Shall It Be Sustained?

Last Fourth of July,  Cassandra had an excellent post:  Independence in an Age of Cynicism.  I recommend the entire post and all the links; read especially the third linked essay, which Cass wrote in 2008:  Why I Am Patriotic: a Love Letter to America.

For the last several years, on July 4th I’ve posted an excerpt from Stephen Vincent Benet’s poem Listen to the People.  The title I’ve used for these posts prior to 2013 was It Shall Be Sustained, which is from the last line of Benet’s poem.


This is Independence Day,
Fourth of July, the day we mean to keep,
Whatever happens and whatever falls
Out of a sky grown strange;
This is firecracker day for sunburnt kids,
The day of the parade,
Slambanging down the street.
Listen to the parade!
There’s J. K. Burney’s float,
Red-white-and-blue crepe-paper on the wheels,
The Fire Department and the local Grange,
There are the pretty girls with their hair curled
Who represent the Thirteen Colonies,
The Spirit of East Greenwich, Betsy Ross,
Democracy, or just some pretty girls.
There are the veterans and the Legion Post
(Their feet are going to hurt when they get home),
The band, the flag, the band, the usual crowd,
Good-humored, watching, hot,
Silent a second as the flag goes by,
Kidding the local cop and eating popsicles,
Jack Brown and Rosie Shapiro and Dan Shay,
Paul Bunchick and the Greek who runs the Greek’s,
The black-eyed children out of Sicily,
The girls who giggle and the boys who push,
All of them there and all of them a nation.
And, afterwards,
There’ll be ice-cream and fireworks and a speech
By somebody the Honorable Who,
The lovers will pair off in the kind dark
And Tessie Jones, our honor-graduate,
Will read the declaration.
That’s how it is. It’s always been that way.
That’s our Fourth of July, through war and peace,
That’s our fourth of July.

And a lean farmer on a stony farm
Came home from mowing, buttoned up his shirt
And walked ten miles to town.
Musket in hand.
He didn’t know the sky was falling down
And, it may be, he didn’t know so much.
But people oughtn’t to be pushed around
By kings or any such.
A workman in the city dropped his tools.
An ordinary, small-town kind of man
Found himself standing in the April sun,
One of a ragged line
Against the skilled professionals of war,
The matchless infantry who could not fail,
Not for the profit, not to conquer worlds,
Not for the pomp or the heroic tale
But first, and principally, since he was sore.
They could do things in quite a lot of places.
They shouldn’t do them here, in Lexington.

He looked around and saw his neighbors’ faces

The poem is very long, and is worth reading in full. The full text was published in Life Magazine; it is online here. The Life text may be a little difficult to read; I posted an excerpt which is considerably longer than the above here.

Benet’s poem ends with these words:

We made it and we make it and it’s ours
We shall maintain it. It shall be sustained


But shall it?

7 thoughts on “Shall It Be Sustained?”

  1. The USA sustained a recognizable version of the original organization for more than two centuries — rather more than most human organizations do. Admittedly a good fraction of the original principles were abandoned (explicitly, or by gross redefinition, or by implicitly being treated as dead letters), and that makes the accomplishment less impressive than it could be But that’s not a special deficiency of the USA: few human institutions manage to avoid such change over their first two centuries, even ordinary historical centuries which don’t include the Industrial Revolution turning the economic and military world upside down several times. And the practical success of the organization is really, really impressive. How many organizations change the ground rules of history as much as the USA did, as one of the prime movers in the Industrial Revolution, and of the later parts of the scientific revolution? And relatedly, the USA has very few rivals to its success in bringing imperfect but still *really* impressive levels of prosperity and peace to its ordinary stakeholders, and even fewer rivals in extending that to lots of outsiders who chose to join in.

    I do admit to feeling antsy about the current situation. “The dismission of the two brothers is a great epoch in the reign of James.”:-| But even if we turn out to be on track for some spectacular failure mode in 2016 or in August or on Tuesday or whenever, vast doom pits deep underground full of boots stomping in human faces forever while crazed self-replicating killer drones swarm over radioactive ash drifts infested with genetically engineered plagues, the two centuries and change so far were a really impressive run.

    (And from a less famous author, JWCjr: “History doesn’t always repeat itself — sometimes it just screams ‘Why don’t you listen to what I’m telling you?!?’ and lets fly with a club.” The dispensing power used on an industrial scale to extend legal power selectively to one’s supporters, with grossly arbitrary differences in treatment of supporting groups vs. rival groups justified by rhetoric of universal tolerance? Check. The executive increasingly encroaching on the legislature’s power of the purse? Check. Much-more-than-normal executive electing-a-new-people activity? Check. Remarkably strong influence of historically unfriendly foreign powers on the domestic executive? Check. Executive prone to making noises and gestures favoring unpopular international authority over relatively popular local governing institutions that, as a prerequisite for his office, he took an oath to uphold? Check. But this time is different, because at least we don’t yet have the ruling dynasty of Singapore leveraging their economic outperformance into a politically viable dynastic claim.:-)

  2. “Shall It Be Sustained?”

    How was it established and periodically maintained?

    We aren’t talking our way out of this.

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