Monday, November 14, 2016

Book Review: If You Can Keep It, The Forgotten Promise of American Liberty by Eric Metaxas

If You Can Keep It, opens with a look at Benjamin Franklin just after the close of the Constitutional Convention in 1787. The proceedings had been held behind closed doors - intentionally, to keep rumors from leaking out. Curiosity ran high. People lingered on pins and needles - wondering what the Convention had wrought.

     An old woman pigeon-holed Benjamin Franklin as he walked through the door. She asked him what the delegates had given the country. Franklin didn't need any time to think. Without a pause, he responded - "a Republic" - "if you can keep it."
     Franklin's response most likely baffled the woman. "If you can keep it..."
     The obvious response, would have been, "What's the catch?" "What do you mean?" or, "Why? Is there some chance we could lose it?"


Before I go any further, I'm going to skip ahead to the ending, because I think it's something every American needs to think about. 
     Metaxas says, "Since roughly the 1960s the negative things have come to the fore in unprecedented ways." The protests over the Vietnam War split the country, into two factions: "Love it or Leave it?" and the other side, that "could only see the bad things America had done."
     Sure, America's first three hundred years had included slavery, subjugation of the Native Americans, robber barons, and all sorts of other evils. But, because there were some low points in our history, does it necessarily follow we should forget the good parts.
     Metaxas doesn't think so. He looks at the creation of the United States as a miracle of the highest order. Was it God's will? Or, Divinely inspired? 
     The author seems to think so.
     
If you have any doubts, consider the tale of Squanto. 
     He was a native American, who had been kidnapped from his tribe, taken to Europe, given the best education available at the time, and somehow returned to his place of birth - just in time to witness the arrival of the Pilgrims. (Denis Diderot would have said, "It was written up yonder.") Shortly after the Pilgrims landed in America, nearly half of them died from disease and starvation. The rest of them surely would have died too, except by some miracle Squanto walked into their midst - a native American who spoke perfect English, who knew how to plant corn and squash, who knew how to build snug, warm shelters that would protect them through the rough winter ahead, and who would negotiate a lasting peace with the nearby tribes.
     You could say the Pilgrims were mighty darn lucky that Squanto came along when he did, or you could take Diderot's side - and agree, his appearance was "written up yonder," or you could agree with the author - that maybe the Pilgrim's had God or Providence on their side.
     Throughout the book, Metaxas contends if we're not careful, America could lose the glue that binds it together. He says, what made America great in the first place - was faith, virtue, and hero worship.
     
First, and foremost, came faith.
     Let me share another story from the book to help illustrate his point. 
     In November of 1739, a cross-eyed English preacher crawled out of a ship, and onto the docks in Philadelphia. Over the next five decades, he would slowly change the course of American history. George Whitefield was somewhat of a celebrity, or sensation when he left Europe. Where most preachers would minister to a flock of fifty to maybe a few hundred; thousands, sometimes tens of thousands, spontaneously turned out to listen to the young preacher.
     There was something about Whitefield that demanded attention. Spectators reacted to what they heard. For one thing, there was no getting around the fact, Whitefield believed what he said. He wept, and wailed openly, as he told his stories. Because he was so immersed in what he preached, listeners hung on his every word, many felt they were transformed by what he said. Many of his listeners claimed they felt reborn after listening to Whitefield preach (keep in mind, this was several hundred years before President Jimmy Carter told the world he had been reborn.)
     But, you don't have to take my word, or the authors.
     Benjamin Franklin was there when Whitefield first arrived in Philadelphia. As any student of history knows, Franklin wasn't the most religious man ever born. But, there was something about George Whitefield that grabbed him by the seat of the pants and made him listen. Franklin said Whitefield's voice was, "loud and clear," and "articulate," and his voice was "distinct," even at great distances, so it was no wonder thousands of people could hear him, even at great distances. And, another funny thing happened as Franklin listened to Whitefield. Even though he vowed not to donate a penny to his cause, he found himself emptying the entire contents of his pockets into Whitefield's donation plate.
     The thing was - while common people liked Whitefield, and bought into his message, other ministers looked at him as a charlatan, or as some kind of disease. How else could he draw such great crowds? And, there were lots of questions about what he was saying. 
     Get this...
     Whitefield had this crazy notion that all people were equal in God's eye - rich or poor, black or white, King or peon. Over time, as more Americans gathered to hear his message, they began to believe that commoners were equal to the King. People came from all over the colonies to listen to Whitefield and other ministers who took up his message. They came to believe they were equal to anyone, but just as importantly - Whitefield's religion got the Colonists to thinking of themselves as being one people, rather than as members of thirteen individual colonies. No one knew it yet, but the times they were a-changing.
     George Whitefield, more than anyone else, created the American idea of equality and the unity of its peoples.

Virtue or the moral character of our leaders was always taken for granted by our early leaders. 
     Again, virtue doesn't mean our leaders have to be perfect. They just need to value their country more than they value themselves, or their reputation. They need to do things that are right for the country, not just for themselves, or for their constituents.
     As an example, Metaxas points to the Roman dictator Cincinnatus. When the Roman senators came to appoint him as dictator of all Rome, they found Cincinnatus hard at work plowing his fields.
     He was given complete control of the Roman Legions and led his troops to a final, bloody victory at Aequi. When the fighting was done fifteen days later, Cincinnatus turned the power back over to the Senate and returned home to work in his own fields. Two thousand years later, George Washington followed the example of Cincinnatus and surrendered power to the Continental Congress when his task was complete. Then he went back to attend to his estate at Mount Vernon.

