One of the Heritage American’s secret sources is a 1937 textbook and anthology entitled Our Literary Heritage: American Literature, edited by Russell Blankenship et al. (1) Collections like this are precious because they introduce the whole range of our tradition as it stood before it was ravaged by the anti-racism, anti-sexism, anti-military, multicultural, and – well, anti-American movements. It is not that we can’t get hold of our pre-PC literature if we look for it, and quite a bit of it is still in print, but it’s hard to know where to begin when no one alive teaches our history or literature as a tradition. Groups like the Conservative Book Club can help, but I prefer to start with older collections like American Literature, which are more than adequate to set one on an unending journey of reading and discovery.
American Literature seems to be aimed at male high school students, and one point that it emphasizes is the concept of citizenship. The idea seems to be that American literature can help to instill in young readers a sense of national identity and patriotism. A noble enough purpose, although it does raise the question of what the cause was of the lack of patriotism that obviously concerned educators at the time. In any event, one section that caught my eye presents two selections on the topic of “citizenship.” The first is by Theodore Roosevelt, published in 1910 in the first Handbook of the Boy Scouts of America and quoted here. The other is a 1915 speech by Woodrow Wilson to newly naturalized citizens, reproduced in its entirety here. The textbook asks students to compare and contrast the conceptions of citizenship held by each man, and asks “Which of the two selections is more likely to live? Why?” I thought I would try to turn in a response some 70 years later.
Roosevelt writes that the Boy Scout movement is “in its essence a practical scheme through which to impart a proper standard of ethical conduct, proper standards of fair play and consideration for others, and courage and decency, to boys who have never been reached and never will be reached by the ordinary type of preaching, lay or clerical.” After discussing the excellent service rendered by boy scouts in the Philippines after a major fire, he explains that “The [Boy Scout] movement is one for efficiency and patriotism. It does not try to make soldiers of boy scouts, but to make boys who will turn out as men to be fine citizens and who will, if their country needs them, make better soldiers for having been scouts.” Honing in on the idea of citizenship, he writes:
No one can be a good American unless he is a good citizen, and every boy ought to train himself so that as a man he will be able to do his full duty to the community. I want to see the boy scouts not merely utter fine sentiments, but act on them; not merely sing, “My Country ‘Tis of Thee,” but act in a way that will give them a country to be proud of. No man is a good citizen unless he so acts as to show that he actually uses the Ten Commandments, and translates the Golden Rule into his life conduct – and I don’t mean by this in exceptional cases under spectacular circumstances, but I mean applying the Ten Commandments and the Golden Rule in the ordinary affairs of every-day life.
Roosevelt elaborates several things he would like boy scouts to learn, such as taking care of their neighborhood parks and not permitting a “gang of toughs” to ruin them; exercising self-control; and treating girls and women well.
I was a boy scout; and although in reality boy scouts are not so squeaky clean, cussing, talking about girls, and playing cards, I have many fond memories of camping, sailing, ushering at football games, and other activities I could never have experienced otherwise. And I do think that the all-male environment, with good supervision, is good for boys. By the way, the idea that such a movement could function with openly homosexual scoutmasters is beneath contempt, too ridiculous for words.
I think one can detect in Roosevelt’s moral exhortations a sense of social and moral crisis brought on by urbanization and immigration. Why should there be a movement with such an explicit emphasis on parks and the outdoors, unless there were the perception that the boys of the day were being harmed by their urban environment? And who were the “gangs of toughs” who needed to be driven from the parks? In any event, this dear man sees the solution to various social problems in personal responsibility and morality.
Woodrow Wilson’s speech is entirely different. Speaking to newly naturalized citizens, one might expect him to discuss what it means to be American, and he does so. And knowing Wilson, one might expect a touch of utopianism and one-world idealism. However, I was not prepared to see, in this 95-year-old speech, today’s neoconservative “proposition nation” ideology and simpering adoration of immigrants in such perfected form. George Bush and John McCain and the other politicians who drone on about how we are a “nation of immigrants” are saying nothing new at all; they are merely calling for the final, full implementation of Wilson’s ideals.
