History, History Column

A Nation’s Character

by ©2019 Sarah Becker

A Nation’s Character

“Character, my friends, is a byproduct,” Woodrow Wilson said.  “It is produced in the great manufacture of daily duty.” Wilson, a wartime President [1914-1919], was born December 28, 1856 in Staunton, Virginia.  He was the Scotch-Irish son of Presbyterian minister Joseph Ruggles Wilson and Janet Woodrow Wilson.


Romans 5:3-4, NIV Archaeological Study Bible: “And we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God.  Not only so, but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope…”

A nation’s character, like that of an individual, is elusive,” World War II Navy and Marine Medal recipient John F. Kennedy professed in 1946.  “It is produced partly by things we have done and partly by what has been done to us.  It is the result of physical factors, intellectual factors, and spiritual factors.  It is well for us to consider our American character, for in peace, as in war, we will survive or fail according to its measure.”


“Inspired by a deeply religious sense, this country, which has ever been devoted to the dignity of man, which has ever fostered the growth of the human spirit, has always met and hurled back the challenge of those deathly philosophies of hate and despair,” Kennedy continued.  “We have defeated them in the past and we will always defeat them.”

“In 1917…the American character was stimulated by the slogans ‘War to End War’ and ‘A War to Save Democracy,’ and again the American people had as their leader a man, Woodrow Wilson, whose idealism was the traditional idealism of America,” Kennedy explained.  “To such a degree this was true he was able to say, ‘Some people call me an idealist.  Well, that is the way I know I am an American.’”

Thomas Woodrow Wilson, the 28th President of the United States, was a child of the Civil War; a pacifist who led his country into World War I, a domestic reformer who failed to fully implement the post-war League of Nations.  He remembered secession and the Civil War, Confederate President Jefferson Davis’ prison trek, Reconstruction and its 1877 end.

“I rejoice in the failure of the Confederacy,” Wilson wrote in 1880.  “The perpetuation of slavery would, beyond all question have wrecked our agricultural and commercial interests, at the same time that it supplied a fruitful source of irritation abroad.”


“It is perhaps true that the American intervention in 1917 might have been more effective if the case for American intervention had been represented on less moralistic terms,” Kennedy recollected. “As it was, the American people eventually came to look upon themselves as giving food and guns to a general cause in which all other people had material ends and in which they alone had moral ends.”

“The idealism with which we had entered the battle [WWI] made the subsequent disillusionment all the more bitter and revealed a dangerous facet to this element of the American character, for this bitterness, a direct result of inflated hopes, brought a radical change in our foreign policy and a resulting withdrawal from Europe,” Kennedy concluded.  “We failed to make the adjustment between what we had hoped to win and what we actually could win.”


By the summer of 1914 Europe was bracing for war.  President Wilson’s foreign policy was not nearly as aggressive as his domestic.   

“Have you ever read the Declaration of Independence or attended with close comprehension to the real character of it when you heard it read?” Wilson asked on July 4, 1914.  “The Declaration of Independence was a document preliminary to war.  It was a vital piece of practical business, not a piece of rhetoric.”

On August 1, 1914 Germany declared war on Russia; on France two days later.  War talk divided neutral America.

“Although we have centered counsel and action…upon the [domestic] problems…to which we addressed ourselves four years ago,” President Wilson said in his 1917 Inaugural Address, “other matters have more and more forced themselves upon our attention—matters…which, despite our wish to keep free of them, have drawn us more and more irresistibly into their own current and influence.”

In February 1917 the Germans sank 540,000 tons of Allied shipping; in March 578,000 tons, and 874,000 tons in April.  On April 6, 1917 America responded by declaring war.  The United States entered the global war on the condition that it could legitimately demand universal liberal democracy from the world.


Stopping German submarines was only part of Wilson’s predicament.  America’s once proud merchant marine had withered away.  Wilson’s 1916 shipbuilding program produced remarkable results including the 1918 Virginia Shipbuilding Corporation located in Alexandria at Jones Point along the Potomac River.  The permanent yard was constructed in 85 days, an alleged world record.


President Wilson presented his principles for peace, his Fourteen Points on January 8, 1918.  The Points included absolute freedom of navigation upon the seas, equality of trade conditions, and a general association of nations [The League of Nations].

“The settlement must be final,” President Wilson said in 1918 at Mount Vernon.  “There can be no compromise.  No halfway decision is conceivable.”

