From the Relief Society Magazine, September 1940 –
We Find America
By Mary Ek Knowles
Martha Taylor looked up from her knitting as her son, Jerry, and Archie, Bill, and Wade, young men from his class, came noisily down the stairs and through the hall to the front door. As she caught snatches of their conversation, her gray eyes became troubled. “… totalitarian government … dictatorship … Marxian theory …” Somehow, it seemed to Martha that that was all she had heard them talking about for the past six months.
Jerry’s voice rose suddenly above the rest. “The totalitarian type of government has advantages the American form of government never could offer, that’s a sure thing!” Then there was the sharp bang of the front screen, and all was quiet.
Martha reached over and tugged at her husband’s sleeve. “Will, did you hear what Jerry said?”
Will Taylor aroused himself from the depths of the evening paper. “Hm?” he asked, looking at her over his glasses.
“It’s Jerry, Will. he worries me. This new society he’s joined, the radical talk – we should do something about it!”
“Now, Martha …” Will opened the newspaper and folded it again at the sports section. “All boys are that way. Get old enough to shave and they look around for a way to cure all the ills of the world.” He chuckled. “Me, I belonged to a group when I was Jerry’s age. ‘Knights of the Morning’ we called it.”
“But this is different, Will. It frightens me. Can’t we …”
“Now, Martha,” Will’s voice was almost a groan, “I’m tired. Had a hard day at the office. Let me relax now and enjoy my paper. Don’t be a calamity howler, making a mountain out of a mole-hill.” His voice dwindled off, and he lapsed into silence, his attention centered on the paper.
Martha picked up the front section of the paper which had slipped from Will’s lap, and her eyes scanned the headlines; then, she looked around her pleasant living room. Evelyn, her twelve-year-old daughter, was lying on the sofa eating apples and reading a book; Patsy and Lin were playing with their toys by the fireplace. The voice of Harold, the ten-year-old, sounded outside the open window, where he and his playmates were playing a game.
Her eyes returned again to the pictures on the front page. Just so, Martha thought uneasily, they, the people of the nations of Europe, must have spent many a quiet evening at home, smug and contented, lulled to inactivity by a sense of false security, until the enemy of war was pounding at their gates. Martha found herself interpreting the day’s events in terms of real people, real homes, real cities. And the sad faces of the refugee women and children that gazed back at her from the paper were suffering no less than her own little family would suffer under the same circumstances.
Jerry’s parting remark came back to her. He was wrong, of course. How could any form of government offer more than the democratic form? Or was he right? Had she trusted too much to memory? Were the privileges and liberties of her country imagined?
Martha placed her knitting and the newspaper on the table at the side of the chair and went to the bookcase at the end of the room.
After a patient search, she found a copy of The Declaration of Independence and The Constitution of the United States in the back of an American history book.
Long after the family was in bed, Martha sat in her chair beneath the lamp.
“Declaration of Independence,” she read. “In Congress, July 4, 1776. When in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another … We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness …”
As simply stated as that, yet there was a depth, a ring to the words more impressive than the roll of drums or the shrill of trumpets.
Martha read through to the end of the valuable document; and as she read, she visioned not cold, historical figures in a dim past but a group of struggling colonies persecuted to the limit of human endurance, rising up against a powerful nation, ready to uphold the freedom they held dear. She marveled at their courage and their strength.
She turned the page to the Constitution, and as she read, the fear that had been in her heart vanished. The Constitution was the same as she had remembered it. It assured “a government of the people, by the people, for the people,” so constructed that no one man should rule as dictator. Surely, Jerry and his friends had not studied their Constitution! Because the Constitution had always been theirs, it had faded into the realm of commonplace things, there was about it none of the glamour, the adventure surrounding a new and untried plan.
Three times Martha read through “The Bill of Rights” – a bill guaranteeing certain rights, among which were liberty of speech and press, immunity from arbitrary arrests …
For these high ideals, these inalienable rights, a courageous people had fought and died, and now a new generation had arisen, a generation which had forgotten the bloody footprints in the snow at Valley Forge, a generation which was wondering if, after all, another form of government might not be better.
The thought came to Martha, “We have had freedom and liberty handed to us on a silver platter. It has come too easy. We are like pampered children toying with a priceless jewel the value of which we have no conception.”
She had a sudden desire, a great hunger to know more of her country. Not from text-books, but from seeing the people themselves and how they lived under the democratic form of government.
Hamilton was a representative American city. What better way to know America than to know her own home town. Excitedly, Martha made plans. She could get Amelia Banks to tend the children and prepare the meals. She would be free to wander where she would for the whole day.
Martha had been born and reared in Hamilton. But she had never known her city – not really. She had been content with her own circle of friends, blind and indifferent to the lives of those about her. At some time or other in her forty years of life she must have been on every street in the city. But she had never seen the houses, and the people, and the children. The streets had been a means of getting somewhere, a distance between stop signs. As Martha drove slowly about the city that late September day, or parked her car and walked leisurely block after block, she saw things she had never seen before. “We hurry too much,” she thought almost sadly. “We don’t have time to live and enjoy life.”
