>–the grandson of an English probably-criminal who, with his brothers, was so good at getting folks irate that they got chased out of TWO countries and changed their names when they got to the US (and changed himself so much that his son was a Presbyterian minister)– I give you an article by an English gentleman, on the nation that I love.
Americans will die for liberty
By Andrew Gimson
As we took off from London for New York a few days ago, our three over-excited children asked if there was any chance of the plane being blown up. I explained that the likelihood of that happening was virtually zero, and wondered how we were going to maintain some semblance of order during the flight. One did not wish the sedate American passengers by whom we were surrounded to form the impression that British parents are unable or unwilling to impart the rudiments of good manners.
Luckily, American Airlines had provided a screen on the back of the seat in front of one’s own, on which one could watch old movies. There was also a map showing how far we had gone, on which places of interest were marked. It began by showing only two places: London and Chartwell.
The Americans are more old-fashioned than us, and what is equally admirable, they are not ashamed of being old-fashioned. They know Churchill was a great man, so they put his house on the map. There is a kind of Englishman to whom this sort of behaviour seems painfully unsophisticated.
We are inclined, in our snobbish way, to dismiss the Americans as a new and vulgar people, whose civilisation has hardly risen above the level of cowboys and Indians. Yet the United States of America is actually the oldest republic in the world, with a constitution that is one of the noblest works of man. When one strips away the distracting symbols of modernity – motor cars, skyscrapers, space rockets, microchips, junk food – one finds an essentially 18th-century country. While Europe has engaged in the headlong and frankly rather immature pursuit of novelty – how many constitutions have the nations of Europe been through in this time? – the Americans have held to the ideals enunciated more than 200 years ago by their founding fathers.
The sense of entering an older country, and one with a sterner sense of purpose than is found among the flippant and inconstant Europeans, can be enjoyed even before one gets off the plane. On the immigration forms that one has to fill in, one is asked: “Have you ever been arrested or convicted for an offence or crime involving moral turpitude?” Who now would dare to pose such a question in Europe? The very word “turpitude” brings a smile, almost a sneer, to our lips.
The quiet solicitude that Americans show for the comfort of their visitors, and the tact with which they make one feel at home, can only be described as gentlemanly. These graceful manners, so often overlooked by brash European tourists, whisper the last enchantments of an earlier and more dignified age, when liberty was not confused with licence.
But lest these impressions of the United States seem unduly favourable, it should be added that the Americans have not remained in happy possession of their free constitution without cost. Thomas Jefferson warned that the tree of liberty must be watered from time to time with the blood of tyrants and patriots. To the Americans, the idea that freedom and democracy exact a cost in blood is second nature.
We went to the fine new museum in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, devoted to the American Civil War. It was the bloodiest war in American history. Americans slaughtered Americans in terrible numbers before the North prevailed. You can look up the names of soldiers on a computer, and I found to my slight surprise that a man called Joseph Gimson served on the Union side as a private in the 37th Regiment of Coloured Infantry, and was “severely and dangerously wounded” in the battle of Northeast Station on February 22, 1865.
We stood at Gettysburg, scene of the bloodiest battle of all, on a field covered with memorials to the fallen. Here Abraham Lincoln gave his great and sublimely brief address, ending with the hope “that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom – and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth”.
Again some Europeans will give an unkind smile. All this sounds so Puritan, so naïve and so self-righteous. We cannot help feeling that the Americans ought to have been able to settle their quarrel without killing each other, and, while we cannot defend the institution of slavery, we wonder whether the North had the right to impose its will by force.
These are vain quibbles. The North went to war and was victorious.
The Americans are prepared to use force in pursuit of what they regard as noble aims. It is yet another respect in which they are rather old-fashioned. They are patriots who venerate their nation and their flag.
The idea has somehow gained currency in Britain that America is an essentially peaceful nation. Quite how this notion took root, I do not know. Perhaps we were unduly impressed by the protesters against the Vietnam war.
It is an idea that cannot survive a visit to the National Museum of American History in Washington, where one is informed that the “price of freedom” is over and over again paid in blood.
The Americans’ tactics in Iraq, and their sanction for Israel’s tactics in Lebanon, have given rise to astonishment and anger in Europe. It may well be that those tactics are counter-productive, and that the Americans and Israelis need to take a different approach to these ventures if they are ever to have any hope of winning hearts and minds.
But when the Americans speak of freedom, we should not imagine, in our cynical and worldly-wise way, that they are merely using that word as a cloak for realpolitik. They are not above realpolitik, but they also mean what they say.
These formidable people think freedom is so valuable that it is worth dying for.