I grew up in a small town, surrounded by fields and farmland. One of my grandfathers tilled the soil, while the other fought in foreign lands during World War II. Both men cared for their kin, their history, and their homes.
Through their hard work and faithfulness, I have life and breath. My life was wrought, in part, by the soldier boy who fought in France and the farmer boy who gathered corn.
I believe July 4 is a time of gratitude. By remembering past generations’ service and fidelity, we show we do not hold our inheritance cheap. All of us enjoy the fruits of a harvest sown before us: our safety was bought by soldiers’ blood, our rights embedded in documents written long before we were born. Men who exhibited courage in hardship and plenty have molded present and future lives.
But unfortunately, citizens of the modern age offer little gratitude to the past. Their “patriotism” often consists of mere nationalism and egotism, hallowing apple pie and “American exceptionalism” rather than ancestors and homelands.
Our age is more disconnected from history than any before us: grown on dogmas of postmodernism and narcissism, we no longer have any inherent fealty to our past. Clive James and Eric Voegelin lamented our growing “cultural amnesia” or “anamnesis,” as our generation loses its sense of place and historical memory.
In 2012, David Brooks reported that the number of Americans living alone had risen from five percent to 28 percent since 1950. He diagnosed the underlying problem with such isolation in another column, written last month:
“Over the past half-century, society has become more individualistic. As it has become more individualistic, it has also become less morally aware, because social and moral fabrics are inextricably linked. The atomization and demoralization of society have led to certain forms of social breakdown, which government has tried to address, sometimes successfully and often impotently.”
America has long struggled with an individualism that ignores the past and future in its present, personal obsessions. Alexis de Tocqueville identified this individualism in his book Democracy in America, written in the 19th century: “Those who went before are soon forgotten; of those who will come after no one has any idea: the interest of man is confined to those in close propinquity to himself.”
While in aristocratic nations, “a man almost always knows his forefathers, and respects them,” Tocqueville said Americans “owe nothing to any man, they expect nothing from any man; they acquire the habit of always considering themselves as standing alone, and they are apt to imagine that their whole destiny is in their own hands. Thus not only does democracy make every man forget his ancestors, but it hides his descendants, and separates his contemporaries from him; it throws him back forever on himself alone, and threatens in the end to confine him entirely within the solitude of his own heart.”
The more we disentangle ourselves from our roots, the less aware we become of our moral, cultural, and political heritage. We are careless of traditions and debts owed to the past.
When my grandfather rode his tractor and dug ditches, he was following in the footsteps of his father – a man whose back was bent from years of hard labor. Both men attended the same church and sang the same hymns. Both men had a deep and profound reverence for their roots, and for the customs of their forefathers.
I admit that I am profoundly blessed. Not all American have such a personal heritage. But we were all blessed with those American forefathers who, in the classic words of Abraham Lincoln, “brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in Liberty.” We all have ancestors who fought and died to preserve this nation, and thus “gave the last full measure of devotion.”
Today, here at TAC, we’ve published John Quincy Adams’ July 4 Speech. In it, he speaks of the gratitude citizens should display in light of their glorious inheritance:
“…Here are we, fellow citizens, assembled in the full enjoyment of its fruits, to bless the Author of our being for the bounties of his providence, in casting our lot in this favored land; to remember with effusions of gratitude the sages who put forth, and the heroes who bled for the establishment of this Declaration; and, by the communion of soul in the re-perusal and hearing of this instrument, to renew the genuine Holy Alliance of its principles, to recognize them as eternal truths, and to pledge ourselves and bind our posterity to a faithful and undeviating adherence to them.”
The harvesters who came before us, plowing seeds of culture and liberty, brought forth a crop we presently enjoy. By remembering them, we show true patriotism and gratitude.