“I went to sleep with the hope that made America famous. I had the kind of a dream that maybe they're still trying to teach in school. Of the America that made America famous...and of the people who just might understand that how together yes we can create a country better than the one we have made of this land. We have a choice to make each man who dares to dream, reaching out his hand a prophet or just a crazy, dazed dreamer or a fool - yes a silly fool.”
What Made America Famous
by Harry Chapin
Reaching back at least to June of 1968 and perhaps to January of 1961, America has been battered by political and cultural winds of change. In 1961, optimism soared and citizenship became a calling for many especially among the youth. In response to President Kennedy’s stirring Inaugural Speech, many Americans sincerely pondered the question, “What can I do for my country?” For me, that question led to Vietnam and ultimately, to a trial by fire that seared into my consciousness that the Cong were right – “We are all Americans!” The differences that seemed to mean so much, for so long, to so many, faded into insignificance in the heat of battle. On Flag Day 1968 in a sixteen-hour battle, we protected a hamlet the Cong wished to punish for cooperating with the Americans. They did not succeed on that day. We had believed we were invincible and invulnerable; we were half-right. All gave some and some gave all.
Years later, I learned about the My Lai incident and it struck me that some Americans had slaughtered defenseless villagers only months before we had risked and in some cases lost our lives to protect them. It reinforced my admiration and affection for those who fell and reminded me of these words from America the Beautiful. “Oh beautiful for heroes proved in liberating strife; who more than self their country loved and mercy more than life” this connection solidified for me the supreme importance of citizenship. It also clarified the meaning of this concept as a commitment up to and including the point of dying. From the day we are born until the day we die, we are citizens of the Republic. It is our most enduring, essential role, and our highest and finest honor.
Fortunately, most of the time, most of us do not live amidst the horrors of war. We live normal lives filled with daily routines. For many people much of the time life is going well even if various improvements can be imagined. We are lulled into a comforting complacency and immersed in our personal concerns. Our roles as parents, employees, friends, family members and individuals come to the fore and our role as citizens is obscured. Nonetheless, Lincoln’s message to Congress in 1862 still applies today.
“Fellow-citizens, we cannot escape history. We will be remembered in spite of ourselves. No personal significance, or insignificance, can spare one or another of us. The fiery trial through which we pass, will light us down, in honor or dishonor, to the latest generation. We say we are for the Union. The world will not forget that we say this. We -- even we here -- hold the power, and bear the responsibility. We shall nobly save, or meanly lose, the last best hope of earth.”
Robert F. Kennedy updated this when he declared, “Since the days of Greece and Rome when word 'citizen' was a title of honor, we have often seen more emphasis put on the rights of citizenship than on its responsibilities. And today, as never before in the free world, responsibility is the greatest right of citizenship and service is the greatest of freedom’s privileges.”
As Ben Franklin said in 1787, the Founders had given Americans “a Republic if we could keep it.” This was a true challenge because there had been only two precedents in more than 5,000 years of human history. By the time of the Civil War, there were only five republics on the planet: the United States in North America, Switzerland and San Marino in Europe and Liberia and the Boer Republic in Africa. All the other governments in the world were Empires or Kingdoms. This is why Lincoln spoke of government of, by, and for the people perishing from the earth.
Freedom as the saying goes is not free and it remains a constant struggle. As President Obama stated on January 2, 2010, “Our nation is at war against a far-reaching network of violence and hatred.” Our economy is stalled or even stumbling. The tone and content of the political discourse is petty, hostile, discouraging and discordant. Therefore, we live in anything but tranquil times. Today America is dividing along economic lines. The rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer. The rich are also getting lighter and the poor are getting darker. A new segregation is rising based on economic status, but showing distinct shades of difference as well. “One nation, indivisible”, is splitting into two Americas. On March 18, 1968, Robert Kennedy declared, “I have seen this other America. I have seen children in Mississippi starving…. I don’t think that is acceptable in the United States of America. If we believe that as Americans we are bound together by a common concern for each other, then an urgent national priority is upon us. We must end the disgrace of this other America. But even if we end material, poverty there is another great task. We must end the poverty of satisfaction – a lack of purpose and dignity that inflicts us all. Too much and too long we have surrendered community concerns and community values to the mere accumulation of material things.”
Thirty-eight years later, Barack Obama said in the Audacity of Hope, “the essential ideas behind the Declaration of Independence that we are all born into the world free, all of us; that each of us arrives with a bundle of rights that no person or state can take away without just cause; that each of us must make of our lives what we will is not only the foundation of our state, it is the core of our common creed. These values form our inheritance and make us who we are as a people. We can make claims on their behalf so long as we understand that our values must be tested against fact and experience, so long as we recall that they demand deeds as well as words. To do otherwise would be to relinquish our best selves.”
