I am an individual. That is to say, I am the sum of all my idiosyncratic traits, inclinations, and unique accomplishments. I am also a person, which includes all my relationships with others, including the long-gone members of my family tree. When I say that I am an American, I contain the contributions of all my forefathers. I can be proud to be an American because I stand at the summit of her history—the good as well as the bad. History, in ways that I may not understand, has formed me, and I learn more about myself when I study American history.
Long ago when I was a high school student, I took a course in American History, which is different from studying the subject. Our teacher was a fine, upstanding gentleman, but he spent most of the classroom time kibitzing with a loquacious student who sat directly in front of his desk. I was hoping that he would finally say, “And now we will begin the class in American History.” So I watched the clock, and did not pass the course with flying colors. I would have preferred the droning voice of Ben Stein in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.
American history is a most exciting subject. Convincing students of that fact would be a welcome challenge. My chance came in my very first year of teaching. I was substituting for the regular teacher who was on sick leave. My assignment was to instruct a class of Junior High students in the thrilling adventure of the Spanish-American War. What could be more exciting than the Battles of San Juan Hill and Manila Bay, the Yellow Fever, the mysterious explosion of the U.S.S. Maine, the naval blockade of Cuba—and finally, in 1898, the Treaty of Paris?
Two weeks passed and I had failed to fuel my class with any degree of enthusiasm. In order to motivate them, I kept them after school and would release them only when they could correctly answer a question. I tried to make the questions easy since I was also eager to get home. Finally, in order to free my last captive student, I asked her, “What two countries were involved in the Spanish-American War?” She looked at me sleepily and said, “I don’t know.” That was good enough for me, for she really did not know.
Ralph Waldo Emerson described the beginning of the American Revolution in deathless imagery: “By the rude bridge that arched the flood, their flag unfurled to April’s breeze, Here once the embattled farmers stood, and fired the shot heard round the world.” That shot, however, did not resound in my students’ ears. History, for them, was drudgery. Perhaps I should have entered my class dressed as a Minute Man.
We are, whether we realize it or not, historical creatures. Only the human being, among all animals, knows his grandparents. Only human beings keep a family tree. The past is a prologue to posterity. “To cut off history,” wrote psychotherapist Rollo May, “is to sever our arterial link with humanity.” We have blood lines that flow from the past. “Breathes there a man with a soul so dead,” wrote Sir Walter Scott, “Who never to himself hath said, This is my own my native land.”
Piety may be a lost virtue. It is respect for parents, tradition, and country. It is a profound respect for all the forces that preceded us and brought us into being. A German wordsmith tried to restore its original meaning by giving it a new name: Blutphlichtverbundenheit (blood-duty-connectness). This elongated word did not catch on, but it does indicate in a clear way the nature of piety. Before we ask the question, “Where am I going?” we should first ask the question, “Where did I come from?” Anniversaries, celebrations, commemorations, ceremonies, festivals, holidays, and feast days are all expressions of piety. Without this noble virtue, we are isolated on the time spectrum with neither past nor future. Nor is there anyone to whom we could offer thanks.
These are iconoclastic times when they should be occasions for expressing gratitude to the great figures who came before us. Our debt is large, but our memories are weak. William H. Marnell, a Harvard graduate, is the author of the highly acclaimed book, The First Amendment. In The Good Life of Western Man (1971), he pays homage to America’s Founding Fathers. “The principle of duty and service to the state,” he wrote, “has never found a finer, more intelligent, more dedicated expression than found in the American Founding Fathers, and the United States has never since been quite so mature as it was the hour it was born.” That is high praise for the likes of Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Jay, Hamilton, and others, and strong criticism for the political leaders of the present. “Antiquity never saw exemplified in finer fashion,” he added, “the principle that the good life is the life of service to one’s fellow man” (page 174).
When we think of the Founding Father of Christianity, we think of the blameless figure of Christ. The Church that He founded has continued for over 2,000 years. And yet, the statues, memories, images, and records of both the Founders of America and the Founder of Christianity are disrespected, desecrated, and dismissed! We recall the words of G. K. Chesterton in thinking about the rejection of Christianity: “I could not abandon the faith, without falling back on something more shallow than the faith. I could not cease to be a Catholic, except by becoming something more narrow than a Catholic.” What does an American fall back on once he rejects the contributions of his Founding Fathers?