With Patience and Courage

I had a good idea recently. Stop hyperventilating about Donald Trump and focus instead on American history; really focus. It is helping me and I highly recommend it. There is, of course, so much to hyperventilate and worry about, something new every day: Russian interference in the election and the President’s obvious unconcern, his rejection of the high moral vision expressed in American foreign policy for two and a half centuries and replacing it with a starkly different vision articulated by two top presidential advisers, H.R. McMaster and Gary Cohn in the Wall Street Journal: “The President embarked on his first foreign trip with a clear-eyed outlook that the world is not a ‘global community’ but an arena where nations, nongovernmental actors and businesses engage and compete for advantage.” That is a very different and harsh vision which David Brooks described as “moral decoupling…morality has nothing to do with anything. Altruism, trust cooperation and virtue are unaffordable luxuries in the struggle of all against all. Everything is about self interest.” Near the top of my worry list are continuing attacks on the media, “fake news” and “alternative facts” that have created a truth crisis and which enable the government to operate in a fact-free zone in matters of enormous consequence such as climate change. Also near the top of my list of concerns is the utter absence of grace, gracefulness and humility. There is no laughter, no music, no joy.

So I’m trying to focus on history. Let historian David McCullough be your mentor. Read his superb biographies of Harry S. Truman and John Adams and be reminded of how great American leaders emerged at critical times and how external threats inspired their greatness. 

Add Ron Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton to understand again the brilliance of our nation’s founders. Hamilton came from such humble and unpromising beginnings, orphaned at a young age – his father abandoned his wife and children, his mother died holding him in her arms, sailed from St. Croix to New York City through the efforts of a Presbyterian minister, Hugh Knox, was a brilliant thinker and writer, George Washington’s Aide de Camp in the Revolutionary War, led troops in battle, wrote a majority of the Federalist Papers and was the architect of the American banking system and economy. When you finish the book, see Hamilton, the hip hop musical by Lin-Manuel Miranda and Jeremy McCarter. If you can’t afford tickets (our children gave us tickets for Christmas) listen to the C.D. Best of all, listen, see the play, listen again. Not only will you have new appreciation for the people who birthed and nurtured our new nation but, I suspect, you will be absolutely captivated by Miranda’s and McCarter’s Mozartian genius. 

Return to David McCullough’s The American Spirit: Who We Are and What We Stand For, published this year, a collection of the author’s speeches. There are fifteen of them and I found each one interesting, informative, warmly human and, in my current malaise, inspiring and hopeful. McCullough reminds us what an intellectual giant Thomas Jefferson was; “He read seven languages. He was a lawyer, surveyor, ardent meteorologist, botanist, agronomist, archeologist, paleontologist, Indian ethnologist, classicist, brilliant architect. Music, he said, was the passion of his soul, mathematics the passion of his mind. Jefferson was the principle author of the Declaration of Independence and the unparalleled words,

  “We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal, that they are   
    endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life,
      Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are
      instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”

McCullough reminds us that “Never, never anywhere had there been a government instituted from the consent of the governed.”

To the graduates of Union College, Schenectady, New York, McCullough described Woodrow Wilson’s painful choice to lead America into the First World War…”Against all tradition, America was to become embroiled in conflict and resolution far beyond its borders. The American part in World War One proved decisive. And there could be no turning back, as Wilson knew. America had responsibilities in the world…Power is not the point, responsibility is the point and at the heart of responsibility are always moral choices.”

My hope for the future is renewed by President Harry S. Truman’s farewell address to the country which McCullough recounts. It was 1953, at the beginning of the Cold War. Americans were concerned about the future and frightened. Families were building bomb shelters for protection from the nuclear attack that seemed imminent. School children were practicing “Duck and Cover” huddling under their desks for protection. President Truman said: “I have a deep and abiding faith in the destiny of free people. With patience and courage, we shall move on into a new era.”

We did, and thanks be to God, with patience and courage, we shall.

