Last week, we discussed what I termed “The Hundred Year Battle” and “The Thousand Year Prize” – the fight to reclaim individual liberty, the American identity, and the Western experience as a whole. However, the divisions that permeate America are extremely polarizing. The immense power of the state, when thrown behind particular ideologies, creates a clear dichotomy between those in favor and those out of it. Identity politics, in short, have subsumed national politics.
But at a time when Americans are increasingly defined by their opinions instead of their character, it is increasingly important to ask the question: What is an American?
My definition of “American” comes in three parts.
(1): Americans are people of principle.
(2): Americans are people of action.
(3): Americans are people of character.
That’s it. No fancy mumbo-jumbo about freedom, no self-evident truths, nothing. No fire and brimstone, no lengthy excerpts from a grand address, no pageantry.
But that’s what makes Americans so exceptional.
(Side note: when I say “Americans”, I am NOT referring to the United States government. I can hear resentment brewing: “When you say ‘America is exceptional’, what you’re REALLY saying is that we should have thrown all the Japanese in internment camps!” “You must love slavery then!” “Nationalist!”. Personally, I think that the United States government, for the most part, has done a terrible job, but that’s a topic for a different day. For the sake of argument, let’s assume “Americans” to mean “typical, individual American citizens”.)
Back to the point. On June 19th, 1775, George Washington penned a letter to Colonel Bassett which detailed Washington’s perspective on the mounting tensions in colonial America. “I can answer for but three things”, Washington stated: “a firm belief in the justice of our cause, close attention in the prosecution of it, and the strictest integrity”.
Surprising? Short, right? But at the same time, quintessentially American.
Washington knew himself, knew his politics, and knew his beliefs. He held, in his own words, “a firm belief in the justice of our cause”, the cause being that of American independence. Washington did not hold a “firm belief” in the immorality of the British, nor in an overarching hatred to opposition. He was guided by principles, and informed Colonel Bassett as such.
Washington knew his community, his responsibilities, and his capabilities. His “close attention in the prosecution of (our cause)”, was, first and foremost, a personal responsibility. Man-to-man, face-to-face, neighbor-to-neighbor. What a far cry from our demonizing, impersonal political spectacle! Should those around him falter, Washington would prosecute his cause himself, shored up by the bedrock of principle.
Finally, Washington knew something about relationships, honor, and people. History shows that his claims to the “strictest integrity” did not lack merit. It may seem strange in the Age of Anonymity that integrity be so closely entwined with justice and prosecution, yet the sagacity displayed by such a remark is truly inspiring. The world is run by people, not institutions. And people must have integrity to accomplish goals in a just way.
Principles, action, and character. “Justice”, “close attention in prosecution”, and “integrity”. The model American need not believe anything in particular – you don’t have to want to legalize weed to be a patriot, nor does chanting “Black Lives Matter” revoke your citizenship.
But we, as a nation, must live up to this simple, yet high bar. Please, let’s stop the violence. Let’s make a concerted effort to seek out viewpoints other than our own and objectively weigh the facts. Let’s examine our principles, and direct our actions to give them “close attention in prosecution”. While we’re at it, let’s reach across the dinner table and compliment a family member, let’s text a long-lost friend, and let’s smile at people in the street.
All this because, to close with another George Washington quote, “the citizens of America… are to be considered as the actors on a most conspicuous theater, which seems to be peculiarly designated by Providence for the display of human greatness and felicity.”
We’ve got the lines, so let’s put on one hell of a show.