Editorial: The Spirit of the Fourth

Old-fashioned Fourth of July celebrations here in Rappahannock County seem to harken back to happier times for our nation. But nostalgia can play tricks with memory and reality.

As the popular historian David McCullough pointed out in a recent interview, Americans’ traditional optimistic, can-do temperament has been concomitant with anxiety and pessimism. Just a few short years after adopting the Constitution, McCullough pointed out, even one of the Founding Fathers, John Adams, worried that we were “a nation in decline.”

So now in the country’s history, when it seems the country’s governing consensus has completely broken down — when even after a year of back-and-forth in Congress, a traditionally uncontroversial Farm Bill can’t even get passed — it is time to remember and renew the optimistic and trusting side of the American character.

That means compromise. Remember, there would have been no U.S. Constitution, and its Bill of Rights, without the good-faith spirit of compromise demonstrated by the original 13 colonies’ representatives, though often personally and ideologically antagonistic and regionally divided.

It is perhaps fitting that this Fourth of July marks the 150th anniversary of the conclusion of the Battle of Gettysburg, for the despair currently gripping the nation probably hasn’t been matched since the Civil War. The Dust Bowl, the Great Depression, even our recent Great Recession, though daunting, were overcome by the courage and common purpose of the American people.

But when We the People are unable to work together toward the common good, as is happening now and as happened with the Civil War, despair sets in. “It’s Even Worse Than You Think” is the title of one recent book on the dysfunction of Congress and our ability no longer to govern ourselves.

Maybe from this despair — in the best, most optimistic, American tradition — will be awakened, as Lincoln so eloquently predicted, “the better nature of our angels.”

A tiny, concrete step in that direction would be for the House of Representatives to pass a Farm Bill like the one the Senate already passed last summer: lessening subsidies for industrial agriculture’s polluting mega-farms and encouraging Virginia’s small and organic farmers as well as its farm-to-food school programs. Be optimistic: contact our congressman, Rep. Robert Hurt.

Walter Nicklin