In his new book, 1776, historian David McCullough tells the story of the everyday Americans who marched alongside George Washington. They were farmers and schoolteachers, lawyers and boys. They were people like Henry Knox, a twenty-five-year-old bookseller who improbably hauled 120,000 pounds of artillery from Fort Ticonderoga overland to Boston in the dead of winter, enabling the Americans to secure a key military victory. They were a ragtag band of freedom fighters who endured a vicious winter and rampant disease to defeat the preeminent military power of the day. They were everyday Americans, and their incredible sacrifices ensured that the Declaration of Independence would be more than a historical document.
So where do we find this kind of greatness today? We see it in the brave soldiers who risk everything to secure freedom abroad. But we also see it in those everyday Americans who revel in the everyday joys and responsibilities of raising a family.
I think this point needs to be made because there has been a great tendency since the invention of the welfare state to rely upon government subsidies to help us along. But the government can never replace a family member. The government cannot raise our kids. As Abraham Lincoln observed 130 years ago: “You cannot bring about prosperity by discouraging thrift. You cannot strengthen the weak by weakening the strong. You cannot help the wage earner by pulling down the wage payer. You cannot further the brotherhood of man by encouraging class hatred. You cannot help the poor by destroying the rich. You cannot keep out of trouble by spending more than you earn. You cannot build character and courage by taking away a man’s initiative and independence. You cannot help men permanently by doing for them what they could and should do for themselves.”
I herewith propose that these words receive more attention. We should not wait for the government to act; we must take initiative. We must understand that it is up to us to change for the better. We cannot rely on government to make things right or force us to be good. Government alone cannot produce good people. We must take responsibility for ourselves.
Early on, these ideas were deeply inscribed in America’s self-concept. As French writer and politician, Alexis de Tocqueville noted over a century ago: “I sought for the greatness and genius of America in her commodious harbors and her ample rivers, and it was not there; in the fertile fields and boundless prairies, and it was not there; in her rich mines and her vast world commerce, and it was not there. Not until I went into the churches of America and heard her pulpits aflame with righteousness did I understand the secret of her genius and power. America is great because America is good ‑‑ and if America ever ceases to be good ‑ America will cease to be great.”
A century later and America is glutted with prosperity, but increasingly empty in spirit. For no accumulation of objects can truly lessen the burden of human anxiety. How do we keep this spiritual numbness from inhibiting and destroying us? The answer is straightforward: we must revel in the greatness of fundamental pleasures: family, civility, and the striving for moral excellence. Therein lies the means by which everyday Americans may ensure the survival of this country.