Wilson declares that
This is the only country in the world which experiences this constant and repeated rebirth. Other countries depend upon the multiplication of their own native people. This country is constantly drinking strength out of new sources by the voluntary association with it of great bodies of strong men and forward-looking women out of other lands. And so by the gift of the free will of independent people it is being constantly renewed from generation to generation by the same process by which it was originally created. It is as if humanity had determined to see to it that this great nation, founded for the benefit of humanity, should not lack for the allegiance of the people of the world.
Is this American exceptionalism, that sees America as so special that those immigrants self-selected by their desire to come here are by definition good and enriching to our society, not beginning to look like a vain conceit at the beginning of the 21st century? Thank you very much, but I’d rather be an ordinary country. Of course, Wilson was thinking of Italians, Slavs, and Jews; the segregation-minded Southerner would not have dreamed of the type of immigration that now has America in a death-grip. But having defined America as “founded for the benefit of humanity” one hardly has any grounds to exclude any particular part of humanity from membership.
Today, anyone who has a “dream” of coming here to have a “better life” seems by that fact to be consecrated as morally superior, more entitled to the country than its native citizens. Wilson’s use of the word to express an almost boundless reverence for desire of immigrants to come here, foretells that usage:
No doubt what you found here did not seem touched for you, after all, with the complete beauty of the ideal which you had conceived beforehand. But remember this: If we had grown at all poor in the ideal, you brought some of it with you. A man does not go out to seek the thing that is not in him. A man does not hope for the thing that he does not believe in, and if some of us have forgotten what America believed in, you, at any rate, imported in your own hearts a renewal of the belief. That is the reason I, for one, make you welcome. If I have in any degree forgotten what America was intended for, I will thank God if you will remind me. I was born in America. You dreamed dreams of what America was to be, and I hope you brought the dreams with you….
Assuming President Obama was actually born in America, he might find this speech a useful reference for when he is called upon to swear in some “new Americans.” However, I must give Wilson credit. He did at least want the new Americans to assimilate:
I certainly would not be one even to suggest that a man cease to love the home of his birth and the nation of his origin – these things are very sacred and ought not to be put out of our hearts – but it is one thing to love the place where you were born and it is another thing to dedicate yourself to the place to which you go…. America does not consist of groups. A man who thinks of himself as belonging to a particular national group in America has not yet become an American, and the man who goes among you to trade upon your nationality is no worth son to live under the Stars and Stripes.
You have come to this great nation voluntarily seeking something that we have to give, and all that we have to give is this: We cannot exempt you from work. No man is exempt from work anywhere in the world. We cannot exempt you from the strife and the heartbreaking burden of the struggle of the day – that is common to mankind everywhere; we cannot exempt you from the loads that you must carry. We can only make them light by the spirit in which they are carried. That is the spirit of hope, it is the spirit of liberty, it is the spirit of justice.
Darn right on both counts. And I’ll give Wilson credit for this, too: he was sincere in his love for his country, and wanted others to share its blessings. But as for me, I’ll take Roosevelt and the Boy Scouts. Programs like that will not save the world, but they can do some real good. Words like Wilson’s, beautifully conceived, can be the seeds of deadly delusion. And once you have given that precious gift, citizenship, to an outsider, it is a little late to begin telling him what you expect.
Finally, a bigger question looms up as we think of these earlier ideas of citizenship: what would being a good American citizen mean today? When the major institutions of our society work against the well-being of Americans, one thing a good citizen needs to do is resist the status quo. We can give Roosevelt the last word on that matter:
The man who tears down and criticizes and scolds may be a good citizen, but only in a negative sense; and if he never does anything else he is apt not to be a good citizen at all. The man who counts, and the boy who counts are the man and boy who steadily endeavor to build up, to improve, to better living conditions everywhere and all about them.
(1) Blankenship, Russell, Rollo Lyman, and Howard Hill, eds., Our Literary Heritage: American Literature, New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1937.