Repairing the Common Culture: Panel Discussion at the International Conservative Congress

Peter W. Schramm

September 1, 1997

I’m going to be as brief as I can be so that we have time for discussion. And I would just like to address, really it turns out, Richard [Brookheiser]’s admonition concerning second nature in the marching theme and following in a sort of rhetorical sense and to remind ourselves that in doing these things and talking about these very important matters that we are both speaking to Americans and at the same time we are speaking for Americans.

Now I teach young people, real native Americans for the most part, ages 18 to 21 years old. I teach them American politics and politics in general. It is my job to help them get a good liberal education, and a civic education in particular. They don’t have much of an education when they come to me. They don’t have a civic or political perspective yet, though they may have some strong views and strong passions. I tell them a simple thing about their country and about themselves; I tell them that they are the fortunate of the earth, among the blessed of all times and places. I tell them this as an obvious and incontrovertible thing. And their blessing, their great good fortune, lies in the nation—in the country into which they were born. I tell them the simple large truth that their country, the United States of America, happens to be today the most powerful, the most prosperous, the most free, and most just country on earth. Then I tell them how and why this is so—that is I teach them about the principles from which these blessings of liberty flow.

Now we talk about many things. We even babble on things like Aristotle and Locke and so on. But the focus is on the Declaration of Independence, Natural Rights, Natural Law, Consent, and the Constitution, limited government, the big question: Why a people who have justified their rule according to right to consent, why their original exertion was to limit their own power? This is a remarkable thing in the history of the human race, and this has to be considered in the most serious way. I also introduce them to American heroes. We talk about Jimmy Madison and the boys, Old Abe and what they stood for, and we do it in those terms. We get familiar with them. And I also talk to them about the manly eloquence of Madison—manly eloquence is necessary when you speak of the kinds of things we are talking about today—what we have in common as a people or as we say in a fancier way in poetry. And why manly eloquence indeed is necessary for the preservation of liberty.

Now we talk about how hard self-government is. And it could be extensive or of a practical emphasis because self-government, of course, as you know, means both governing one’s self as related to morality, religion, responsibility and so forth, as well as governing ourselves as a people. I invite them to consider whether they could hope to have any greater honor than to pass on, undiminished to their children and their grandchildren, this great inheritance of freedom. And then we talk for a few years about how they might best go about doing that. Now it seems to me that this should be the beginning and the end of the discourse on these things that matter with regard to the common culture.

Now there is a lot that goes in between this, I understand that, but it seems to me that if we do not do it in this way rhetorically, and by rhetorically I mean the old fashioned way as a good and a connection between means and ends, then we will be left in the position where we are in fact addressing ourselves in terms that are dictated by the Left, that are dictated by the multiculturalists, by the bilingualists, or whatever they are called, by the feminists and by the ethnic separatists, and all other such people who seem to have lost what there is in our common culture, or who in fact, because they are so mischievous, that they would want us to lose it. Now I’m reminded of just two stories to pass on very quickly and I’ll stop, that I think exemplify this. One is personal and the other is also personal.

The first personal one that has meant a lot to me is I have a little ranch in Ashland, Ohio just a couple 6 acres and some horses and so on and its called the Rocking Horse Ranch. My wife and I fought over what to name it when we moved there ten years ago. I wanted to name it the Eli Parker Ranch. Does anyone know who Eli Parker was, just out of curiosity? Eli Parker was a Seneca Indian and he was Ulysses S. Grant’s personal secretary. You know the story? Do you? Grant was a prolific writer and Eli Parker had to re-write everything Grant wrote, I mean in terms of actually inscribing it. He’s a very good man, a Seneca Indian, very dark in complexion and when Lee surrendered at Appomattox he goes up to Grant’s other officers and shakes their hand and so forth, now of course you know the story, Lee had gotten dressed in sartorial elegance for the surrender where Grant of course in a great American way came in from the field all muddy with crap on his boots. And when Lee reaches this darker man Eli Parker he says to him “Well, at least there is one American among us.” In which Eli Parker looks him square in the eye and says “General, we are all Americans.”

Now the other personal story is of my father who was a window washer by trade, who grew up under fascists and communists and he lived through it. When he came to the United States in 1956, I was ten, and I asked him “Why are we going to America?” This was an uneducated man. And his answer to me was, “We are going to America, son, because we were born Americans, just in the wrong place.”

Thanks very much.