The Soul of Uncle Sam


By EDGAR EUGENE ROBINSON, Byrne Professor of American History in Stanford University, California

At the Stanford University Alumni Conference Dinner on February 8, 1942

Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. VII, pp. 305-307.

THIS year, 1942, it is fifty-five years since Senator and Mrs. Stanford laid the cornerstone of the University, and sealed away for some future day the records of that occasion. When they launched this venture on May 14, 1887, their country, this United States, was one hundred years old —a century of marvellous growth. They thought of the State of California that they had come to know, as new and promising, as indeed all America had been new and promising. They looked forward. Today we look back over that fifty-five years—and that span of years comprises one-third of the life of our nation.

Yes, we need to remember—when we consider our life as a people—that we have a history of one hundred and fifty years. Not a year of that century and a half that is not marked with tragedy; not an acre of this great area we call the United States not marked by failure; not a leader in all that length of years who has not known defeat; not a generation of men and women who have not known catastrophe, calamity, and war.

Write it down that our record shows that in 1777 during the winter at Valley Forge; in 1814 at the burning of the city of Washington; in 1863 on the battle-swept hills of Gettysburg; and in 1898 among the soldiers before Santiago —many failed to realize the situation as we see it in retrospect. Some generals failed; some politicians failed; but—most of all—a great majority of the people displayed complacency, self-righteousness, lack of cooperation, inefficiency—and experienced failure for a time. We should have learned to expect this. We have always had among our people the idle and the uncertain; most of all, perhaps, those who do not care, who have not developed what we call love of country—or a "social conscience," if you prefer that modern dressing for a very old virtue. But these minorities do not represent our people—that is, when we are alert. But we doforget this. And as a whole people, we have often stumbled, been chagrined, even lost heart. The United States we love is not the brilliant caricature of the photogravure section, nor the vivid moving picture on the screen. No! The United States we know—when we do not forget—is not the result of easy living, a soft acceptance, and a nonchalant drifting. It is the product of blood and sweat and tears. For we are the product of a pioneer frontier folk and, after that, the most vigorous people in modern times. All of our people have been exposed to common danger—on every frontier. Our people are a triumph over obstacles; our nation is a victory for those who cared—the credit for those who dreamed dreams—yes—and worked to make them come true. Our people have built voluntarily, and joyously. But they have suffered, as we are to suffer in our own day.

Here again we would do well to look closely at the United States; for although the posters may cry out—"Don't read American history; help to make it"—in our hearts we know how truly Lincoln spoke when he said: "We cannot escape history." At no time are we so aware of our existence as at this time of greatest danger. We are seeing ourselves.

Is it possible that there are many who still believe that Americans of our own day have all that they want, and that they are merely on the defensive? Surely nothing in our Past would justify such a view. The task of our thoughtful leaders since we entered the World War twenty-five years ago has been to show how little we had done, how much there was to do, and how much we wanted to do it. Our whole movement has been forward. If in 1942 we were merely on the defensive, science might save us, but if we remain true to ourselves we will carry a conviction, and recreate a conviction that our cause is the advance of all humanity, as we did in 1776 and again in 1917.

It is good to look at the strong side—to contemplate the virtues, and they are many—to observe through our upcoming the greatest return in body and spirit to the greatest number of persons in the whole history of the human race. It is an inspiring story. When the late E. D. Adams was asked years ago to give a series of lectures at Yale, he chose as his title, The Power of Ideals in American History. He believed that Democracy and Nationality and Destiny and Religion were living realities to our people. They were.

For when the founders of this nation set about the formulation of policies for building a state, they were already the heirs of a great tradition. They well knew the costs of pioneering; the physical tasks involved in crossing an ocean and cutting homes in the wilderness of an unoccupied continent. Millions came to live and to die; for this was to be their home. The nation they built embodied the principles that made their lives; it had the characteristics that are accepted as America. Men were practical; they had to be. Men dreamed dreams, else why did they move West? They made conquest of the continent, but—as a people—they first made conquest of themselves.

Perhaps I may amplify this for your memories in this way. Do not linger too long in counting your Presidents great and small; nor your battles lost and won; nor diplomatic victories; nor number of immigrants who came; nor number of inventions registered; nor number of acres under cultivation; nor miles of railway laid; nor all the marvellous improvements in living that led our optimists to speak of the conquest of nature. When men do that—and no more, as so many did after the War of 1812, the War of 1865, and particularly after 1918—they have lost touch with the America that has life for all the years to come. For when the curtain was lifted on the Atlantic by the visionary Columbus, and the great movement from Europe began, it opened a thrillingchapter for the human race. Those who came were free—or wished to be free—and all wished to maintain freedom. And freedom is—first of all—a concern of the soul.

