is another way to build the sort of America we all want to live in.
The final virtue I’d like to mention is perhaps the toughest to practice: tolerance. I don’t mean the mindless tolerance of sloganeering or virtue signaling campaigns, but instead seek to reinvigorate a true and American sense of tolerance. We must remember that America was never, and today definitely is not, a people bound together by shared blood, common cultural customs, or even religious beliefs. Of course, we should hold things in common, most especially our devotion to our ideal of measured liberty, but there are many that we do not share. Tolerance of different viewpoints or views of the good is difficult: “everyone is orthodox unto themselves,” said Locke. But much as the early Americans provided for freedom of religion and civil rights for minority groups, such as Catholics or Jews, who were denied those rights in the Old Country, today we must resolve to be tolerant of differences even as we strive to live our own lives in witness to the virtues that we believe in.
This final virtue will have political side benefits, too. Lincoln noted in his Temperance Address that people are often persuaded by those with whom they can empathize. That’s why he told reformed drunkards that they were better advocates for temperance than those who had never fought the temptation to drink. If we seek to add to our number (and we ought to, as we do not currently constitute a clear majority), then showing that we are tolerant is perhaps the first step to the conversations that can bring conversion.
Many readers will balk at this: do not our adversaries seek to stamp out our beliefs? Yet, nothing we face is more arduous than that faced by the early Christians, who were often subjected to violent and deadly persecutions. They nevertheless persevered in such spirit that Tertullian could say that pagans remarked “see how they love one another,” noting that this wonder often preceded a closer look at the faith.
The new year’s politics will, if anything, be angrier, shriller, and more contentious than anything we have heretofore experienced. Our blood will often boil; our tempers will often rise; our hopes will often rise and fall with such rapidity that our heads will be at risk of being lost.
Yet if throughout this we can remain personally committed to the practice of American virtues such as these, then we will have done more to advance the cause we share than retweeting a thousand memes. If we cannot make ourselves great Americans, how can we possibly make America Great?
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