Furthermore, as Dr. King said on December 5, 1955, “We are here on serious business. In a general sense, we are here first and foremost because we are American citizens determined to apply our citizenship to the fullness of its meaning. We are here also because of our love for democracy, because of our deep-seated belief that democracy transformed from thin paper to thick action is the greatest form of government on earth.” The Constitution, is the thin paper Dr. King is referencing and it reflects these ideals and principles, but for it to be effective, “We the People” must perform our civic duties and meet our responsibilities. Committed, informed citizens are essential to the proper functioning of our constitutional system. Government of, by, and for the people cannot survive without active participation by an informed, principled citizenry. We will not keep our Republic if we choose to shirk our duties and abandon our role as citizens.
Therefore, I am asking everyone to take the role of citizen seriously and to resolve to apply our citizenship to the fullness of its meaning. I am asking everyone to learn how to transform democracy from thin paper to thick action as we live our lives under the auspices of the Republic. We must not allow the children for whom we are responsible to be deprived of their most precious inheritance. Nor must we betray our most solemn trust. We must not betray them. We must encourage, enable, and empower young people to learn the whys and ways of effective citizenship and we must make a firm commitment to preserving this heritage and ensuring this opportunity for our posterity and ourselves. We must answer the trumpet's summons and keep the Republic for our children. We must nobly save, not meanly lose the last best hope of humankind. This is a crisis like that of 1776. We, and our children, despite their tender years, live in truly turbulent times. Their youth neither protects nor excuses them from the honor and challenge of citizenship. Our other roles and the pressures we face clearly do not excuse us from the duty to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States and transmit the Republic to our posterity.
The rights and responsibilities of citizenship are the core of patriotism. In addition, the whys and the ways of government in the United States at the national, state, and local levels are too vital to be left to the politicians and the appointees. All citizens share this challenge and all are called upon to be effective and principled in responding to it. In an alarmingly brief interval, the nature of our country and the quality of our children’s lives and our lives will heavily depend on the caliber of citizenship practiced persistently by us all. Neither ignorance nor indifference will serve nor save them or us.
It has been said, “Children are the future just as sure as the future is change.” As Barbara Jordan, in her Keynote Address to the 1976 Democratic National Convention, stated “… now we must look to the future. If we do not, we not only blaspheme our political heritage, we ignore the common ties that bind all Americans. Many fear the future. Many are distrustful of their leaders, and believe that their voices are never heard. Many seek only to satisfy their private work and wants, to satisfy their private interests. But this is the great danger America faces -- that we will cease to be one nation and become instead a collection of interest groups: city against suburb, region against region, individual against individual, each seeking to satisfy private wants. If that happens, who then will speak for America? Who then will speak for the common good? A nation is formed by the willingness of each of us to share in the responsibility for upholding the common good. A government is invigorated when each one of us is willing to participate in shaping the future of this nation. … We must define the "common good" and begin again to shape a common future. Let each person do his or her part. If one citizen is unwilling to participate, all of us are going to suffer. For the American idea, though it is shared by all of us, is realized in each one of us.”
Now the trumpet summons again. Since this nation was founded, each generation has been called on to give testimony of its national loyalty. Though not all are in the armed forces, all are still in a war: the eternal war against prejudice, greed, ignorance, hatred, distrust and poverty. All of us, children and adults alike, need to unite against these forces and protect and defend the Republic. Let us enlist our neighbors, our relatives, our children, and their friends, in this historic and noble effort. “The energy, the faith, the devotion we [and they] bring to this endeavor will light our country and all who serve it --- and the glow from that fire can truly light the world.”
Nearly forty-nine years ago, the youngest President ever elected advised millions of other Americans to “Ask what you can do for your country”. Let us ponder that question daily and do so as long as we live. Now, let us recall the question. Now let us realize that the cause endures, the work goes on, the need persists, the hope surges, and the dream refuses to die. Let us resolve that though we may not have it all together, together we may have it all.
In November 1863, President Lincoln made a pledge of “a new birth of freedom”; in August 1963, Dr. King expressed his dream “that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed”. Finally, in June 1968, as he lay dying, Senator Robert Kennedy asked, “Is everybody else all right?” Now, we the living must respond to the mystic chords of memory with the better angels of our nature and in a rising chorus of unity, fully redeem the pledge, truly fulfill the dream, and definitively answer the question. We the people must create an America as honorable as its founding premise and as splendid its fundamental promise. Finally, in the second decade of the twenty-first century, we must understand that now together, yes we can, create a country better than the one we have made of this land.