What is it about small town America? Perhaps there is a certain magic that lures one to a less complicated and more relaxed place. Even though I spent my childhood in a small town, I am a self-proclaimed city girl. In spite of that fact, I wax nostalgic when I visit and take in the charm of any small rural town.
You can take into your mind and heart the city life, but sometimes your spirit yearns for small town goodness. I recall parades down main street on my bicycle with decorated tires, streamers and flags. There were floats and banner-lined cars and trucks celebrating local business from which business owners threw candy to the pursuing children. There is nothing quite like the whole town turning out for the rivalry of a high school football or basketball game. It is difficult to imagine a small town without an American Legion or an Elk’s Club Supper club. Small towns have heart, they have a sense of collective community and are grounded in hard work and unparalleled patriotism.
A thoroughfare for freedom beat,
across the wilderness.
While in the heartland of America this week to celebrate Independence Day, driving down flag lined streets of rural Michigan, a wave of patriotism washed over me. For a few days I forgot about the negative rhetoric, steady as the beat of a drum, pounding the message of what is wrong with America. Gone for a few short days was pessimism and cynicism in what some call a failed system of government.
Instead, I saw roadside refreshment and fruit stands, sleepy towns waking after a long hard winter, patriots hanging banners and flags for the upcoming holiday. This is the type of grit and tenacity that makes America great. It is here in an uncluttered community that I am reminded of all that is right with America.
I certainly don’t have the answers for what makes all the difference. Perhaps, it is easier to find a sense of solidarity in a small town. It was in such a town where I sang the well known and revered song “America the Beautiful” with a small congregation on a warm summer morning this weekend.
Many of us sing this song every year over the Independence Day holiday but this particular time there was one line that peaked some curiosity on my part — confirm thy soul in self control, thy liberty in law. I am not sure if I have ever really thought about the meaning of this curious but profound line.
While taking a summer break from a teaching assignment at Wellesley College in 1913, a thirty-three year old Katheryn Lee Bates was inspired and touched as she crossed this beautiful country by train. As she departed from the city and its accompanying distractions, she contemplated the rural and natural magic of this nation and penned the words to America the Beautiful.
Her poem was put to music by Samuel A. Ward as he rode a train back from Coney Island to his home in New York City. Ward was so overcome on that summer day that he asked his friend Harry Martin for his shirt cuff to write down the tune that was swirling in his head.
Confirm thy soul in self control. Is that what seems lacking in America? It doesn’t seem like people are willing to stay true to any type of ethical line while seeking their own personal advantage — rather, each person seems to exist for their own self gratification, increasingly willing to step away from the rock of principle that has existed in America for generations. People support, comply with or even enforce laws only when it benefits them or serves their agendas; otherwise, they rationalize or justify discarding the rule of law. So many individuals want it both ways - all choice and no consequence, and self-control almost seems non-existent.
George Washington, one of the founding fathers and first president realized the importance of self-governance and stated, “Tis substantially true, that virtue or morality is a necessary spring of popular government.”
The second president of the United States, John Adams said, “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people.” He went on to suggest that if the populous “cannot govern themselves by principle, no written constitution or code will suffice to force us on to an ethical path.”
There can be no substitute for self-control based on internalized true principles. ~ Unknown
Thy liberty in law is the second half of that phrase from the song America the Beautiful. Within that brief stanza lies a profound truth about our liberty. Liberty, in the sense of choice and opportunity, promulgates discernment and the ability to carry on as one ought and not as one would always prefer. Liberty was never meant to act in a way that gives anyone the right to harm oneself, family members, neighbors or community. For some reason, we have confused this ideology in what Pope Benedict XVI calls “the self-destruction of freedom.”
James Madison, another founding father posed the question of whether a people who did not practice self-control or self-governance in their private lives, could possibly practice it in their public lives. It was Madison’s opinion that government requires a fairly high degree of ethics and principle in the critical mass of its citizens to safeguard a republic.
During this Fourth of July week let us reflect on the messages of freedom, and of liberty and the role of self control, including respect for each other, as we celebrate what is right with America. With greatness comes responsibility, but with that sense of responsibility comes reason to exercise discretion and maintain integrity. It is our discipline and self-control that makes us truly great as a people, as a community and as a nation.
And crown thy good with brotherhood,
from sea to shining sea.
Happy Birthday America!!!
Photo credit: Steven Depolo/Flickr