Do you know any cheerful pessimists? They broke faith with the nation a long time ago—actually before they were born. There was a time (they’ll tell you) when the Constitution and personal character meant something. Depending on who you talk to, it all started going downhill with Lincoln or Woodrow Wilson or FDR. However it started, the United States has become a cruel joke and it doesn’t matter what party controls the White House or Congress. Bankers or corporations or media moguls or Illuminati are the ones pulling the real strings.
Granted, it’s not a cheerful scenario, but there’s a certain sense of well-being that comes from thinking you have it figured out and you’ve made the right investments and stocked up on ammo. Other adjectives may apply: prudent, smug, contemptuous. But not grateful.
Diatribes about the rottenness of America, whether from the left or the right, are rooted in the belief that government of, by, and for the people hasn’t lived up to her promise. Maybe she promised too much, but it’s also interesting that the most publically self-critical nations—the United States and the United Kingdom—are the ones that developed the political rationale for freedom.
Daniel Hannan writes of a meeting between Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill on the deck of HMS Prince of Wales in August 1941. It was a perilous moment: Europe had fallen to Nazi Germany, which was now hammering Britain. Churchill saw America as his only hope. On Sunday morning British and American sailors gathered for a worship service on deck, to hear the words of the Lord preached in King James English: “I will not fail thee, nor forsake thee. Be strong and of a good courage” (Joshua 1:5-6). Churchill took courage. Shared language, shared faith, and a shared culture would soon draw these nations together against a soul-crushing enemy. And freedom would be saved for another day.
But freedom nourishes an unhealthy kind of idealism that makes “the perfect” the enemy of “the good.” Our Founding Fathers recognized the conundrum and feared their experiment in self-government wouldn’t last long. And it almost didn’t.
Only fourscore and seven years later, the nation was torn apart and hundreds of thousands of young men were buried under battlefields. In those dark days, Abraham Lincoln received a letter from Sarah Hale, the self-styled “editress” of the popular journal, Godey’s Ladies Book. Hale had been waging a campaign for the last 20 years to have the New England tradition of Thanksgiving declared a national holiday, and four previous presidents had turned her down. But now, when there seemed the least reason for thankfulness, Lincoln agreed. Sarah Gives Thanks, a children’s picture book, explains why: “Lincoln understood that sometimes it was hard to remember good things in hard times. People needed a day to be thankful for food on their tables, roofs over their heads and the blessings in their lives.”
And people need to remember that liberty without gratitude always undermines itself. The freedom to criticize is a blessing. The freedom to despise is not so much. Those who look down on America (and there’s a lot to be down about) are standing on the foundation America, by God’s providence, built up. That foundation may be crumbling, or already in ruins. If so, they are magnificent ruins. If not, God grant us time to rebuild. In either case, give thanks.