"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
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.
The ultimate secret of greatness is neither physical nor intellectual, but moral. It is the capacity to lose self in the service of something greater. It is the faith to recognize, the will to obey, & the strength to follow a star.
Chosen to command the Army of the Revolution in 1775, Washington confessed to his wife his deep reluctance to surrender the joys of home, acknowledged publicly his feeling that he was not equal to the great trust committed to him, and then, accepting it as thrown upon him “by a kind of destiny,” he gave himself body and soul to its fulfillment, refusing all pay beyond the mere discharge of his expenses…
“Ah, but he was a rich man,” cries the carping critic; “he could afford to do it.”
How many rich men today avail themselves of their opportunity to indulge this kind of extravagance, toiling tremendously without a salary, neglecting their own estate for the public benefit, seeing their property diminished without complaint, & coming into serious financial embarrassment, even within the sight of bankruptcy, as Washington did, merely for the gratification of a desire to serve the people? This is, indeed, a very singular and noble form of luxury!
Was it in any sense a misfortune for the people of America … that there was a man able to advance sixty-four thousand dollars out of his own purse, with no other security but his own faith in their cause, to pay his daily expenses while he was leading their armies? This unsecured loan was one of the very things, I doubt not [writes Henry Van Dyke], that helped to inspire general confidence…
Washington’s substantial pledge of property to the cause of liberty was repaid by a grateful country at the close of the war. But not a dollar of payment for the tremendous toil of body and mind, not a dollar for work “overtime,” for indirect damages to his estate, for the use of his name or the value of his counsel, would he receive… Washington refused this, or any other kind of pay, saying that he could serve the people better in the enterprise if he were known to have no selfish interest in it.
I am sick [writes Henry Van Dyke] of the shallow judgment that ranks the worth of a man by his poverty or by his wealth… Many a selfish speculator dies poor. Many an unselfish patriot dies prosperous. It is not the possession of the dollar that cankers the soul, it is the worship of it. The true test of a man is this: Has he labored for his own interest, or for the general welfare? Has he earned his money fairly or unfairly? Does he use it greedily or generously? What does [having wealth] mean: a personal advantage over [one’s] fellowmen, or a personal opportunity to serve them?…
[Washington wrote] to the governors of the different States, urging them to “forget their local prejudices and policies; to make those mutual concessions which are requisite to the general prosperity, and in some instances to sacrifice their individual advantages to the interest of the community.”
[Henry Van Dyke brings his book to a close by saying:] I have ventured to interpret anew the story of [George] Washington and the men who stood with him: not as a stirring ballad of battle and danger, in which the knights ride valiantly… but as a drama of the eternal conflict in the soul of man between self-interest… and loyalty to the right, service to a cause, allegiance to an ideal. Those great actors who played in it have passed away, but the same drama still holds the stage…
Men tell us that the age of ideals is past, and that we are now come to the age of expediency, of polite indifference to moral standards... Men tell us that democracy has nothing in it to command our allegiance unless it promotes our individual comfort and personal prosperity; and that the whole duty of a citizen is to vote with their party and to get into office someone who will look after him.
Men tell us that to succeed means to get money, because with it all other good things can be secured. Men tell us that the one thing to do is to promote and protect the particular trade or industry or corporation in which we hold a share; [and] that the laws of [free-market] trade will work out that survival of the fittest which is the only real righteousness…
Men tell us that anything beyond this is fantasy, dreaming, Sunday School politics: there is nothing worth living for except to get on in the world, and nothing at all worth dying for, since the age of ideals is past… [But if that is true,] what is to follow?
An age of cruel and bitter jealousies between [society’s] sections and classes; of hatred and strife between the Haves and the Have-Nots; of futile contests between [political] parties which have kept their names and confused their principles, so that no one may distinguish one from the other except as who’s “In” and who’s “Out.”
[What is to follow is] an age of greedy privilege and sullen poverty, of blatant luxury in rising palaces and vanishing homes, of stupid frivolity among gilded fribbles while four million gossips gape at them and read about them in the newspapers. (!) An age when princes of finance buy protection from their elected represent- atives and guardians of the savings, which insure the lives of the poor, use them as a surplus to pay for the extravagances of the rich.
But not for us who claim our heritage in blood and spirit from Washington and the men who stood with him… We see the heroes of the present as those whose allegiance is not to their section, but to the whole people, the fearless champions of fair play… We believe that the liberties which the heroes of old won with blood & sacrifice are ours to keep with labor and service. No privilege that encroaches upon [these American principles] is to be endured. No lawless disorder that imperils them is to be sanctioned. No class that disrespects or disregards them is to be tolerated.
There is a life that is worth living now, as it was worth living in the former days, and that is the honest life, the useful life, the unselfish life cleansed by devotion to an ideal. There is a battle that is worth fighting now, as it was worth fighting then, and that is the battle for justice and equality… to cleanse, so far as in our power lies, the fountains of our national life from political, commercial, and social corruption…
… to teach our sons and daughters by precept and example, the honor of serving such a country as America -- that is work worthy of the finest manhood and womanhood.
Nor shall such labor be for naught… For high in the firmament of human destiny are set the stars of faith in humankind, and unselfish courage, and loyalty to the ideal; and while they shine, the Americanism of Washington and the men who stood with him, shall never, never die.
Those words from Henry Van Dyke seem as relevant to -- and pointed at -- today’s political climate as they did 113 years ago when that little essay was first published. These ideals -- this old-fashioned “American-ism” -- which arose from people of the stature of George Washington & Thomas Jefferson are (apparently) no longer stylish. I doubt that they are being recited in very many pulpits on this 4th of July holiday weekend.
But I chose to do so this morning, first, because I learned ideas like that as a child and I miss hearing them now as an adult. It makes me wonder… as in my sermon title… “Where did it go?”
The Americanism I grew up with here in Alpena… where is it? The Americanism that led my Dad to run for elected office in 1974 – “Send Lance to Lansing” was our slogan -- and prompted me to join the Army in 1976, when Gerald Ford was President. Where’d it go?
I served under President Jimmy Carter, a man of stellar character (in my opinion) who took great political risks to rein-in the military-industrial complex (and the Wall Street bankers, and the Israeli lobby) on behalf of the Common Good. I got out of the Army when Ronald Reagan was elected President, but Patty still served in Germany for another year. These men were deserving of respect. The qualities of character of General Dwight David Eisenhower, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, and others in our recent past brought honor to the White House, and respect around the world; there was general prosperity, not just for the wealthy one-percent. People spoke of the Common Good. I miss that kind of Americanism in today’s politicians.
And second, I chose to speak about those kinds of values, because I believe Van Dyke’s Americanism reflects a similar set of values as did the early church. As St. Peter said in his letter:
“All of you, have unity of spirit. Sympathy. Love of the brethren. A
tender heart, and a humble mind. [Peter said:] Do not repay evil for
evil, or abuse for abuse, but on the contrary, repay all with a
blessing… for to this you have been called.” (!) Saint Peter advises
those people who say that they love life and want to see good days:
“Let him keep his tongue from evil and his lips from speaking guile. (!)
Let him turn away from evil and do right. Let him seek peace and
pursue it.” (I Peter 3:8-11)
May we do so… keeping faith with the best our country has provided in the past, and with an eye to serving even better “the common good”… which is God’s Will for all of life. May we make America flourish again as a nation of Good Will, Good Work, and Good Luck.
May God bless us, one and all!
 Henry Van Dyke, The Americanism of Washington (Reprinted especially for Walter Knott, Knott’s Berry Farm, Buena Park, Calif., 1963) Original printing 1906