- TOP PLAYERSOffensePABLO S. TORRE | August 20, 2012
- TAMPA BAY buccaneersENEMY lines WHAT A RIVAL COACH SAYSJune 28, 2012
- Faces in the CrowdJune 11, 2001
"We are the heirs of all time," wrote Herman Melville a century ago, "and with all nations we divide our inheritance." In this essay the distinguished historian and biographer, Catherine Drinker Bowen, has analyzed the intangible elements in the heritage of every American—handed on from the circumstances of the discovery of the New World and the perils and opportunities of mastering a continent. It is a heritage of boldness, which has powered the magnificent American accomplishments. Yet it includes something light-hearted and carefree as well, and in the pages that follow there are pictured a few of the innumerable expressions of our native gift: the disciplined endurance of champions, the daring exploits of sky divers and white-water canoeists, the imaginative audacity of designers and architects—a part of that boldness in the pursuit of happiness that gives enduring meaning to the transient excitements of sport.
They were bold from the first. Bold in dreaming, hold in persistence. It is no mere boast, because they made their dreams come true. A man stood on the shores of Portugal and looked westward, nearly five centuries ago. From the way the winds blew, from the seasonal steadiness of them and the direction, the man conjectured there might be land behind these winds. A mariner might sail, and by dead reckoning—by the log, by the compass—he might find this land.
A wild thought, a bold dream, yet it came true; the land was found. Spain, all Europe, England heard of it. "The breath of hope," said Francis Bacon, "which blows on us from that New Continent...," adding that Columbus had made hope reasonable. In these beginnings is something symbolic, something the American mind leaps to meet. The ships embarked, captained by freemen, adventurers. At the end of voyage, at the end of hazard, struggle, endurance and high gamble, our country was found. On a perilous horizon America took shape and was realized.
The years passed, and the generations. Not Columbus now but America herself made hope reasonable. Put it in terms of government—1787: "We, the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect Union...do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America." Europe laughed. "We, the people." What kind of a phrase was that? Nowhere had so big a federation been attempted, nowhere so bold a vision entertained. In high good spirits and in deadly earnest, John Adams of Massachusetts wrote to the Virginians: "When, before the present epocha, had three millions of people full power and a fair opportunity to form and establish the wisest and happiest government that human wisdom can contrive?"
Europe watched and wailed. A government had been erected on the proposition that all men are by nature equally free and independent. Preposterous statement, subverting the established order! Nor did the Americans pause to argue their statement or bolster it decently with citation of ancient authority, after the fashion of the times. They simply declared certain "truths" to be "self-evident." Novus Ordo Seclorum, they wrote on the Great Seal of the United States: A new order for the ages.
Was ever a country, young or old, so brash? How serious, asked Europe, were these Americans? More importantly, how powerful were they and how long could they sustain this impudent program, which by its mere existence threatened ruling classes everywhere? Europe laid traps, offered bribes, threats, inducements, hoping to divide these united states and bring them low. A federation so large, embracing such diversified regions and interests, would surely fail, disintegrate, slip and slide of its own weight in one quarter or another. In the Old World only an occasional statesman saw into the future, as Edmund Burke in the House of Commons. " America," he said, "which at this day serves for little more than to amuse you with stories of savages and uncouth manners, yet shall, before you taste of death, show itself equal to the whole of that [British] commerce which now attracts the envy of the world."
It is a story often told, yet to Americans it does not grow stale. Threats from without only helped to solidify the Union. It was from within the real danger came. Ours was a country founded in a religious era by men of fierce fighting piety and dogma. Religion could have divided us; we had seen the religious wars of Europe and we were forewarned. From the first, Americans made a separation of church and state that was to remain profoundly significant, giving citizens a scope and a hope which nowhere else was entertained. "There is no argument," announced the Presbytery of Hanover, Virginia (1776), "in favour of establishing the Christian religion, but what may be pleaded with equal propriety, for establishing the tenets of Mahomed by those who believe the Alcoran."
A bland statement, satisfied with merely setting forth. Thomas Jefferson, writing the Virginia Statute of Religious Liberty, said it more urgently—but this was a man who could not put pen to paper without leaving a trace of fire down the page: "Whereas Almighty God hath created the mind free...our civil rights have no dependence on our religious opinions, any more than our opinions in physics and geometry."
What did these statements, these documents and declarations do for Americans individually, and how were men, singly, motivated thereby? Nowhere had these documents mentioned "the individual" or addressed themselves to him. Yet by this government and this system the American individual was freed exactly as if fetters had been struck from him. In Europe since time immemorial men had been divided into classes, "some to toil and earn, others to seize and enjoy." The U.S. Constitution provided for neither class nor privilege. All was mobile, a man could move up or he could slip down. It was a wholly unprecedented departure, and to Americans, both immigrant and native born, it gave extraordinary scope. Neither the Declaration of Independence nor the Constitution claimed to make timid men courageous, lazy men active or stupid men bright. But these documents allowed bold men to be bold; they unlocked doors, let Americans walk through, each one to his destiny.
Take it in terms of those men who opened up our western territory. In 1804 President Jefferson dispatched the Captains Lewis and Clark westward to map out a land route to the Pacific. For some 16 months the two traveled the wilderness, rode turbulent river waters, broke trail—careful always to draw their maps, record their meticulous pictured reports of birds, fishes, wild animals. On a rainy November morning of 1805 Clark looked westward from his mountain camp above the Columbia River and wrote, in his own phonetic spelling, "Ocian in view! O! the Joy."