The Greatest Nation Ever on Earth

by Willem Lange

EAST MONTPELIER – In a way, I suppose, it’s as if we’ve lost our religion. Time was – and I’m sure many of you can remember this well – the Fourth of July was truly a national celebration of our independence and vitality. Few Americans, if any, doubted we were the greatest nation ever on earth, and could do anything. Hell, we just had.

The Second World War, fought simultaneously against powerful opponents on opposite sides of the globe, was our masterpiece. Our troops came home on ships jammed with men and vibrating with joy; we helped our (White) veterans get educations and homes with the GI Bill; we even (recalling the seeds of disaster sown decades earlier by the Treaty of Versailles) helped our former enemies get back onto their feet. The world was our oyster. The Fourth of July seemed like one great patriotic hallelujah and collective sigh of happiness.

I’m aware that, living here in the middle of Vermont, we often view the rest of our nation as through a glass, darkly, and probably have little idea of the mood of, for example, Iowa corn farmers, Montana cowboys, or Ohio factory workers. Given that, though, the recent tenor of Internet posts from around the country – particularly those by women – has been at best reticent, and at worst distraught. The expression, “Happy Fourth!” seems to have been shelved for the time being.

Benjamin Franklin was the first to warn us about this. Emerging from the Constitutional Convention in 1787, he allegedly was asked whether our government was to be a republic or a monarchy, and responded, “A republic, if you can keep it.” With the possible exception of Jefferson the most intelligent and learned of the so-called Founding Fathers, Franklin knew history far better than do most of us today, and was quite aware of the innate fragility of such governments.

Sure enough, only about sixty years later the republic was torn apart by the internal tensions Franklin had predicted. The compromises made at the Convention regarding the status of slaves, for example – compromises necessary to secure the votes for ratification – were crumbling under the pressures of Abolitionism, economics, and world opinion. This burgeoning division led to intransigence, threats, secession, and finally gunfire, testing (in the immortal words of President Lincoln) whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, [could] long endure.

He spoke those words at the Gettysburg National Cemetery about four months after the days-long battle in which 51,000 Americans sacrificed their lives for, ironically, two very different visions of freedom. The memory of that battle, considered the high tide of the Confederacy, occupies my consciousness during the first week of July each year, far more than the parades and cheering and waving candidates and fireworks displays that drive my little dog (who has herself visited the battlefield and the Vermont monument, and traversed the same soggy fields that Pickett’s men trod on their way into history) into her cave under my office desk for shelter.

That battle, an almost accidental clash of titans, was marked by desperate feats of heroism, as well as by blunders, incompetence, and miscommunication. It could, in fact, but for fortune good and ill, have gone either way, and Franklin’s prescient warning could have come true. Our republic may in its best moments seem to shimmer from sea to shining sea, but as we should have learned in 1863, and may soon learn again, it’s delicate as a Limoges teacup. How I wish that Congress could begin each new session with a guided tour of that battlefield!

We are a society in distress; the Internet posts, the evening news – spectators at a celebratory fireworks display, for example, recoiling in fear of still another disaffected citizen with the weapon of his fantasies – all attest to this. For far too long we’ve relied upon increasingly ineffective institutions to take care of us. The recent Supreme Court decisions have plunged many of us into despair. To me, they’re more a signal to Congress to get off its lazy, self-interested tuchus and begin to do what we pay it to do: represent us, rather than the armies of sleek lobbyists dangling free lunches and campaign contributions. And it’s a signal to us to demand exactly that.

Is it too much to ask that to preserve this beautiful, but delicate institution of a republic, we should risk at least a fraction of what the heroes of that long-ago July week were willing to give?