Old virtues for a new year

This is not going to be another recital of what happened in the old year and what may happen in the new year. Rather it is a try at taking counsel from the past to define some qualities of human endeavor that need to be reborn for the challenges of today and tomorrow.

America is an instructive case history. As The Times of London recently editorialized, "Foreigners have always tried to divine their future from the United States, some with hope and some with foreboding." What can Americans do to increase the hope and decrease the foreboding?

The short answer is to adapt for present use those traditional "American" characteristics which were actually drawm from many national and ethnic strains but flourished in the soil of the New World.

Three centuries ago the colonists in America were starting a new year that would include a singpost toward democratic government. In 1681 William Penn promised settlers on his land grant that they would have laws of their own making.

Two centuries ago the new year would witness a long Continental Congress fight against inflation -- yes, even before the revolution was over. And in the fall of 1781 the British troops would lay down their arms at Yorktown while their bands blared out "The World Turned Upside Down." If the world looks upside down in a different way in 1981, what with so many additional independent nations complicating things, there is no reason that others cannot cope in their own way with uncharted territories as the Americans did.

One century ago the new year would see electric lights brought to the streets of Philadelphia, the last spike driven into the railroad linking New Orleans and the Pacific, the movement begun to remedy the plight of the American Indian.

And what were writers writing about in the old years before these new years -- as so many in 1980 have been writing with an eye to the future?

Consider 1780. That was when Thomas Pownall, from experience both in the British Parliament and the governorship of Massachusetts, analyzed American qualities of the sort that need to be applied to the problems of 1981. He speaks of the "inquisitiveness" of Americans, a "turn of inquiry and investigation." Now, as old industries fade and new ones rise in various countries, there remains a premium on inquiring minds, on R&D (research and development) in current jargon, and on the governmental and educational policies to foster and release them.

To cite what Pownall identified all those years ago and what America is still striving toward: "In a country like this, where every man has the full and free exertion of his powers, where every man may acquire any share of the good things thereof, or of interest and power which his spirit can work him up to -- there, an unabated application of the powers of individuals and a perpetual struggle of their spirits sharpens their wits and gives constant training to the mind."

Such vitality may be "liable . . . to many disorders, many dangerous diseases ," as Pownall went on. But America can now, as then, "struggle, by the vigor of internal healing principles of life, against those evils and surmount them."

In the mass media age it is well to remember those settlers who "reason not from what they hear but from what they see and feel." In the age of trying to make balanced use of the environment, think of them not fixing a step "but where use marks the ground" and "where truth and nature lead hand in hand."

Or consider 1880. That was when Sidney Lanier wrote about a "new South" almost as if there were a Sunbelt story to be told then, too. To him the new South meant small farming, not the burst of industrial activity seen in the Sunbelt today. But small farming was more than tilling the soil, it was a kind of metaphor for the qualities required in addition to those represented by the mushrooming of corporate enterprise which he also observed. To him the nation had to have both a "spirit of control" as seen in corporation management and a "spirit of independence" as embodied by the small farmers.Surely these qualities as adapted for today are still necessary, whether within the present diversity of the United States or on the world stage of industrial and developing countries.

Note how Lanier sums up that traditional practicality which is more than ever needed in days when all resources must be used wisely: "Whatever crop we hope to reap in the future -- whether it be a crop of poems, of paintings, of symphonies , of constitutional safeguards, or virtuous behaviors, of religous exaltations -- we have got to bring it out of the ground with palpable plows and with plain farmer's forethought."

Taking a page from these bygone centuries, everyone can help toward that happiest of new years we wish to all right now.

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