As we prepare to celebrate the 4th of July, the election of Donald Trump as President focuses a persistent question with new and urgent meaning. Will America lift hubris or humility as the dominant theme of our national life together?
An intriguing episode in the life of Ulysses S. Grant that speaks to this question took place on a 4th of July in 1878. One year into his post-presidential world tour, Grant found himself in Hamburg, Germany. United States Consul, John M. Wilson, toasted Grant as the man who saved the nation.
Grant, usually a man of few words in response to toasts, on this occasion responded strongly.
I must dissent from one remark of our Consul, to the effect that I
saved the country during the recent war. If our country could be saved
or ruined by the efforts of any one man we should not have a country,
and we should not be now celebrating the Fourth of July.
He went on to explain.
What saved the Union was the coming forward of the young men of
the nation. They came from their homes and fields, as they did in the
time of the giving everything to the country. To their devotion, we owe
the salvation of the Union. The humblest soldier who carried a musket
is entitled to as much credit for the results of the war as those who were
In the context of our current President, in a recent book tour, I have heard comment after comment of appreciation for an earlier American leader who pointed beyond himself. At an earlier Fourth of July, Grant chose humility over hubris. He turned aside personal credit. Instead, he directed credit to the young soldiers who saved the Union.