omething curious happened at this past Oscars: Gary Oldman, whose portrayal of Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour won him Best Actor, thanked America. “I’ve lived in America for the longest time,” Oldman said in his acceptance speech, “and I am deeply grateful to her for the loves and the friendships I have made and the many wonderful gifts it has given me. My home, my livelihood, my family and now Oscar.” Sadly, such thanks is striking because of its rarity. But it affords us the opportunity to consider for what it is that America deserves our thanks.
The first thing that comes to mind is prosperity. Living in America brings the promise of comforts and opportunities that few people in history have ever enjoyed. The fortuity of being born in an affluent nation shelters the relatively chosen few from the hardships so many others have to face. And the opportunity to earn a living by the sweat of one’s brow inculcates that enterprising spirit and thirst for innovation that is a great part of the American character.
But America’s advantages go beyond riches and resources. They are grounded in the principles on which she was founded and the influence those principles have on her people. America’s poet, Robert Frost, touched on this in “The Gift Outright,” a poem he delivered at John F. Kennedy’s inaugural: “The land was ours before we were the land’s./She was our land more than a hundred years/ Before we were her people.” We own America because of settlement and conquest. We belong to America because she has shaped our character and thus lays claim to it. America has inculcated the willful independence, competitive pride, and true grit that is a mark of her people. That shaping guides our actions in both palpable and subtle ways.
But our advantages, Frost notes, are accompanied with reciprocal duties: “Something we were withholding made us weak/Until we found out that it was ourselves/We were withholding from our land of living,/And forthwith found salvation in surrender./Such as we were we gave ourselves outright/(The deed of gift was many deeds of war).” The gift outright is freely granted and can never equitably be repaid because its value is beyond measure. That is the debt we owe our country.
This debt is not a burden, ugly and greedy in its nagging demands. Rather, it is a quiet and gentle reminder of all that we have been given. As the posterity of the experiment in self-government, we have been entrusted with a debt to protect and nurture the nation founded on an idea.
This is not to say that America is perfect. We have made very serious mistakes (most notably the sin of slavery). But that does not diminish our duty to strive to repay our country for all we have been granted.