That is the virtue of piety, honored in every human culture of which I am aware. When I was a boy, I had a powerful experience of this virtue every year, on Memorial Day. Early in the morning, a parade led by veterans in uniform would proceed up the hill to the Lutheran cemetery near our house. A group of us boys followed them, because we wanted to see and hear the rifles when they fired the 21-gun salute, to honor the men who had served their nation in war. Then, under the tall fir trees and among the gravestones and the smoke, a single veteran with a bugle played Taps. It stirred us to the soul.
Being boys, though, we had more cheerful things in mind. In those days, lawsuits had not yet laid their dead hands on childhood, so we were allowed to hop on the fire trucks—that was why we had gotten up so early, after all—as they and the parade and the band made their way through town, till they stopped a second time, at the Catholic cemetery, there to hear Mass, and afterwards to return to the American Legion, where the members passed out doughnuts and orange juice.
We don’t honor our fathers and mothers because they were perfect. We ourselves are sinners as they were. We honor them because they were our fathers and mothers, and they gave us a gift we cannot repay, the gift of life itself. What applies to our parents and grandparents applies also, by analogy, to our homeland, our nation. We should not be like Ham, who took delight in revealing his father Noah’s nakedness. American history is, if you wish to regard it so, a terrible saga of violence, greed, and treachery. But so is the history of every nation, and the pre-history of every clan and tribe. That is not to excuse us, but to be honest, and to hold that terribly clear mirror up to ourselves.
We are not saints. We have tremendous material wealth, and opportunities beyond what anyone as recently as my own youth could dream of, yet what have we made of them? Little, so little. “Take away my life,” said the discouraged prophet Elijah, “for I am not better than my fathers.” There is a strange kind of piety even in such a plea, because Elijah does feel his failure, and though he implies that his fathers likewise failed, his words are sad rather than scornful. That is the cry of a great soul. But we do not speak as Elijah did. We are pleased—or we resign ourselves to it—to enumerate and often magnify the wicked deeds of our American forebears, and even to see a virtue as a vice, which is the peculiar magic of envy.
So let me consider American history as I used to do, before I was given the blood-colored glasses.
An Honest View is a Forgiving View
In 1789, we were a fractious tumble of settlers, with powerful enemies to the north and south, and with no assurance that the political experiment we were embarking on would endure. “A republic, if you can keep it,” said Franklin, when someone asked him what kind of government we were to have.
We had, to the west, a million square miles of rich farmland, some of it the best in the world—think of the deep black soil of Iowa. But it was untilled, of little profit to mankind. We had thousands of miles of navigable rivers, without a single bridge anywhere, no canals, no levees, no aqueducts, and hardly a ship to sail upon them. Beneath the earth lay incomparable deposits of coal and oil, and of almost every metal that man needs for his tools, his homes, his large buildings, his ships—his nearly everything, and there beneath the earth it might have remained for another thousand years.
We had no great schools, not yet, and no peculiarly American art or music or literature. We had barely scraped past England in our war for independence, and at that with the mutually profitable assistance of France. If there was a greatness in the American spirit, it was still largely unrealized.
Advance a hundred years, and what do we see? Americans have begun to do things that no nation had done before. A railway is laid across the continent. So are the telegraph lines. Liberty, and a healthy hunger for education, but without the often stifling snobbery of the old European schools, clear the field for invention. The steam engine, the cotton gin, the sewing machine, the phonograph, the electric light, the telephone—these gifts and countless others do a restless and muscular people bequeath to the world.
America has—not always, and perhaps not now—been rich in soul as well as in things. If I am to live in one house with him, give me a good pagan over a mediocre Christian, every time. But to confer blessings upon the world, give me that Christian, who must at least once in a while consider that the people he overcomes are his brothers, and that for his treatment of them he must stand in judgment before a God who reads men’s hearts and not their political advertisements. Conquerors come and go, and did so on this continent before the Americans came. But the Americans brought more than conquest. They brought even more than civilization. They brought their faith, the faith that taught them what would have stunned a Roman or an Aztec or a Mongol or an Arab. They must love those whom they conquered. They must build schools for them. They must teach them the practical arts of agriculture, lumbering, ranching, and mining. They must take their part when the powerful, as they will, broke their word with them, harassed them, or drove them out of the lands where they had settled.
That they were inconsistent at best in doing so is not a surprise; the surprise is that they did so at all, and that the most serious moral thinkers among them were so early, and to no conceivable personal or political gain, urging them to be truer to the faith they professed. Hence, the first great American novelist, James Fenimore Cooper, a sad man with no sure hope for his beloved nation, is an advocate for the Indians, without any sentimental notion that they were saints. It is true that Americans betrayed their faith in their shameful treatment of the African slaves. But that was not a new thing in the world. The new thing was that they fought their bloodiest war in large part because of those slaves, without any appreciable threat from the slaves themselves. Sometimes a wonder lies in plain sight, and we take it for granted. The Grand Canyon is but a hole in the ground. America was just like any other nation—except that it was not.
After those hundred years, Americans were laying claim to their land, their arts, their culture. American poetry was not like British poetry. I think that Tennyson and Browning were greater than Longfellow, Whittier, and Whitman, but the thing to see is that the latter were American to the core and could only have been so. Winslow Homer is a great American impressionist—not French, not British. Already among us was shape-note hymn-singing in three parts, with the melody in the middle—the haunting harmonies of Appalachia. Soon to come will be the music of Scott Joplin, gospel music, jazz, the big bands, Gershwin and Cole Porter, Lionel Hampton and Charlie Parker. Even Hollywood, for 30 years, produced art of the finest caliber. And then there is baseball.
We should not ask, first, what the sins of our fathers were, but what our own sins are—and they are considerable, and, as we should expect, not the same. Meanwhile, we should honor them for what they bequeathed to us, and squirm a little, because we would be hard put to say what we are leaving for our children, supposing that we have any.