When we Americans celebrate the Fourth of July, what word comes readily to mind? Freedom -- and rightly so. But you can’t have freedom without other virtues.
Consider one that’s particularly appropriate as we mark the signing of the Declaration of Independence: courage. Two stories illustrate it well.
The first happens in October 1986. President Reagan is in Iceland, meeting with Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev to broker an arms-control agreement that will end the dangerous standoff of “mutually assured destruction.” After days of talks, as a deal seems close, Gorbachev smiles at Reagan and says, “This all depends, of course, on you giving up SDI” (the Strategic Defense Initiative, missile defense).
“I couldn’t believe it,” Regan later recalled. “I blew my top…. I realized that he had brought me to Iceland with one purpose: to kill the Strategic Defense Initiative.” What Reagan does next will stun the world. He turns to Secretary of State George Shultz and says, “The meeting is over. Let’s go, George, we’re leaving.” And he walks out.
How easy it would have been for Reagan to acquiesce. He would have been praised far and wide for whatever deal resulted. But he didn’t. He stood up for what was right. Just a few years later, the Soviet Union collapsed -- an event that Reagan’s courage helped make possible.
Now leave Iceland in 1986 and go back to Dec. 1, 1955. We’re in Montgomery, Ala. It’s rush hour. Buses are carrying workers home. On one bus all the seats are filled, including the front 10 seats, which are reserved for white passengers.
The bus stops, and four white men get aboard. The driver calls out to the four black passengers sitting just behind the white section: “Get up. Let the white men have those seats.” Three get up. But the fourth refuses.
Rosa Parks is defying the unwritten code of racial subservience. She is also defying Alabama law. The driver summons the police. They arrest Mrs. Parks and take her to jail.
Viewed from one perspective, Ronald Reagan and Rosa Parks couldn’t have been more different. He was the most powerful person in the world, commander in chief of the armed forces of the United States. She was one of the least powerful, an unknown black seamstress working in the back room of a department store in the deep South.
But in a more fundamental sense, they couldn’t have been more alike. All the political power on earth couldn’t have moved Reagan to do the wrong thing. And all the indignity and intimidation of racism couldn’t dissuade Rosa Parks from doing the right thing.
Courage made Reagan get up and leave. It also kept Parks in her seat. And in those seemingly simple acts, each began building a bridge that would deliver millions of oppressed people to their God-given birthright of freedom and dignity -- in Reagan’s case, citizens of Central and Eastern Europe, and in Parks’ case, citizens of the United States.
That’s who we are. We are a people with the courage to do the right thing. You can read those stories and others like them in The American Spirit: Celebrating the Virtues and Values that Make Us Great, a book I just wrote with Heritage Trustee Brian Tracy to explore the breadth and depth of what it means to be an American.
It’s a timely reminder. Since 2008, liberals have run hog-wild with policies that undermine the American spirit. They are crippling free enterprise with layers of new and excessive regulations. They are amassing ruinous public debt that will burden the next generations of Americans.
It will take old-fashioned virtues to change this. It will also require the fighting spirit that is an integral part of the American character.
So this Fourth of July, let’s rededicate ourselves to the virtue that helped make our freedom possible: courage -- and use it to restore our greatness.