The Independence Day season is a time to ask a hard question.
Could the Americans of today have won the Revolutionary War—and would they even have wanted to fight it?
Yet no words, not even Jefferson’s, could persuade the British to set us free.
That was the task of arms.
Having a country means being ready to fight for it.
But Americans had taken up their muskets for many reasons—some of them economic, some of them local, some of them religious or ideological.
What the Continental Congress did, in authorizing the words that Jefferson wrote to speak for the nation, was to subsume all particular grievances and arguments into a single moral case, expressed in the strongest legal and philosophical language of the day.
The head follows the heart—but when the head doubts, the heart wavers, too.
The Declaration of Independence dispelled any doubt in the patriot’s soul.
Americans knew how to shoot, they could organize themselves on the battlefield and in camp, and they were prepared for the privations of war.
Body and spirit, they were ready to fight until they won.
Few Americans of military age are ready today.
A Wall Street Journal report notes that, according to the Department of Defense, “77% of American youth are disqualified from military service due to a lack of physical fitness, low test scores, criminal records including drug use or other problems.”
In any generation, there are young men and women whose individual character flaws are their own fault.
But when an entire generation is as poorly prepared for the responsibilities of citizenship as today’s young people are—including the ultimate responsibility of defending the nation—the blame falls heaviest on their elders.
Our institutions shaped this youth cohort, and the leaders at the top of our institutions utterly failed them.
The message from our schools and universities, media and political organizations, and even a startling number of hospitals and churches is that life is mostly about feeling good in the quickest and easiest way possible.
If there are personal consequences from living like this—obesity, for example, or drug addiction and a criminal record—the task of society is to alleviate such self-inflicted harm, through body-positive propaganda, “safe” injection sites, and criminal justice reform.
If Americans are lonely or sad, there’s a pill or a porn site for them. Nobody will judge.
Hedonism is a peril every successful society runs.
What’s unusual about American society in the 21st century isn’t our short-term living so much as the fury aimed at anyone or anything that rebukes it.
That includes fury at our own past—even at statues of men who put country and honor above personal gratification.
Ben Franklin was nobody’s idea of a puritan.
And if George Washington was a man of impeccable discipline, he was also a psychological realist.
In letters to Congress, Washington took pains to remind legislators to pay their army—for as powerful as patriotism was, self-interest, too, had to be enlisted in the service of America’s military needs.
The heroes of independence and the framers of our Constitution understood human nature in full: pleasure and duty, self-interest and patriotism.
They weren’t counting on perfection, and neither can we.
But they struck a balance between individuals as they are, with their inevitable flaws, and the needs of the nation, particularly in war.
Such a balance is repugnant to the liberal leadership of our institutions today: It’s too judgmental. It suggests some people lead better lives than others.
So a generation has been raised to prefer comfort to glory, and now it’s unsuited for service.
Instead of looking up to the heroes of independence, this generation has been taught to feel remote from or even hostile to them.
And this historical, and emotional, revisionism hasn’t made our young people happier; it’s only made them worse citizens.
Moral habits make a people fit to fight—and the ideas we teach shape those habits.
England’s new king, Charles III, isn’t about to pick up where George III left off.
But we wouldn’t have won our independence some 240 years ago with a citizenry molded by the ideas that govern our culture today.
And in the wars of the future, an enemy may find that we have defeated ourselves long before we reach the battlefield.
Our military recruitment problem is only a symptom of a deadlier disease—the loss of what made us a free people in the first place.
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