Try this one in public today and see how far you'll get:
"This country, with its institutions belongs to the people who inhabit it. Whenever they shall grow weary of the existing government, they can exercise their constitutional right of amending it, or their revolutionary right to dismember or overthrow it."
The word are these of that good Republican, Abraham Lincoln. Abe wasn't being provocative or radical; he was merely expressing, as usual, the sentiments of the common people of his time. Then, Americans believed they were revolutionary. Now, express revolutionary thoughts aloud on this Fourth of July weekend and you'll either be ignored, treated as a fool, or as a dangerous disturber of the peace.
Our revolutionary ardor long since has cooled. We've become the oldest continuing form of government in the western world, and in many ways the most conservative. But however else our national spirit has changed over the generations, Americans today remain anything but complacent. They appear more disturbed about the direction of the country than at any time in memory, including the Vietnam-Watergate years of bitter strife at home and abroad. Their discontent arises from a multitude of problems rather than a single crisis, but a pervasive national sense of drift and disarray seems to be the most troubling to them.
In Lincoln's terms, they are weary of the existing government -- but see nothing that promises to change it materially.
The belief that nothing works well is relatively new in the American experience.For most of this country's history, Americans have been optimists. No matter how terrible the conditions confronted nor how difficult the time, they forged a national characteristic of being forever hopeful. They were convinced that tomorrow would be better than today. A long history of wars, struggles, scandals and personal suffering seemed only to reinforce their faith in the future.
The pursuit of happiness was one of those "inalienable rights" we ascribed to ourselves in our Declaration of Independence 204 years ago: we have been vigorously laboring to achieve it every since, to the wonderment of a series of observers.
Tocqueville, still the wisest of the group, was fascinated by this trait. "Men will be seen continually to change their trace," he noted, "for fear of missing the shortest cut to happiness." And while he found "something surprising in this strange unrest of so many happy men, restless in the midst of abundance," he came to understand it as a dominant drive in Americans, a need to pursue their own welfare with "feverish" ardor.
Typically, Americans alone in the world took sad songs, and made them glad. We transformed that tragic antiwar ballad, "Johnny, I Hardly Knew Ye," about the return of an Irish soldier from Ceylon in the 1600s with such verses as: You're an eyeless, Boneless, chickenless egg, You've got to be put With a bowl to beg, Johnny, I hardley knew ye into a happy Civil War song to great returning troops from the front:
We'll give him a hearty welcome then, Hurrah! Hurrah! The girls will cheer, The boys will shout, The Ladies they will All turn out, And we'll all be gay, When Johnny comes marching home.
That kind of thinking, wishful or not, continued for nearly another century despite a succession of wars, depressions and other calamities. By mid-century, though historians were beginning to describe a darker national state of mind. Henry Steel Commager, writing 21 years ago, commented:
"Although still persuaded that his was the best of all countries, the American of the mid-20th century was by no means so sure that his was the best of all times, and after he entered the atomic age he could not rid himself of the fear that his world might end not with a whimper but a bang. His optimism, which persisted, was instinctive rather than rationalized, and he was no longer prepared to insist that the good fortune which he enjoyed, in a war-stricken world, was the reward of virtue rather than a mere geographical isolation. He knew that if there was indeed any such thing as progress it would continue to be illustrated by America, but he was less confident of the validity of that concept than at any previous time in his history."
I know few people today who believe this the best of times, and hardly any who think in terms of the inevitability of American progress.
The problems are easy enough to define, and you hear them debated everywhere you go -- the declining dollar, the great corporations seemingly incapable of competing in the world marketplace, the Middle East threatening to go up in flames, the further disruption of oil almost inevitable, the military weakened, the western alliance divided, the Russians on the march, the economy unstable and unpredictable, the sense of graver crises to come increasing. But these are secondary to the greater concern -- that we seem incapable of doing anything effective about any of them.
Paradoxically, just when things appear bleakest the American record of achievement shines brightest. In science, art and technology America today stands supreme. Its people continue to demonstrate high creative energies, resilience, and mature judgment. The failure before us now stems not from a deterioration of American ability; the failure we face is of the national will as expressed in the national form of government.
It is the political system -- the "existing government" Lincoln spoke about -- that stands on trial now. These next few years seem destined to provide evidence of whether it can meet the challenges -- or require radical change.
For now, though, on this holiday of national celebration and introspection, Tocqueville's words are work recalling. "Around every man a fatal circle is traced," he said, "beyond which he cannot pass; but within the wide verge of that circle he is powerful and free. As it is with man, so with communities."
So, too, with nations, especially this one. We're far better than we give ourselves credit. We're also probably at a far more critical juncture than even we realize.