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Saints or crackpots, America had room for them all. In so vast a country, so polyglot a population there is always a powder keg somewhere, in our own time the grave problem of racism. James Meredith in 1962 walks into the University of Mississippi through a hostile mob. (Can anybody say young Meredith lacks the essential quality of an American, and the essential boldness?) "If Governor Barnett keeps this up," says Meredith, "I may not vote for him." A beautiful understatement, wry, hard as Vermont granite.
I swear [wrote
Walt Whitman] I begin
The quiet men, the thinkers, writers, philosophers who knew how to express the American spirit—these also proved bold in their time. Emerson, Thoreau, Mark Twain ; William James, John Dewey...Hemingway, Faulkner, Robert Frost; each name conveys an American era. Consider also the builders, the innovators who altered the face of our cities: Louis Henry Sullivan, father of the skyscraper. We see him as a youth step from an eastern train to the open shed of the Chicago station after the great fire of 1871. He looks toward the city, ruined and in ashes. He raises a hand, stamps his foot among the crowd and cries out loud, "This is the place for me!" We remember, too, the Roeblings, father and son, engineers for the Brooklyn Bridge. Washington Augustus Roebling, the son, at 35 was carried out unconscious from the caissons beneath the East River, suffering from the bends. He did not recover and suffered constant pain. Yet for 10 years he directed work from his room overlooking the river, struggling not only against illness but against the corruption of contractors and city politicians who sought to defeat him and the bridge. Roebling saw his work completed, saw the cables swing from tower to tower and fireworks zoom across the sky on the night the bridge was opened.
Since the first American beginnings, bold men have been allowed to build, to invent, to roam the country at will. No passport, no red tape halts them from state to state. Through two world wars the system has held; the Union has held, and the vision. Under it our country has grown so great that we find ourselves embarrassed, apologetic. We stoop our head like a man too tall for a doorway; we talk ourselves down and experience twinges of guilt at our own size and power. We are materialistic, we say further, and look embarrassed. We want to be comfortable, live well—and not only the rich want it and claim it, but everybody. And is that then evil, is that a betrayal of trust, the final American irony? Impossible to believe it! True, we have betrayed the fathers more than once. In fear, in greed or mere human cussedness we betray them every day. But still we know the dream is there, the vision and the opportunity. We would fight for it, die for it.
And what a springboard to rise from, this notion of government by consent of the governed! It is like a trampoline. Jump! and you are in the air. A distinguished American physicist, director of a radiation laboratory in California, lately expressed it in his own way, succinctly, as becomes a scientist. "There are very few things in this country that really can't be figured out," said Dr. John Stuart Foster Jr. "You can excel. You just can."
America's role is global, now. The United States has won to a sophistication the world finds surprising; we are a little surprised by it ourselves. Not Paris, not London or Rome or Berlin or Madrid is today the center of the world's art and music—but New York. When astronauts compete they compete not with Californians or Nevadans but with the world. The great steel companies look over their shoulders not to see if Pittsburgh or Bethlehem is overtaking them but if Japan or Germany is catching up. Thirteen states have become 50. At each new domestic crisis we ask ourselves in momentary panic if among these diverse sovereign interests our Union can hold, and if our constitutional democracy is equal to such a strain. Yet we know that it is equal and will hold.
America's role is global. Yet we have not lost our good provinciality, the qualities which make our strength and which define the genius of our independence. The bold men still go their way. Europe knows it. Even while expressing contempt (or is it envy?) of our material welfare, from time to time Europe perforce acknowledges the American quality. In 1958-60 the United States sent an exhibition of paintings to Europe. "The New American Painting," the show was called; it went to eight countries. Comments ranged from Berlin to Barcelona to London. And the critics might have been writing not of painting but of skyscrapers or of Charles Lindbergh or Henry Ford the first or the launching of space rockets. "Americans are world travelers and conquerors. They possess an enormous daring.... The quality of adventure is here, a pioneering sense of independence and vitality.... The exhibition offers that climate of unconstraint which never fails to strike anyone traveling to the United States for the first time.... These," said a final critic, "are other myths, other gods, other ideas, different from those prevailing in Europe...."
Long ago, Americans found these gods, these myths and made them their own. Surely it is these myths and these gods which still propel us, still inspire and send us on our journeys? Commander Schirra in his space capsule; Scott Carpenter, the onetime hot rodder, problem boy from Colorado who was given his American chance and grew to heroism—these are bold men indeed. Yet without the "climate of unconstraint" that Europe speaks of, they might never have found their opportunity. Two hundred years ago this climate was deliberately created and confirmed by men brave enough to launch a revolutionary government, men wise enough to create a Constitution expedient, workable, elastic—a government under which the bold American still finds scope.