John M. Buchanan



  1. castaway5555 says:

    I sincerely hope you’re right, but I can’t shake the feeling that we’re at a crossroads quite distinct from what has previously been the case with our Presidents. It’s not so much the times, or the crises of the world, or the problems of our own society, as much as it is now a matter of an unpredictable and hateful man at the helm. This has not been our status in the 20th Century, and perhaps in an earlier time, the lack of Twitter, etc., would have kept an inept and violent man well isolated. But these days, the current Admin is in everyone’s face, with bile and bigotry. Yes to “patience and courage,” yet such virtues, in a critical time, may well become an unwitting cohort of the malicious … and for that, I recall both Italy’s Mussolini and Germany’s Hitler. Surely, some will say, “But we’re not them.” And that’s true, right now. Even then, neither Italy nor Germany could have foreseen what they would become. Part of my current reading is “Weimar in Exile: the Antifascist Emigration in Europe and America,” by Jean-Michael Palmier … wherein he makes it painfully clear that the intelligentsia of Germany constantly dismissed Hitler as a momentary blip, a little blowhard to be ignored; German’s philosophers, writers and playwrights didn’t take Hitler seriously. And with some similarity to America, Hitler never won the urban vote, but he won the rural heart and the small towns of Germany, and then the wealthy very quickly climbed on board smelling profits, and then came the churches hoping to reclaim what was lost in the trenches of WW1. Folks like Barth and Bonhoeffer saw it, but most didn’t. So, for what it’s worth, I hope more people pay attention to our history, yes, for sure, and then hyperventilate for the clear and present danger sitting in the White House.

  2. Faded elegance says:

    This reached me as we arrived in, of all places, Erie, Pennsylvania, after a long day on the road from Kennebunkport, Maine. We had taken a child to summer camp, then headed on to see FDR’s summer house in Campobello. A drive down Highway 1 took us past old, dying Maine communities with tiny “regional” health centers – one in a steel pole barn – serving citizens who surely must depend on Medicaid. The only “Now Hiring” signs we saw were in front of restaurants – usually fast food ones. On the one hand it was easy to see the America that cast its lot with Trump, but on the other, it proved John’s point – Senator Collins’ stand agaainst her fellow Republicans surely is both patient and courageous. What a trek – From Campobello, where FDR experienced privilege and travail but went on to save the country, then to ponder the grace and dignity with which Kennebunkport’s most famous resident, George H.W. Bush, has led and lived, to Erie, surely Trump country but also Buchanan country, a national crossroads in so many ways.

  3. Reblogged this on Views from the Edge.

  4. David McCullough is such a fine historian, a wise man who writes so well he still does everything from his old manual typewriter. He is also both a gentleman and a gentle man, perhaps because he’s paid close attention to American history in its best and worst moments, and continues to practice a faith anchored in Micah 6:8. It was his humility as much as his wisdom that struck me most during his visit to the Westminster Town Hall Forum. As we walked a trail around Cedar Lake, as woman recognized him. “Aren’t you David McCullough!” He engaged the stranger as if she were an old friend, quickly diverting the conversation from her praise for his work to questions about her life. He’s not taken with himself, and THAT is a virtue that is its own kind of resistance to the culture of greed and fame. Patience grow fatigued quickly without a deeper anchor and courage can turn mad without the sense of humility grounded in a less pretentious view of our own importance to history.

  5. I focus on history too and I try to console myself with the understanding that this too, shall pass. All things go around and come around. But I also wonder if i will live long enough to see it come around. I would like this to not be my last stage political encounter. I trust history and I trust that all will be — eventually — well.

  6. Thank you for a valuable next addition (and edition) to my reading list. I’m reading the middle volume of William Manchester’s biography of Winston Churchill, “Alone: 1932-1940,” and it is like a suspense story… not a “whodunit” but a “howdhedoit”, I guess. I’ll keep McCullough’s books in mind once I get Winston out of this mess… er, when I finish the book.

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