The Big Four’s peace Treaty of Versailles was resolved on June 28, 1919.  The League of Nations, which the U.S. Congress declined to join, convened in 1920.  President Wilson, a 1920 Nobel Peace Prize recipient, retired from office in 1921.  Kennedy, a cub reporter in 1945, covered the San Francisco conference that launched the United Nations.


“It is now in the postwar world that this idealism—this devotion to principle—this belief in the natural law—this deep religious conviction that this is truly God’s country and we are truly God’s people—will meet its greatest trial,” Kennedy concluded.  “Our American idealism finds itself faced by the old-world doctrine of power politics…and all this may result in a new and even more bitter disillusionment.”

2020 is a presidential election year.  “If we give Donald Trump (R-NY) eight years in the White House, he will forever and fundamentally alter the character of this nation—who we are—and I can’t stand by and watch that happen,” former Vice President and Presidential candidate Joe Biden (D-DE) said on April 25, 2019.  “The core values of this nation, our standing in the world, our very democracy everything that has made America America is at stake.”

“What are we going to do with the influence and power of this great nation?” President Wilson asked in 1914.  “Are we going to play the old role of using that power for our aggrandizement and material benefit only?…There is no man who is more interested than I am in carrying the enterprise of American business men to every quarter of the globe.”

“I am willing to get anything for an American that money and enterprise can obtain except the suppression of the rights of other men,” Wilson reminded.  “A patriotic American is…never so proud of the great flag under which he lives as when it comes to mean to other people as well as to himself a symbol of hope and liberty.”


“The way to be patriotic in America is not only to love America but to love the duty that lies nearest to our hand and know that in performing it we are serving our country,” Wilson continued.  “The members of the House and Senate who stay in hot Washington to maintain a quorum of the Houses and transact the all-important business of the Nation are doing an act of patriotism.”

To the naturalized citizen Wilson said: “Some Americans need hyphens in their names because only part of them has come over; but when the whole man has come over, heart and thought and all, the hyphen drops of its own weight out of his name.  This man was not an Irish-American; he was an Irishman who became an American.”

“My dream is that as the years go on and the world knows more and more of America it will…turn to America for those moral inspirations which lie at the basis of all freedom,” Wilson concluded, “that she puts human rights above all other rights and that her flag is the flag not only of America but humanity.”  Yet President Wilson segregated the federal government the previous year, 17 years after the U.S. Supreme Court decided in favor of the 1896 Jim Crow Car Law.


“Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty [and] it will ever be the price,” Kennedy decided.  “Wherever freedom has been in danger, Americans with a deep sense of patriotism have ever been willing to stand at Armageddon and strike a blow for liberty and the Lord.”

“I hope ever to see America among the foremost nations in examples of justice and liberality,” President George Washington said in 1790.  Liberality, as defined by The American Heritage dictionary: “open-mindedness, tolerant; favoring civil and political liberties, protection from arbitrary authority.”

“We dare not forget that we are the heirs of the first revolution,” President John F. Kennedy said on January 20, 1961.  “Let the word go forward…that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans—born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage—and unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human [and civil] rights to which this Nation has always been committed today at home and around the world.”

President Donald Trump, age 73, announced his 2020 re-election campaign in June.  The Democrats offer an unfettered field of 25 presidential candidates, ages 37-77.  Individual character: “(1) the qualities that distinguish one person from another. (2) moral or ethical strength. (3) reputation.”  Your definition of character is?

Columnist’s Note:  On June 27, 2019 E&E News reporter stated that “minorities are disproportionately exposed to air pollution from cars and trucks in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic.  It’s a grim yet unsurprising finding for environmental justice advocates, who have warned for years that low-income and minority populations bear the brunt of pollution in the United States.”  The Union of Concerned Scientists report found that African-Americans in the region are exposed to an average of 61% more air pollution from vehicles than their white counterparts.”  The Alexandria City Council passed Phase II of its Environmental Action Plan on July 9.  (OTC/Greenhouse Gases July/2019)

Sarah Becker started writing for The Economist while a graduate student in England. Similar publications followed. She joined the Crier in 1996 while serving on the Alexandria Convention and Visitors Association Board. Her interest in antiquities began as a World Bank hire, with Indonesia’s need to generate hard currency. Balinese history, i.e. tourism provided the means. The New York Times describes Becker’s book, Off Your Duffs & Up the Assets, as “a blueprint for thousands of nonprofit managers.” A former museum director, SLAM’s saving grace Sarah received Alexandria’s Salute to Women Award in 2007.  Email: abitofhistory53@gmail.com

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