Page images
PDF
EPUB

CHAPTER XXIX

FAITH IN AMERICA

THIS volume has been concerned rather with criticism and warning than with eulogy and congratulation. We are far too prone to brag of our achievements and too little disposed to acknowledge our shortcomings. If the American spirit is to find its splendid fulfilment, it will be not through a complacent acquiescence in things as they are, but through our earnest efforts to overcome the obstacles that stand in the way and to embody that spirit more completely in legislation and practice.

But the picture must not be drawn too dark. We have not yet fully realized our fathers' dreams, but, on the whole, we have done well. And the signs of the times are full of promise. There is more criticism of our institutions, more fault-finding, more clash of interpretation and program, than ever. But that is because more people are taking our historic ideals seriously, more people are interesting themselves in their realization. We perceive the difficulties more keenly, we realize the mistakes that have been made, we are not so blindly optimistic. But we have not lost faith. And precisely this spirit of criticism, this chorus of proposals, this growing soberness of reflection, warrants our faith and pledges its fulfilment.

Already the relative success of our experiment in self-government has had an enormous effect upon the rest of the world. And more than ever we have the opportunity to play the role of spiritual as well as material leader. In the inspiring words of Roosevelt, “We are not only custodians of the hopes of our children, but in a peculiar sense we are custodians of the hope of the world." "Our nation is that one among all the nations of the earth which holds in its hands the fate of the coming years. We enjoy exceptional advantages, and are menaced by exceptional dangers; and all signs indicate that we shall either fail greatly or succeed greatly. I firmly believe that we shall succeed; but we must not be foolishly blind to the dangers by which we are threatened, for that is the way to fail.”

Not only will our future have an influence far beyond our geographical frontiers, but millions more, scores of millions, are coming to these shores, to join their fortunes with ours. What they are to become rests very largely with us of the older American stock. By the middle of this century we shall doubtless have a population of more than a hundred and fifty million, by its close probably two hundred million. And this within the lifetime of people now living! What a challenge to our idealism! We are a very young nation, not yet a hundred and fifty years old-a mere moment in the history of man. Infinite vistas stretch before us. Why should not our nation endure for thousands of centuries? Surely there could be no object more worthy of our effort and sacrifice than to help shape the polity and guide the development of this youthful giant among the nations.

Kings and Kaisers have fallen; the battle against political autocracy, of the sort that has so long plagued the earth, seems won. But the democracies are still far from safe. They will not be safe from one another until they have perfected an international organization that will secure justice and peace for all the world. They will not be safe from internal disruption until they succeed in establishing a complete internal justice and liberty. One long epoch of man's history is over; it is time to gird ourselves for the next struggle. The War is over; the War begins.

We must definitely realize that moral and social progress are not automatic, they come through human effort. And there are powerful forces making for injustice, materialism, license, for decadence and disruption. It is a perpetually shifting battle. Our codes have to become continually more intricate to meet the new methods of exploitation, the new forms of inequity, the new follies, that are forever being devised. We have by no means reached a point of safety. The belief in social progress has become almost a dogma with us, a dogma supported by the material progress that nothing now apparently, save a prolonged world-war, can check. But moral and social degeneracy may go hand in hand with material progress, with national power and pride. Thus it may be that our greatest dangers lie ahead. Our future is still problematic. Faith in it we must have; but faith without works is dead.

It is a salutary exercise, then, to consider the newer forms of sin, for which the growing complexity of our social life has opened the way. Certain industrial evils, certain forms of profiteering and graft, certain forms of commercialized vice, that have become already widespread, were unknown to our founders. We live, in our cities, less in one another's eyes than our fathers lived. Our social restraints have in some ways become greatly relaxed. We have drifted far from what Mrs. Wharton rather ironically calls the Age of Innocence

as recent a period as the eighteen seventies. Privilege has become bolder, sinister "interests” more powerful, the congestion of wealth and the wanton luxury of the rich more marked, poverty more acute, class consciousness more widespread and bitter.

But when we look back and remember that we have succeeded in abolishing political tyranny, and human slavery, have risen above the bitter sectionalism of our early years, have devised and put into operation a thousand ingenious plans for the checking of private selfishness and the forwarding of the common good, we turn to the future with confidence. These newer evils can also be overcome. Our people are becoming better and better educated; the churches are awaking more and more to their duty as teachers and fortifiers of our national ideals. The number of voluntary associations devoted to the forwarding of specific causes is increasing yearly. Great potentialities for good lie in professional associations, in trade unions, and other organizations along vocational lines. The conception is gaining headway that the government exists not merely to protect the individual in his rights but positively to forward the general welfare. Our pioneering is nearly done; a larger and larger part of our surplus energy can be freed for attention to the moral and social problems that confront us. The new generation includes many thousands of young men and women who are studying these problems and are determined to find solutions.

In 1910 Mr. William Allen White published a book with the title, “The Old Order Changeth." At a date 80 recent as that it was common to hold, with this author, that the days of bossism, of the "invisible government,” of graft and corruption, were numbered. The experiences of the past few years have shown us that the millennium is not yet at hand. But they have also shown the tremendous latent energy and idealism in our people. The problem is, how to arouse it, to focus it upon the evils to be cured, and make it effective for progress.

Two things we must cease to be afraid of. We must not be afraid of “unrest,” of “agitation," of open discussion and experiment. Stagnation, acquiescence in evil, apathy, and blindness to the defects in our social order, are worse than unrest. We cannot afford yet to settle down and take our ease. Our forefathers were not afraid of unrest when they threw the tea overboard in Boston Harbor, when they resisted the redcoats at Lexington and Concord. The real cause of revolutions is never the spirit of unrest; that is secondary. The real cause is the existence of injustice, the autocratic and selfish rule of man over man, the poignant contrast between power and impotence, or between wealth and poverty. The ostrich-policy will not save us. The danger is not in wrong thinking, it is in not thinking at all, in letting things drift.

Every serious alteration in our political or social system has been dubbed un-American, and its sponsors persecuted as traitors. Roger Williams was banished from Massachusetts for his advocacy of religious liberty, Garrison was dragged through the streets of Boston for daring to oppose slavery. The secret ballot, the gold standard, the conservation policy, the civil servicethese and many other reforms were red rags to the self-styled “true Americans." Yet these reforms have been accepted, as many more will yet be, as embodying better than the older forms the true American spirit.

The other thing we must cease to be afraid of is

« PreviousContinue »