The Spirit Of America

We Americans, charter members of a get-with-it-now society, don't have much use for history. But we should. In this new year, we face momentous uncertainties: war (or wars), a weak economy. Although the past cannot foretell the future, history--even history seemingly unrelated to our present troubles--offers a relevant lesson for today. It attests to America's enduring resilience in the face of change and adversity.

Let's go back a century. One of the forgotten masterpieces of American journalism is "Our Times," a six-volume survey of national life from 1900 to 1925 by Mark Sullivan. He covered almost everything: politics, fashion, lifestyles, literature. In his era, America first projected its power onto the global stage. In 1904, Teddy Roosevelt began construction of the Panama Canal; in 1907, he sent his Great White Fleet of battleships around the world. But Sullivan's major theme was the rapidity of social and economic change.

In 1900, he noted, the country had only about 8,000 cars and "less than 10 miles of concrete road." Moreover, there was "no such word as the radio, for that was yet twenty years from coming; nor 'movie,' for that too was still mainly of the future." Telephones also were rare. There was one for every 66 people.

Of course, Sullivan couldn't know the half of it. The Census Bureau recently issued a fascinating report, "Demographic Trends in the 20th Century." It says little about science, technology or the economy. Still, the population changes it depicts are eyepopping. For starters, we've grown enormously. In 1900, the United States had 76 million people, less than a third of the 281 million in 2000. Expansion also redistributed economic and political power.

A century ago the West and South were virtually vassals to the Northeast and Midwest, which had most of the people and power. In 1900, the West--a region starting with Montana, Wyoming, Colorado and New Mexico--had only 5 percent of the population; now it has 23 percent. In 1900, New York was the largest state with 7 million people; California was 21st with 1.5 million. In 2000, California was first with 34 million, New York third with 19 million. (Texas was second with 21 million.)

Nor was that all:

OK. But what's the big deal? We all know what wrought these upheavals: new technologies (air conditioning, air travel, telephones, antibiotics, contraception); rising prosperity; new social attitudes (feminism, less racial discrimination). But other countries have experienced similar changes. Cars and antibiotics aren't U.S. monopolies. More important: a lot of bad stuff occurred along the way to these generally good social results. Americans fought in two world wars, Korea and Vietnam; the Great Depression and numerous recessions marred prosperity; there's been continuous racial conflict.

All true. But what distinguishes the United States is this: through it all, we've retained our economic vitality and political coherence. Other countries don't cope so well with change. In the 19th century, Britain was the world's major power. It is no more. Only a decade ago Japan and Germany seemed poised to become the world's economic leaders. They are now in eclipse. Twenty years ago the Soviet Union was a superpower. Russia isn't now. Each country has a different story, but each faltered in the face of change.

Something gives the United States an edge. It may be national character. In "Our Times," Sullivan asked what the country's "distinctive characteristics" were. Here are some of his answers: "freedom of opportunity for the individual"; a "zeal for universal education"; "a determined faith in [representative democracy]"; "adaptiveness, a willingness... to dismiss the old and try the new"; "a responsiveness to idealism"; "independence of spirit." Similar phrases are used today.

History offers no guarantees. We cannot know what will happen in 2003. But history does suggest that there's something to that worn cliche, "the American spirit." The economic, social and geopolitical landscape shifts, but certain national qualities endure. We accommodate change and sometimes embrace it. Confronted with hard times, Americans often summon forth astonishing recuperative powers. In a year fraught with hazards, history's lesson may provide some small comfort.