On July 10, 1778, at the height of the Revolutionary War, there was a picnic in Paterson, NJ right by the Paterson Falls. George Washington, the Marquis de Lafayette and Alexander Hamilton were present. We are told of a “modest repast” of cold ham, tongue and biscuits. It turns out that none of these great men kept kosher.
Three years later, in 1791, Hamilton was President Washington’s Secretary of the Treasury. He started the Society for Establishing Useful Manufactures in Paterson, tapping the great power of the Falls to transform Paterson into a manufacturing hub. According to the historic marker on his statue, “Alexander Hamilton envisioned the great potential power of these scenic falls for industrial development.” Today, those two ideas remain linked — a freedom-loving people must have a strong economy. A robust economy allows America to be the most benevolent nation in history.
For a time, I celebrated the Fourth of July more out of habit than deep conviction. That changed for me when I lived in Britain for eleven years as Rabbi to the students of Oxford. I came to realize that what made America special is its eternal optimism and rugged individualism. Britain, much like the rest of Europe, is still encumbered by a legacy of Kings and Queens, Dukes and Counts, a tiered society which, though much more equal today, still seems stratified according to social status.
This has led, at times, to deep cynicism. In Britain, your status was determined by your birth. So there was nothing you could do when you encountered the lord of the manor. You could not be him so the option that presented itself was to resent him, an emotion strongly captured in the attitude of so many ‘servants’ in the monster British hit Downton Abbey.
But in America a man could raise himself up by the sweat of his brow. It is not birth but deed that could make the difference. Why be jealous or cynical. You see someone successful–work hard and that will be you. In fact, the existence of accomplished people with compelling stories does not diminish you but inspires you to emulate the path they have trodden.
For the first time in my memory it seems that this may be changing. I’m surprised today that some would punish those who still dream.
I don’t know what Mitt Romney did at Bain. But I do know that it’s not a crime to be rich. And yes, I agree. Riches should never be narrowly or physically defined. Life presents a variety of riches, from the transcendent to the merely material. As a father of nine I am blessed, thank God, with the finest riches life can bestow and that no money can buy. But with blessing comes added responsbilitity. A large family requires resources It’s no sin to work hard to provide your family with a decent life.
I am not immune to jealousy and I sometimes find myself being critical of those who have much easier financial lives than me. Indeed, since I have never put making money as one of my foremost priorities – my own vices lie far more in the search for recognition than wealth – I find myself sometimes looking down at those who do as shallow and beneath me. But I have to quickly remind myself that doing so betrays not just my own insecurities but also the American values that I hold so dear. This is a land of opportunity. It is a land that rewards hard work and risk. Everyone has a gift, everyone has something to contribute. And rather than wasting my time being jealous of the wealthy and the more materially successful, I am far better off working hard to maximize my own potential.
The new cynicism at success is misguided not only because it has us focusing on others more than ourselves. It is misguided because it diminishes the value of exertion and hard work.
When John Kennedy told us to ask not what our country could do for us but what we could do for our country, he was extolling the virtue of work, participation and giving. A reversal of his healthy ethic is growing, with so many focused far more on entitlements. What can our government give us. What can our country do for us. What can we take from the system.
All this has led to an economy burdened by staggering debt, shackling the very potential of our nation. How did we arrive at a place where debt is something like eighty percent of our gross domestic product?
It has to do with a loss of those two fundamental American ideas. Our optimism is eroding and with it, our belief in rugged individualism.
The more our government gives us the less we ourselves will produce.
When I first got married the Hassidic custom was for parents and in-laws to support you and your wife for a year while you studied. Many of my married friends had significant help from parents. But I did not come from a Hassidic background. My wife and I were on our own. We had almost no money and it put immense pressure on us during our first year. But I had to study in order to complete my Rabbinic degree. I was depressed as financial oblivion stared us in the face. But I had an idea for a book and I approached a publisher who paid me a modest amount to write it. I resented my friends. They would come home from a full day of study and they would spend quiet time with their wives. I came home, ate dinner with my wife, and then sat in front of a computer writing the book so I could pay our rent.
But here we are, nearly twenty-five years later. You’re reading this essay because I pushed myself to write back then. It’s become a lifelong passion.
They say that ‘necessity is the mother of invention.’ And the necessity of taming the American wilderness bred a rugged American pioneering spirit that even today remains the envy of the world.
Happy birthday, America. Never forget how lucky we are to live in the greatest country this world has ever known.
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach is the Republican Congressional Nominee in New Jersey’s Ninth Congressional District. His most recent book is “Kosher Jesus” and his website is www.shmuleyforcongress.com. Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.
Photo credit: Francisco Diez