Last Of Four Installments A Michigan Boyhood
A FAMOUS HISTORIAN RECALLS THE COUNTRY WHERE HE GREW UP
August 1972 | Volume 23, Issue 5
The speech began conventionally enough by paying tribute to the heroes of 1776 and making proper mention of Lexington, Concord, Saratoga, and Yorktown, but it did not go on to let the eagle scream in the traditional Fourth of July manner. It remarked that we look back on the past in order to find courage and inspiration to face the immediate future and that the Revolutionary War was fought to defend a declaration of principles which became “the rallying cry for the oppressed of every land.” The battles of that war were the battles of all mankind, and the spirit that led men in ’76 would yet be “the vital, potent force that shall astonish and overthrow domestic greed as completely as it once did a foreign tyrant.”
He did not leave “greed” as a vague generality that could mean as much or as little as anyone chose. To the best of his ability he spelled it out; in the manner, to be sure, of the early 1900’s rather than the 1970’s. He was talking about monopoly, about the “spirit of selfish individualism” which inspired monopoly, about the unreachable corporations which practiced “a great system of extortion,” drove prices up under cover of a fraudulent protective tariff, kept wages down by importing whole shiploads of Europe’s “pauper labor” against whose handiwork the tariff was supposed to be an essential bulwark, and used the vast powers of finance to exert an increasing control over the law, the press, and the school in such a way as to make reform almost impossible.
“Whenever a man is found wise enough and brave enough to denounce these archconspirators against the people’s liberties,” he continued, “they accuse him of assailing the sacred rights of property and of being in league with anarchy.” This outcry rallied the “honest respectable element” in every community—the frugal farmer, worker, merchant, and professional man who had worked hard to save a competence for a rainy day—and ironically led them to defend “the very vultures that are gorging upon their vitals.”
This of course was the jargon of old-line Populism, a shotgun charge aimed at the forces whom Roosevelt himself could only denounce as malefactors of great wealth, but there are two things to be said about it. First of all, this was not the spread-eagle Fourth of July bombast with which glib speakers ofthat era prodded at receptive rural patriotism; and beyond that it was an odd way for a small-town schoolmaster to be talking. The man who put that speech together, and then stood in the bandstand of a village park and delivered it before a sunbaked audience that was there half out of curiosity and half out of a sense of duty, was a man with something on his mind and with a determination to have his say about it. Obviously, he believed that he saw something taking America by the throat and threatening to choke out, if not its very life, at least its life-giving spirit.
Feeling so, he believed that to break this grip would be of service to all mankind. He had his full share of that profound conviction which lies so close to the headwaters of the American spirit: the conviction that if in the end the world is saved from disaster the saving will be done in America and by Americans. As a people whose ideas about the cosmos have at least in part an Old Testament base, we have a deep suspicion that we are the chosen people. We may not actually be the ones specifically mentioned in Scripture, but we feel that we are fairly close; maybe Providence made a supplementary choice somewhere along the way. (After all, no less a man than Abraham Lincoln, trying to nerve his countrymen for the shock of civil war, spoke of them as the almost chosen people.) This feeling is in fact one of the most powerful forces in American life, and now and then it leads to interesting happenings. It frequently makes us hard to live with, and it bewilders a great many people—including, often enough, ourselves. For every so often it impels us to take drastic action, and a subconscious belief in mission is not always accompanied by the good sense to make a sound choice of the sort of action that is required. Sometimes we act with wisdom and at other times we do not. The same impulse that led us to destroy Hitler’s obscenely contrived Nibelungen Reich, composed in equal parts of the fantasies of Teutonic chivalry and grisly shapes from the heart of darkness, led us a few years later into Southeast Asia, where we have made obscene contrivances of our own.
But whether we act wisely or foolishly, we always feel that what we do is important to the whole wide world and not just to ourselves, and the responsibility runs all the way down to the conscience of the individual. We are mindful of the text which, telling the chosen ones that they were the salt of the earth, asked what the world would do if the salt ceased to be salty. A man who feels so will make no small decisions. Thus it happens that the elderly principal of an unimportant school in one of the remote parts of the earth, reflecting that time was short and anxious to make good use of the thin years that remained to him, might conclude that he owed to mankind a larger debt than he had yet tried to pay. What he did might mean nothing to anybody in particular, but by what he was and what he believed he would do it as if the fate of the world depended on it. By the end of the summer of 1916, I am sure, Father had made up his mind to leave the academy.