There Is an American Idea
JULY 01, 1976 by HERBERT V. PROCHNOW
Dr. Prochnow is former President of the First National Bank of Chicago and Deputy Under Secretary of State. Author of numerous books and articles, he also has spoken at hundreds of meetings in the United States and abroad.
As the world hums with the rising clamor of confusing opinion and propaganda, ever more positively, skillfully, dominantly presented, it is imperative that you and I understand clearly the significance of our citizenship and the American idea upon which it is firmly based.
For there is an American idea.
It came with the Pilgrim Fathers and the William Tells of many races, who found homes here.
It took as its emblem the freedom of the eagle and the independence of the pioneer.
It overleapt the hurdles that had blocked human progress in many other lands for centuries.
It blew through the sordid runways of outworn civilizations with the cleanness of mountain winds.
It amazed the world with the rich outpourings of its untrammeled spirit.
It made men cry: "Give me liberty or give me death."
It dedicated itself in strength, humility, and tolerance, to the care of the needy and sick in this land and in all others.
It brought forth a beneficent downpouring of free thought, free speech, a free press, and a free pulpit.
It proclaimed the dignity of labor and the right to the profits of personal effort.
It erected the little white church and synagogue in 250,000 communities.
It created a nation of men with free bodies, free minds, free opinions, and free souls.
It brought forth in only 200 years, the greatest wealth and the highest standard of living any people in history have ever known.
That is the American idea. History is the story of man’s struggle for liberty. Perhaps we need that reminder more than any other today. We need to be reminded that there has always been a struggle for liberty. In whatever period of history you may muse, the battle for liberty — political, economic, physical, intellectual, artistic, moral — is going on. Upon a free body, a free mind, free opinions, and a free soul have hinged most of man’s achievements. Only with the reasonable attainment of freedom has man been able to reach after the finer and gentler things, the motifs and objectives of life, and the final objective —truth.
"We hold these truths to be self-evident," reads the Declaration of Independence,
"... that all men are created equal.
"… that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights,
"… that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."
Here are the great privileges of American citizenship — a free, independent citizen’s stake in the nation. These are his equality, and his inalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
And these are dearly bought privileges that have come down through the decades. Far back in the 1770′s man was literally earning his bread by the sweat of his brow. Working hours were double those of today. The wilderness had to be tamed with the bare hands, and its forests grubbed out by the roots. Almost everyone was poor. Hunger and storm were more punitive then than our imagination can picture. Malaria, smallpox, and all the tyranny of the bacterial world were still enthroned. The business cycle was as restless then as now. But those early citizens placed independence, liberty, equality at the top of the list of the privileges of citizenship, and in the balance they placed their lives, fortunes, and honor.
Equally as important as the privileges of citizenship are the hard-won rights and weapons by which life, family, and property are defended. There are the privileges not only of equality before the courts, free speech, and a free press, but also the privilege to convert time and ability into earnings honestly won in fair competition by giving value received—the right to have and to hold these earnings in any proper form, free from piracy of any kind. The right to assemble peaceably and petition the government for the redress of grievances. The right of habeas corpus. The sanctity of family and home. The freedom to worship as conscience, and conscience alone, dictates. The right to vote regardless of race, color, or sex. These are great privileges which have become so habitual that they are often overlooked. But nothing else is more precious.
No country up to the settlement of America ever conceived of the privileges of citizenship in the generous measure we have come to know them here. The idea that individual liberty is an inalienable right of every human being had barely come to sunrise. The energies of all mankind, for all the centuries, were occupied with the stern realities of political despotism. The privileges were invariably enjoyed by the favored few. With the colonization of America came a new note — a new citizenship in the world — the beginning of freedom, with all its manifold blessings, for the common man. Out of the dream of liberty have come seemingly exhaustless privileges — equal rights to justice within the law, freedom of the pulpit, a beneficent downpouring of free thought, free speech, and a free press.
But the continuance of these privileges of citizenship is predicated upon the discharge by each of us of definite responsibilities. Make no mistake about that. The men who laid the foundations of America had no thought in their minds that the priceless privileges of citizenship could be earned and retained except through the valiant discharge of the responsibilities associated with that citizenship. Men have had to struggle and to die to gain the liberty which is the bulwark of American citizenship, and they have had to be on guard to retain what they have won.
If a citizen demands wise government, he must recognize that wise government is the product of an intelligent citizenry, and nothing else.
If a citizen demands that crime be in the cell and not in the saddle, he must support honest law enforcement without any personal reservations whatsoever.
If a citizen demands unfair advantages for his industry, union, or geographical section, he must remember that the price of class and sectional selfishness is national destruction.
If a citizen demands sound fiscal policies, he must realize that every dollar which a government expends must eventually be repaid by the toil of its citizens in the creation of wealth.
If a citizen demands that his country protect him, he must cooperate unselfishly in giving his time and money to maintain the institutions which afford that protection.
If a citizen demands freedom of worship for himself, he must be tolerant of all creeds.
If a citizen demands freedom of speech, he must not encourage its suppression in those who disagree with him, nor must he use it maliciously to destroy the governmental and other institutional framework of freedom.
If a citizen demands a paternalistic government to assume responsibilities which he himself rightfully should discharge, he must not forget that a nation’s strength comes largely from each citizen standing on his own feet, and that the paths of benevolent despotism and personal decadence lead eventually to the destruction of the privileges of free citizens.
If a citizen demands of his fellow citizens that they work increasingly for a great nation by developing communities in which men may have pride, let him as a citizen, grateful for the privileges which are his, dedicate himself in a spirit of humility to those responsibilities.
When the viewpoint that the privileges of citizenship are inseparable from its responsibilities begins to prevail everywhere in America, the unreal days that have harassed this generation may be forgotten, and time may become enriched beyond our present vision.
Then America may continue in the future, as in the past, to become increasingly the land of our pride. It will excel in the detail and in the sum of those essentials which measure a nation’s true greatness. It may set time’s farthest sea-mark in freedom for the individual. It may explore new frontiers in the achievement of quick and genuine justice; it may reach new breadths of opportunity, take new strides in the intelligence and farsightedness with which its citizens, fully aware of their privileges and responsibilities, blend self-interest and community interest. It may reduce burdensome and costly complications of government, attain new records in the present distribution of the desirable things of life, and in the future protection of the resources of nature and knowledge as a heritage to posterity.
If, as citizens, we but take these as our objectives, all this can be — and shall be — our America. Then with an appreciation over the world of what American citizenship implies, there will be created an epic opportunity for America in strength, humility, and tolerance to be of worldwide service. The road America has pioneered may then become a broad highway for the swifter advancement of the peoples of less fortunate nations. This is the vision for us and our children’s children. This is American citizenship — thankful for its privileges — faithful to its responsibilities.