It is not until one visits old, oppressed, suffering Europe, that he can appreciate his own government, that he realizes the fearful responsibility of the American people to the nations of the whole earth, to carry successfully through the experiment … that men are capable of self-government.
I found this in the Lincoln biography A Team of Rivals. In the margin—yes, I’m an obsessive margin scribbler—I wrote, “Have we lived up to this responsibility to the world?” What Seward is really describing is hope. He is describing the hope we carry for people with the imaginative spirit to envision living life with a heart both fully alive and fully free. The “American Experiment” is about a nation of free men and women deciding on their own how they will be governed. I’m reminded in this sense of what Tennyson called “one equal temper of heroic hearts” in his Ulysses. The writers of our Constitution couched the power of the government within the “consent of the governed.” That is, we decide. The ideal in this case is that the government remove obstacles to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness—not ensure it. It’s up to the individual to carve out his or her living and prosperity taking advantage of God-given uniqueness, strength of character, and ambition. Seward is absolutely correct, as I see it, in his appraisal of the burden of responsibility we carry as a nation.
Yet, at least on the domestic front, “responsibility” wouldn’t seem to be something we have collectively embraced. When FDR took office amidst a crisis similar to our present circumstance less than a hundred years ago the government accounted for 7% of our GNP. Today this percentage of government spending relative to our gross national product has ballooned to 20%. This means that our government is responsible for about 1/5 of who we are. Or it could be translated as “redistribution”—something I’m not against, necessarily, because people generally want to give and should give; but this process is not a responsibility of the federal or state governments. Furthermore, this change translates into a growing dependency on the public to take care of us—all of us.
In a recent poll asking if the government was doing enough in industries such as financial, energy, and healthcare, more than 70% of those polled said “No.” Could it be that, despite American history being studied and taught in our schools, that we’ve lost our way? Could it be that we’ve forgotten who we are, why we fought and died, and why we forged this nation out of a bunch of trees in the first place?
If you’ve seen the movie Wall-E then you know where I’m going here. Frankly, I’m already tired of Pixar animation. They perfected their craft with Finding Nemo and probably could have quit after that. (Of course I’m a fan of classic Disney animation so what would you expect). But when in a Filmspotting podcast three out of four Chicago film critics—and you know how they are, referring to “film” instead of “movies”—put Wall-E in their top 3 I figured there was something else going on. And there is. Check it out. It’s great social commentary of where we are today and perhaps as good a score card as any other barometer on how we’re doing in the experiment of self-government. The bottom line is that regardless of what the US government decides to do in the next few weeks, we need to take this burden on our own shoulders, step into a new age of responsibility, and live up to the standards of a great age. Actually, our current crisis is actually an opportunity for another great generation for another great age.