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'The American Revelation' Defines a Nation's Spirit

The ideals that have shaped what it means to be American are the subject of Neil Baldwin's latest book, The American Revelation: Ten Ideals That Shaped Our Country From the Puritans to the Cold War.

Baldwin takes the work of 10 idealists to paint a picture of the American spirit as it has been defined over the last 300 years.

Inividuality, unity and destiny are among the themes explored by Baldwin.

Excerpt from The American Revelation:

Ideals cannot exist without idealists. The American Revelation pays tribute to the people who engendered ten essential ideals in our history and illuminates the times in which they were first expressed. In our own twenty-first century, as I write these words, the pulse of the nation often sounds as if it is emanating from two separate heartbeats. We need to turn to galvanizing beliefs that will provide a unifying focus for our thoughts and our lives in an instructive mental conversation with the past. The ten ideals discussed in The American Revelation are the rightful patrimony of all Americans.

The first inspiration for this book came to me when the new issue of The Economist landed on my doorstep one day in early September 2002. A feature called “A Year On” caught my eye. A “special report” on the gargantuan struggles facing America twelve months after the cataclysm of 9/11, the piece endeavored to capture the powerful national theme “of America as a place apart ... from George Washington’s warning to the new republic against ‘entangling alliances’ to Ronald Reagan’s summons to his fellow citizens to build an ideal ‘shining city on a hill.’ “

President Reagan was indeed fond of that popular image, which he used in his January 11, 1989, farewell address to the nation. But he did not create the concept. The English Puritan leader John Winthrop, governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, invoked the “city on a hill” in the spring of 1630 in a sermon delivered to his fellow passengers on the ship Arbella preparing to set sail from Yarmouth at the dawn of “the Great Migration” to the New World. Imagining the land across the sea, Governor Winthrop, in turn, took inspiration from Christ’s words in the Sermon on the Mount in the fifth book of the Gospel according to St. Matthew: “Ye are the light of the world. A city that is set upon a hill cannot be hid.”

President Reagan, like Winthrop before him, saw America as above all else a moral exemplar. “I’ve spoken of that shining city all my political life,” he recalled from the Oval Office in a valedictory speech televised just after nine o’clock in the evening. “In my mind it was a tall, proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, windswept, God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace; a city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity.” Reagan’s lofty remarks set my imagination spinning. What provoked John Winthrop’s vision of an ideal community in a new Promised Land? How did he come to develop such a romantic image of our country as a world paradigm, a vantage point for vigilance, likewise willingly exposed, open to be judged—and emulated—from afar?

John Winthrop’s vivid metaphor is the natural beginning for the book you hold in your hands. He was a lawyer, scholar, and religious man, devoted to family and church. His colleagues on the governing Board of the Massachusetts Bay Company selected him as their leader to shepherd them across the ocean and make a new home in the wilderness. Winthrop employed his knowledge of scripture to inspire, not intimidate. He accepted his responsibility to set the tone for a fledgling pioneer community far from England. Winthrop conceived of this uncharted land as a place of promise where worldly fulfillment was possible through good works. His lay sermon, “A Model of Christian Charity,” entered our national discourse precisely 375 years ago.

A century later another Englishman, Thomas Paine of Norfolk, came to America with the single-minded intent to start anew. From his earliest career as an excise collector in Lewes, Paine was an adamant champion of the rights of the workingman. Once on these shores, he sensed the undercurrent of desire for self-determination in the character of the American colonies as emblematic of “the cause of all mankind.” In Philadelphia in January 1776, encouraged by Benjamin Franklin, Paine wrote and published Common Sense, the most influential and politically engaged pamphlet of its time, perhaps of all time. It was a hymn to America as a republic meant to survive for posterity. Paine’s inflammatory rhetoric stands as a landmark in the American tradition of the free press.

The source for the ideal examined in the third chapter—our national motto, E Pluribus Unum, which means, “Out of many, one”—was likewise an immigrant, by way of Geneva and the West Indies. His name was Pierre Eugene Du Simitiere, and he lived in Philadelphia during the Revolutionary War. Among his talents were heraldry and graphic design. During the momentous summer of 1776, Du Simitiere was asked to serve as consultant to the Great Seal Committee of the Second Continental Congress. He labored closely with Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson to create an enduring coat of arms and a symbolic slogan for the thirteen United States of America. After trying various phrases and sketches, Du Simitiere selected three words that have come to express the nation’s multifaceted identity.

I turned next to Boston-raised, Harvard-educated Ralph Waldo Emerson, the most eloquent practitioner of nineteenth-century American individualism. Trained for the clergy, as a young man he abandoned the conventions and restraints of the church, preferring to make a living as an itinerant lecturer, preaching the gospel of the inexhaustible self. To “see into the life of things,” Emerson dared to be different. He believed it was necessary to go against the grain in order to improve the society at large.