Look closely at the figure of Uncle Sam—you know the thousands of cartoons. Uncle Sam has been an embodiment of the government of the United States for more than a century. He came into being during our second war with England, but most of us know him as a creation of our own century. Look at him! He is ever quizzical, but never naive. He is determined but not aggressive, an unusual combination. He is clear-eyed and his visions are of realizable ends. He questions and acts; also a good combination. He is practical, but he is humble before the magnitude of his task. Today I speak of the dreams that lie back of those kindly, thoughtful, reassuring eyes. For the very heart of our resolve as a people is in the soul of this idealized Uncle Sam.

The soul of America—the essence of its being—has been seeking always to the West of us for the solution of our problems. We have not only been moving West; we have been feeling and thinking West. We have been a long time coming away from Europe. It is not logical to keep on looking to the West, but the American people have continued to do so even after they reached the Pacific. The basic reason we were shocked at the attack upon Pearl Harbor is that our national psychology is always to look confidently to the West, that is, to the Future, just as always we look suspiciously to the East, that is, to Europe and the Past. No event in Europe in the past twenty-five years has shaken us as this challenge at Pearl Harbor. It was treachery—yes. It was a defeat—yes. But it was more. It forced a break in our thought. It was a blow to our persistent belief in the ultimate triumph of order in the world, and our own Future.

As the history of a nation is written by those who survive a period of time—so action may be anticipated in advance by the history that has become the memory of a people. It is here that we may see the preparation of our people for this truly awful time. Opposed to the expressed aims and measures of the aggressors of our day, we need not hesitate and wonder what response there can possibly be. Woodrow Wilson did not voice a new thought in 1917—any more than Thomas Jefferson had in 1776. Our very existence and all our expressions gave the answer, because civilized man had moved to a point where he demanded a world that was safe for democracy—and a world in which life, liberty and pursuit of happiness were the ends of existence.

Let us consider the lessons of our peculiar experiences as a people. Let us now list them—as is the present custom:

1. We have built a great continental civilization in an area approximately the size of all Europe. This has been constructive; our people have done this as free men under chosen leaders. Results count.

2. We have enlarged the domain of self-government—in city, state, nation. The democracy of our people is real —socially, economically, politically. It works.

3. We have built our nation and we have governed ourselves without surrendering the right and practice of disagreement and criticism. This is a triumph of common sense.

4. We have laughed at shams, and refused to go to extremes as we find them unworkable. Greatly concerned with the Future, we think and act with an eye to the judgments of posterity.

5. We have realized a living unity. Americans know that disagreements arise and conflict continues—as long as man lives. A nation built of peoples from the ends ofthe earth knows that if unity is to be found in action it must rest in freedom of thought. Our democracy, in war as in peace, must remain a democracy. That is the lesson of our history, and our gift to the world.

These are generalizations upon our success. Exceptions prove the rule, and the intensity of our problems.

So, as we meet today in this time of acute and bitter anguish, when every full-hearted acceptance seems dangerous, when we hardly dare to trust our thoughts, it is well to remember that—despite all contemporary signs to the contrary —we Americans are prepared for the test of the days ahead —as no other people in modern history. Is it because of our physical strength and resources? These are important. Is it a test of our intellectual grasp of the problems of the intricate and baffling modern civilization? It is. Is it a test of our moral purpose? We are ready.

A nation may be tested by its choice of heroes and its aspiration in poetry and song, as well as by airplanes and its contributions to science. Who are our well-accepted heroes? What are our well-accepted maxims of conduct? Do we defy the man of ruthless power? Do we accept as our code a code of brutal attack? Our poets do not sing well of war; they do not easily look upon destruction. For we do not make war easily; we do not easily plan to kill and burn and destroy. We know it is better to build a city than to bomb it.

But beware the man or nation slow to anger. When all measures short of war are tried—when neutrality has no longer a place—then we do see that we must make war. We alter all our lives—and our thoughts. Then we plan and build and train for destruction. This is a paradox. It is construction for destruction. We will succeed. And so certain is it, that in all measures for war—it is a preparation for the years that are to follow. And note—not a Peace alone for us, but for all mankind. That, too, is American.

I am grateful and proud that this University, as befits a great public institution in a democracy, has its own heroes and its own dreams so closely paralleling the visions of our people. Our leaders have pointed the way. Stanford can recall and honor its first president, David Starr Jordan, who gave so much thought and energy and leadership toward international peace. The man who has done more than any other in all history to feed the starving is Herbert Hoover, our alumnus. Chancellor Ray Lyman Wilbur has led in movements to bring sanity and safety to a mad world. No man in our own day has done more to attempt to solve the problems of the Pacific—that we might still look to the West with confidence. These men are symbols of our belief. The Church stands at the heart of our University. The soul of humanity has been our concern.

When the darkness of our time gives way to the light of a new day that surely must come, it will be seen that the familiar landmarks of our history are, as always, our guides and our assurance. We are not a new people. Ardently do we hope, fervently do we pray that our people will be true to their own history, that they may have a rebirth of freedom; that again, in the words of Lincoln never too often repeated, "Government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth."

Let it not be said of us, that we thought of America last. Let it be said, we cherished the beloved community of memory and of hope; that, as we helped to destroy the enemies of mankind, we never lost sight of the vision that made America great.