For the first time in her life, Martha found herself interpreting houses in the terms of homes where men, women, and children worked and played, wept and laughed, faced problems much the same as those she and her family faced.
Several things impressed Martha in that day’s adventure. One was the wealth of “necessities” which in any other country would be considered “luxuries.” Through open doors, she glimpsed stream-lined radios, refrigerators, stoves, washers. In the driveway of even the most humble house was an automobile.
The other things which impressed Martha were the freedom of speech, and the freedom to worship as one pleased. The former showed itself in many ways; the latter, in the many churches she saw as she drove about. She passed two men having a spirited debate on the merits and demerits of the two candidates in the coming presidential election. At a newsstand, she purchased a paper, read of the expose of the dishonest dealings of a group of politicians. She stood in the city park and listened to a “soap-box orator” voice his radical views. As she listened, she wondered, “Is this wise? Shouldn’t this be stopped?” Then the thought came to her, “A government cannot legislate against the morals of its people. They must choose for themselves, and only through proper education will they know the right choice.”
Parents, Martha decided, had a greater duty toward their children than merely feeding and clothing them. From the cradle, they should be taught love of country.
Her path took her at last to the foreign section of the city. Here she again parked her car and walked slowly down the crowded streets. America, indeed, was the melting pot of the world. People of all nationalities and races lived together under one flag.
She ate a delicious lunch of soup and salad in a friendly little downstairs restaurant and entered into conversation with the swarthy-faced proprietor.
“Are you glad you are an American?” she asked him.
Tony Serpentine placed the bowl of hot soup on the table in front of her. “Am I glad I’m an American, lady!” he said, holding his plump hands out expressively. “Fifteen years I am American citizen, and I love her! Why shouldn’t I? Here I am a free man. Mr. Serpentine I am. Here I come and go as I please. Here I have a say who shall be mayor, who shall be governor, who shall be the Big Boss even. Here my vote is as good as Mr. Henry Ford’s or Mr. J.P. Morgan’s. Isn’t that wonderful!”
Martha lowered her eyes before such enthusiasm. She, an American-born citizen, whose forefathers had fought for freedom, whose mother had fought for women’s right to vote, had not even bothered to go to the polls because she was so busy and the weather had been wet and miserable. Again she thought, “These privileges have come too easy to us; we don’t appreciate them.”
Toward the end of the day, Martha found herself in the slums of the city. Here indeed were poverty and dirt – and silk stockings and permanents. She pondered over that for a long moment. Poverty and dirt – silk stockings and permanents! Even here were “necessities” that in any other nation would be considered “luxuries.”
America had her share of greed, of poverty, of injustice, Martha realized. But she was a young country. Only one hundred and sixty-four years had passed since the signing of The Declaration of Independence. In that comparatively short time, America was accomplishing the greatest experiment of all time – the blending of all races. There was still much to be done before the ideals of the American forefathers became a reality, but there was nothing that was impossible if the energies of the people were bent toward the common good.
A government of the people, by the people, for the people. The government then could be no stronger, no more perfect than the people who composed it. The government was the people!
It was well, then, Martha thought soberly, for America to turn her eyes inward and look to herself. She saw America as a rich nation, a wasteful nation, who needed, as Martha’s pioneer grandfather used to say, to “Tighten your belt, and put your shoulder to the wheel.”
But first, Martha realized, the change must come in the individual families. She remembered how she had coaxed Lin at breakfast that morning. “Eat your cereal, darling, that’s a good boy. Come now. Eat so you’ll be a big, strong boy.” She saw for the first time that her own family was overfed, overpampered. American mothers could well start disciplining their children.
It was almost dark when Martha arrived home. The family was watching anxiously for her.
“Where have you been?” Will asked.
Martha did not speak for a moment, and her gray eyes lingered lovingly, almost fearfully, on each of the family group.
“Where have I been?” she asked at last. “I’ve been finding America. I’ve seen a country where hundreds of religious faiths exist in peace. I’ve seen a country where people of many nationalities, with all their different customs, ideals, peculiarities, live under one flag, united in the principles of freedom and liberty. I’ve seen a nation of fine homes, free public schools, free libraries, splendid buildings. I’ve seen a country where even the poor have ‘luxuries.’” She turned to Jerry. “Match that in any other type of government!” A sharp little edge crept into her voice, and Jerry looked up quickly. The feeling of impatience turned to one of mingled fears and prayer.
“Upon the youth of the land,” she said, “depends the future of America, for they are the men and women of tomorrow.”
She handed Jerry the history book she had studied the night before. “The Constitution of the Untied States is in this book,” she said. “All I ask is that you and your friends study it as carefully as you have studied the other forms of government. I know you will find there are no reforms, no beneficial changes that cannot be accomplished right here in our own country, under our own flag.
“Then after you have studied it, think America, talk America, LOVE AMERICA, lest the cherished birthright of freedom and liberty be taken from you!”
The solemn quiet of the little group was more impressive than the clapping of a thousand hands.