Emerson’s philosophy advocated truthful introspection as the foundation for integrity in the wider world. In 1841, living with his family in the quiet sanctuary of the Concord woods, he published the essay “Self-Reliance", a hymn to the singular American spirit.

Four years later two words expressing the inexorable progress of the nation entered the national vocabulary. John Louis O’Sullivan was a thirty-two-year-old lawyer, Jacksonian Democrat, and editor of the New York Morning News and the United States Magazine and Democratic Review. His passionate daily editorials added momentum to the expansionist fervor sweeping America, “to make the wilderness blossom as a rose” in the drive ever westward from sea to shining sea. “The fulfillment of our Manifest Destiny,” he wrote, “[is] to overspread the continent allotted by Providence for the great experiment of liberty.” For John O’Sullivan, manifest destiny heeded a higher purpose.

Chapter 6 is about a neglected supporting player in American history. To Henry George, land was also sacred property, but in a different way, as the basis for a worldwide “single-tax” movement, inspired by the publication of his best-selling work, Progress and Poverty, in 1879. Dropping out of school in Philadelphia at thirteen, George spent most of his adult life working as a typesetter and printer in San Francisco. Even when he founded his own newspaper and launched a career as a self-taught writer, he never lost sight of the sufferings of the “proletarian laborers” who bore the preponderant economic burden of an industrializing nation. In Progress and Poverty, Henry George proposed a leveling revision in the nation’s unfair tax structure as the only way to remedy the grievous gap between “monstrous luxury and debasing want.”

Long before the women’s movement, a singular “modern woman” lived in perpetual motion, seeking to transcend the limitations imposed upon her sex. Jane Addams of rural Cedarville, Illinois, believed that “truest womanhood can yet transform the world.” Committed to the obligation to serve those less fortunate, Addams established Hull-House, the first major social settlement in America. Located in the poorest immigrant ghetto of Chicago, Hull-House combined school, daycare and community center, gymnasium, soup kitchen, and library. Addams was the charismatic presiding spirit. Her 1902 essay, “Political Reform,” appealed to every thoughtful American to do well by doing good: “The sphere of morals,” she wrote, “is the sphere of action.”

Three generations of a Jewish immigrant family living in a brownstone tenement in a shabby neighborhood of Staten Island within view of the statue of Liberty Enlightening the World were the protagonists of The Melting-Pot, a drama by Israel Zangwill. The son of an impoverished London East End old clothes trader, the playwright was enthralled by America as “God’s crucible” for “all the races of Europe . . . to unite to build the Republic of Man and the Kingdom of God.” The show premiered on October 5, 1908, in Washington, D.C. Pres. Theodore Roosevelt was so aroused by the final curtain that he shouted to the author across the crowded theater, “That’s a great play, Mr. Zangwill!” The Melting-Pot idealized America as the epitome of egalitarian opportunity.

Carter Godwin Woodson, the first child of former slaves to attend Harvard, came north by way of the coalmines of West Virginia. Studying for the Ph.D. he earned in 1912, Woodson was told by his professor, Edward Channing, that “the Negro had no history.” The dismissive remark inspired Woodson to correct that misconception during a life of lecturing, teaching, and exhaustive documentary research. He published dozens of books by himself and other Negro scholars and amassed “an arsenal of facts” on the saga of his race. With his own savings, he founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History. During the Harlem Renaissance in 1926, he created the February celebration of Negro History Week, now Black History Month. Carter Woodson’s stubborn insistence on the legitimacy of black heritage laid down a path for all disenfranchised Americans.

The tenth and final chapter of The American Revelation turns around the global perspective begun when we followed John Winthrop westward on a voyage of hopeful renewal to foreign shores. In 1948 the Marshall Plan extended America’s helping hand for the urgent cause of European recovery in the wake of a devastating war, harsh winters, and sparse harvests. Former general of the army George C. Marshall, Pres. Harry S. Truman’s secretary of state, shepherded through Congress the largest voluntary transfer of economic resources in history—billions of dollars in development loans and outright grants, as well as raw materials, food, fuel, and machinery. On December 10, 1953, in ceremonies at Oslo, Marshall became the first professional military man ever to receive the Nobel Peace Prize, accepting it “on behalf of the American people” and telling the world of his conviction that America was a compassionate country, mindful of its great riches, and cherishing “a creed which comes to us from the deep roots of the past.”

The American Revelation sheds light upon the human nature of our country. When we read the words of these ten patriots, we may well wonder if history has diminished their idealism. However, it is my belief that just because we have lost sight of a principle does not mean it no longer exists.

“Patriotism” is not a one-dimensional abstraction, and the definition of national character does not come exclusively from the top down. Its legitimate meaning needs to be developed one citizen at a time—one reader at a time.

From the book The American Revelation: Ten Ideals That Shaped Our Country From the Puritans to the Cold War by Neil Baldwin. Copyright (c) 2005 by the author. Reprinted with permission from St. Martin's Press, LLC.

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