The Men in the Back of the Room

Peter W. Schramm

August 1, 1997

Fourth of July. I continue to be amazed that Americans celebrate the birthday of their country by participating in peaceful and leisurely activities. I was first struck by this about twenty years ago when I was hosting a couple of dozen European and Latin American intellectuals for a seminar on American politics. They were here for a month during the summer, and when the Fourth rolled around I told them we were going to go to the parade (this was in a town of 25,000 in California).

To my irritation and surprise they didn’t want to go. I didn’t understand their disinclination, so I was insistent, and we went. As they watched the parade, I watched them. They were shocked. This small-town parade had everything from bands and kids on tricycles to a lawn mower squad and a group called the “Thumb Twiddling Corps.” There were honored local veterans to be sure, but no military hardware and certainly no goose-stepping. And then I saw it. These foreign intellectuals thought it was going to be a military parade. After all, they later said, their countries celebrated national holidays by showing the people the power of the state. Their countries were always reminding them that they were born of war. And this made them afraid, or at least uneasy, and not especially proud.

I explained to them that America was also born of a revolution and war. But ours was a war not just for independence, but for the cause of liberty itself. We had to fight and win in order to begin to put into operation this “new order of the ages” (as the Great Seal of the United States calls it). But therein lies the difference. We spelled out the universal principles of equality and liberty in our Declaration of Independence. We fought with those truths in mind.

Thus, as we were born in war, we now celebrate our birth in peace. We attend amusing parades, we delight in balloon races, and we go fishing and swimming. The spectacular fireworks displays may vaguely remind us of the thunder of war, but that is the closest we come to it on that day. Thank God.

Unfortunately, what we no longer do on the Fourth is make speeches. Not many years ago it was our habit, from small hamlets to overflowing cities, to listen to patriotic speeches. Speakers of all kinds, carpenters to presidents, would delight in the opportunity of expounding upon the things for which we stand. They would explain it, interpret it, elaborate upon it. Not all the speeches were great, but they all fulfilled a good purpose. They reminded us of what we had in common as a people, of why we could call ourselves citizens of this nation. We reminded ourselves that we loved our country only partly because it was our country, but mostly because it was a free country. We thought that all men should be free. And we thought ourselves mighty fortunate because we had Founders who had acted nobly and thought deeply about our common life, the purposes and limits of government, and the bases of natural rights and consent.

In short we thought about what it meant to be an American. That this needed thinking about from the beginning is an interesting fact. Most countries do not have to think about what they are or what they stand for. They just are and, from their point of view, have always been. The fact that they speak the same language and share the same past seems to be sufficient for them. A continual re-investigation of their identity is not necessary. But we Americans must carry on a conversation with ourselves about what we understand ourselves to be.

This may seem a burden to some. But it is also true that this is the genesis and the genius of our life as one people. It was demanded of us from the beginning, and that demand continues today.

This also reminds me of the time I was asked to speak to a group of high school teachers in the former Soviet republic of Estonia about the American founding. We got to talking afterwards about how American politics has moved away from the principles of the founding in the last half of this century and the dangers that implies for freedom worldwide. At that point there was a smirk on the face of one of the teachers. I looked at her and asked her to explain. “You Americans,” she said, “you never know how lucky you are. Do you know Mongolia is now scrambling to find Mongolian democratic heroes to hold up before the people? Who do you think they claim now? Ghenghis Khan! Ghenghis Khan as a democrat? You Americans, you don’t have that problem. You can make a very big mess, but you still have your Washington, your Jefferson, and your Madison. And there will always be some guy in the back of the room who will raise his hand and quietly whisper their names.”