“The true grit of innovative democratic government determined to make all Americans equal defines the nation. We think too easily that true grit is only about individualism.”
The development of government — more precisely, a sense of community obligation and possibility — is the best example of true grit in America. This, I grant, is not an easy case to make today. We require historical knowledge but also historical imagination to get at the truth, and the latter is more difficult to acquire than it may seem. We are too often defenseless against the onslaught of contemporary culture and myth. Movies romanticize outlaws, and some economists exaggerate the blessings of laissez-faire. These influence our sense of what the past must have been like.
It is particularly difficult for a person to gain a sense of the concrete purposes and duties of government a century ago when government today, we believe, is so much more present in our lives, hidden behind seemingly monolithic buildings in our cities and grand neoclassical structures in Washington.
But is it truly more present?
True grit in America, I’d have to guess, is roughly equivalent in most Americans’ minds to “rugged individualism.” It is compelling to believe that going it alone against the forces of both nature and decadent civilization, epitomized by city life, made America great. Thus we adore the explorer and the cowboy, the entrepreneur and the thief, the lure of going west and the poisons of the stultifying east. Of thieves, we have a remarkable adoration. They are our mavericks. We are completely comfortable with Marlon Brando as a gallant mafia chieftain and Sterling Hayden as a corrupt police captain in the Godfather movies.
But let us take one example of real “true grit” in American history: the role of American women in the Wyoming Territory. In the second half of the 1800s, the nation’s far west was being developed. In the mid-1800s, as Wyoming was carved out of other territories, women in particular demanded that schools be built for their children. They demanded law and order to make their town life wholesome and to protect their children, especially as itinerant railroad workers temporarily inhabited towns and took to heavy drinking in their few hours of leisure. It took true grit to settle these towns, and it was done through people getting together to form government. Women in Wyoming demanded and won the vote by 1869. They built their schools and hired lawmen. Some became justices of the peace and one or two even became sheriffs. Thus through government they built their lives, their families, and their dreams. Even in statehood the tradition continued; Wyoming elected America’s first female governor in 1924.
Communities were built across America in much the same way, not always with women playing a leading part, but always by people getting together to form government to build roads, maintain law and order, protect commerce, and get their children educated. On the national stage, the same was true. We think of Thomas Jefferson as the nation’s great laissez-faire president. But foremost in Jefferson’s mind was making land readily available for Americans in an agricultural economy. He not only bought the Louisiana Territory from France despite intense political opposition — Alexander Hamilton thought it would be hard to control such an immense area — but he and other leaders, even before his presidency, demanded that land sales be regulated to keep prices cheap and limit corruption and over-speculation. On each grant there would also be a schoolhouse.
Was government, even though small by modern standards, present in the lives of early Americans? Yes. They demanded it because they needed it to coordinate the many avenues of life, to provide law and its enforcement, to make investments in education and transport, and to make them secure.
It took true grit to build the nation’s first canals, for example. It was accomplished by political leaders like DeWitt Clinton in New York City, who got local government to raise the money and initiate and oversee the projects. Thus, the Erie Canal made New York City a boom town.
Imagine the effort required to build a free primary school system for America’s children. Political battles to keep education private were intense. Remarkable leaders, foremost among them Horace Mann of Massachusetts, fought hard to make education free and available to all. By 1850, America sent more school-age children to school than France or England, nourishing both its democracy and its economy.
There are analogous examples of true grit in modern America. Racially integrating schools and other spheres of public life required the courage of a long list of African American and other activists, from Rosa Parks to Martin Luther King, Jr. Today, countless businesses pay $2 or $3 an hour for help, violating labor laws around the country. People with true grit are fighting these legal violations admirably. Gender discrimination requires battle after battle to minimize.
Yes, true grit is of course about individual trials against the mob, against government, against religious persecution. It is about valor in war and it is about individual responsibility. But it is also importantly about forming communities of action to change society and protect rights. It is not about making life easy for people but about making opportunity available and inherent disadvantage obsolete.
The true grit of innovative democratic government determined to make all Americans equal defines the nation. We think too easily that true grit is only about individualism. It is even more so about working together for a just, even vital cause. That is called government.
Jeff Madrick is editor of Challenge magazine, senior fellow of the New School’s Schwartz Center for Economic Policy Analysis, and author most recently of The Case for Big Government (Princeton University Press).