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
to see the meaning of these things.
It is not the earth, it is not America,
who is so great,
It is I who am great, or to be great—it is you
up there; or any one;
It is to walk rapidly through civilizations,
Through poems, pageants, shows, to form
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...."
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.