But, just as important as faith and virtue, is an understanding of your past. If you don't know where you've been, how can you know where you're going.
     Way back, to the beginning of time hero worship, has been important to the continuation of culture. The ancient Greeks had Hercules, Odysseus, and Jason. The Romans had Pompey, Cincinnatus, and Brutus. America had George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Abraham Lincoln.
     Back in the day, before the Vietnam War, Americans revered their heroes. In school, we used to teach our children about the midnight ride of Paul Revere, and how he risked his life to spread the word, that the British were on the move.
     George Washington, against all the odds, led a ragtag troop of Continental soldiers in an eight-year struggle to win our freedom. Just as the war was ending, America was on the edge of turning into a dictatorship. The American officer corps met at Newburgh, determined to steal control from the Continental Congress that could never afford to feed or pay them.
     Things could have gone either way at that juncture. America was that close to a military takeover before it even got its feet wet as a Republic.
     What stopped the coup, and saved the day, was George Washington.  Washington now slightly stooped, and graying, pulled his speech from his pocket, but because he had difficulty seeing, Washington was forced to put on his spectacles - something he'd never let his officers see before. That moment of weakness melted the hearts of his men and squashed the Newburgh Conspiracy.
     Several months later, Washington resigned his commission as General of the Continental Armies and peacefully turned over power to the Continental Congress. People all over the world were stunned. Not since Cincinnatus, in ancient Rome, had a victorious general voluntarily stepped down. King George III didn't know what to say when artist Benjamin West told him the news. Finally, he blurted out, "If he does that, he will be the greatest man in the world."
     That was then, this is now.
     Today, we've all but forgotten about Paul Revere, and when we look at Washington, we don't see the hero who stepped aside at the height of his power and glory. We see him as a slave owner, who fought for white freedom but didn't have the cojones to free his own slaves.
     And, instead of celebrating Thomas Jefferson for the inspired writing that gave us the Declaration of Independence, the stories we tell are about a ridiculous old hypocrite who slept with his slave Sally Hemmings - and fathered her bastard children.

For some reason, we as Americans have forgotten who we are. Rather than celebrate our greatness, we agonize over our mistakes.
     Yes, slavery was a fact of life in early America. Millions of African-Americans were enslaved and mistreated. But guess what? Eventually, we as people rose up against the evil and did what was right - even though it involved a bloody four-year struggle that tore our nation asunder. 
     And, yes, we killed, and stole our way from coast-to-coast, taking our country from its rightful owners. Again, we can feel bad for it. We can make amends for it. But, is there any reason to say the hell with it, we blew it so bad, there's no going back?
      Of course not!

The beauty of the system the Founding Fathers gave us is it's flexible enough to adapt to changing circumstances. The Constitution gave us a framework that allowed future generations to fill in the blanks.
     Rather, than focus on the bad, and the evil. We need to look at what's good and get back to basics. 
     Americans don't necessarily need to go back to church, but they need to have faith in some divine power. We need something to inspire us, and make us do what is right for everyone, not just for ourselves.
     We need to rediscover our heritage and recover our heroes. And, that process needs to start in our schools, and in our homes.
     When I was a kid, we dressed like the Pilgrims at Thanksgiving. Teachers read to us about history and shared stories of our past. I remember that day in Kindergarten, when the principal's voice came over the intercom and told us the President (JFK) had been shot. We all ran home crying. It was a loss everyone felt. Today people wish and hope someone would shoot the president. That'd get that bastard out of office, and shake things up.
     We've got to start at the bottom and root out the evil in our own minds. The only way we can do that is by teaching ourselves to believe again.

At the end of the book, the author shares a story about his parents coming to America and seeing the Statue of Liberty. Everyone was roused and encouraged to look as they glided past.
     I know, it sounds corny today. 
     My grandparents sailed into Ellis Island before World War I. My other grandfather ran away from home in France in 1887, and made his way to America, and then to Iowa.
     None of them ever looked back or returned to their homes. They became Americans and helped to shape the American dream that we know and enjoy.

What becomes of it today, is up to you and me.

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1 comment:

  1. This is your best blog, in my humble opinion. I love the theme, and the sentiment behind it. We, Americans, need to learn more about how, as you write without saying these actual words, how beautiful the idea of America is, as it pertains to the power of the individual. The story of George Whitefield, for example, was inspiring. Thank you for introducing this character, and his influence on the founding of this country, to me.

    In general, I love your 'just the facts ma'am approach, and I love the manner in which you write. Your writing style is more clear and concise than the Doris Kearns Goodwin-style minutiae that can be tedious at times. DKG's style of writing may be one of the reasons that knowledge of history is so poor in some quarters in my humble opinion. Your style is far more entertaining. I am now reading your book 'History Bytes', and I love just about every essay. My favorite sections concern Andrew Jackson and Charles Guiteau. I realize that to historians, such as yourself, Jackson is not an obscure president, but as you note elsewhere in your book, and in this blog, some dynamic characters in our country's rich history have become more obscure with the passage of time. I have a particular love with U.S. History, and relatively obscure presidents in particular. It fascinates me to learn how each of these men shaped our country in their own, individualistic ways. Perhaps you could write a book: 'How the 'other' presidents helped shape America.' Long story short, I just wanted you to know that one person, out in the hinterland, thinks you're one hell of a good writer, historian, and storyteller. It's my hope that you continue to put these pieces out, because I find them fascinating.

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