Optimism is the very lodestar of the American experiment. We are a nation of immigrants who left behind everyone and everything we knew to take a chance for a better future. Pessimists stayed home in Europe or Asia, pulled by a history of thousands of years of living in one place as one people. Those who became Americans leapt toward a dynamic society that rewards individual talent and hard work—not social class, religion, racial differences, or proximity to government power.
We as Americans have optimism programmed into our DNA. Where others might see cause for doubt, we see opportunity. Even as the economy remains mired in recession, entrepreneurs continue to conjure forth inventions that bring the knowledge of the Library of Congress to our fingertips, cure once deadly diseases, and deliver almost any product to our doorstep in days. Even as our elected leaders overreacted to the downturn with massive spending programs and the nationalization of financial firms, car companies, and the health-care sector, a great political movement rose up to shake the establishment with demands for a return to frugality and modesty. Even as our armed forces have encountered stiff resistance in Iraq and Afghanistan, we have killed off the leadership of al Qaeda (including Osama bin Laden), midwifed an Arab democracy in the center of the Middle East, and hastened the overthrow of despots in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya. Despite the rise of China and the return of Russia, the United States protects the peace among the great powers, keeps the channels of global commerce open, and spreads the freedom to think and worship to distant lands.
It is harder still not to be an optimist during this, the 150th anniversary of the Civil War. When president-elect Abraham Lincoln left his home of Springfield, Illinois, for Washington, D.C., seven Southern states had already seceded. Acknowledging that he “had a task before [him] greater than that which rested upon Washington,” Lincoln still declared, with the “assistance [of God], I can not fail” and called upon a thousand well-wishers to “let us confidently hope that all will yet be well.” Four years later, after a bloody civil war that cost 600,000 American lives, Lincoln was still an optimist. At his second inaugural, Lincoln could report his “high hope for the future,” though he would venture “no prediction” on the war’s final outcome. Still, he finished with an optimistic vision of the nation’s character:
With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.
After the most devastating war in our nation’s history, Lincoln could foresee the national greatness that lay just beyond the horizon. With this example before us, we the living can overcome temporary setbacks to continue the American experiment.