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"Americanism -- An Old-Fashioned Ideal"...where did it go?

On this Independence Day weekend, as we celebrate the birth of our nation through a War against England -- and the establishment of a Constitutional “Republic” with intentionally limited powers -- I wanted to share a few values of America’s first President, George Washington and his era, that still strike me as ideals worth pursuing.

Back in 1967, when I was in junior high school, my brother Ron & I visited our grandparents out in California, and we went to Disney- Land and Knott’s Berry Farm. At Knott’s, which was a low-key history-based American heritage-type theme park on those days (no “wild rides” like there are today), I bought a souvenir: a little book called “The Americanism of Washington” by Henry Van Dyke, originally published in 1906. (That’s 113 years ago!) It deeply influenced me 52 years ago, and it helped form my civic values. Today’s sermon will largely consist of turn-of-the-century oratory. (Turn-of-the-century of the last Century, that is… 113 years ago.)

I use the word Americanism in my title this morning, knowing full well that it is antiquated. The new rhetoric of “Make America Great Again” has by-and-large supplanted what people used to think actually made America great in the first place! The values of “Americanism”. … How else can we speak about the true values of our nation’s founders without sounding a bit “old-fashioned“?

I invite you to listen to these comments about George Washington… who used to be called the “Father of his Country”…

… a man who served as commander-in- chief of the American forces in the 1776 War for Independence, and who became our first elected President… as described by Henry van Dyke in 1906:

Dignified and reserved he was, undoubtedly; and as this manner was natural to him, he won more true friends by using it than if he had disguised himself in a forced familiarity and worn his heart on his sleeve.

But from first to last, [Washington] was a man who did his work in the bonds of companionship, who trusted his comrades in the great enterprise even though they were not his intimates, and who neither sought nor occupied a lonely eminence of unshared glory.

He was not of the jealous [type]… nor of the temper of George III, who chose his ministers for their vacuous compliancy [today we would say “cronyism”]. Washington was surrounded by men of similar (though not of equal) strength: Benjamin Franklin, Hamilton, Knox, Greene, the Adamses, Jefferson, Madison. He stands in history not as a lonely pinnacle like Mount Shasta… but as the central summit of a mountain range, with all his noble fellowship of kindred peaks about him…

Among these men whose union in purpose and action made the strength and stability of the Republic, Washington was first, not only in the largeness of his nature, the loftiness of his desires, and the vigor of his will, but also in that representative quality which makes a man able to stand as the true hero of a great people. …[And yet]… You shall hear historians describe him as a transplanted English commoner (as the second edition of John Hampden does). You shall read, in a famous poem, of Lincoln as [and I quote]: “New birth of our new soil, the first American.”

That [Abraham] Lincoln was one of the greatest Americans, glorious in the largeness of his heart, the vigor of his manhood, the heroism of his soul, none can doubt.

But to affirm that he was the “first American” is to disown and disinherit Washington and Franklin and Adams and Jefferson. (!) Lincoln himself would have been the man to extinguish such an impoverishing claim with huge and hearty laughter…

[General] Washington knew that the Boston brewer (Samuel Adams), and the Pennsylvania printer (Ben Franklin), and the Rhode Island anchor-smith, and the New Jersey preacher, and the New York lawyer, & the men who stood with him were Americans.

He knew it, I say… by a standard which disregarded alike Franklin’s fur-cap and Putnam’s old felt-hat, Morgan’s leather leggings and Witherspoon’s black silk-gown and John Adam’s lace ruffles; to recognize and approve, beneath these various garbs, the vital sign of America woven into the very souls of the men who belonged to her by a spiritual birthright.

For what is true Americanism, and where does it reside?

Not on the tongue, nor in the clothes, nor among the transient social forms (refined or rude) which mottle the surface of human life. The log cabin has no monopoly on it, nor is it an immovable fixture of the stately pillared mansion. Its home is not on the frontier, nor in the populous city… Its dwelling is in the heart. It speaks a score of dialects but one language, follows a hundred paths to the same goal, performs a thousand kinds of service in loyalty to the same ideal which is its life.

True Americanism is this:

(1) To believe that the inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of

happiness are given by God.

(2) To believe that any form of power that tramples on these rights is


(3) To believe that taxation without representation is tyranny, that

government must rest upon the consent of the governed, and that

the people should choose their own rulers.

(4) To believe that freedom must be safeguarded by law and order, and

that the [goal] of freedom is fair play for all.

(5) To believe that the selfish interests of persons, classes, and sections

[of society] must be subordinated to the welfare of the


(6) To believe, not that all people are good, but that the way to make

them better is to trust the whole people.

(7) To believe that a free state should offer an asylum to the oppressed,

and an example of virtue, sobriety, & fair dealing to all nations.

(8) To believe that for the existence and perpetuity of such a state, a man

should be willing to give his whole service, in property, in labor, and

in life.

That is Americanism: an ideal embodying itself in a people… And it was the subordination of the personal to that ideal, that creed, that vision, which gave eminence and glory to Washington and the men who stood with him…

The men who were able to surrender themselves and all their interests to the pure and loyal service of their ideal were the men who made good, the victors crowned with glory and honor. The men who would not make that surrender, who sought selfish ends, who were controlled by personal ambition and the love of gain, who were willing to stoop to crooked means to advance their own fortunes, were the failures, the lost leaders, and, in some cases, the men whose names are embalmed in their own infamy.