A Creed for Americans (1942)
by Stephen Vincent Benét
We believe in the dignity of man and the worth and value of every living soul, no matter in what body housed, no matter whether born in comfort or born in poverty, no matter to what stock he belongs, what creed he professes, what job he holds.
We believe that every man should have a free and equal chance to develop his own best abilities under a free system of government, where the people themselves choose those who are to rule them and where no one man can set himself up as a tyrant or oppress the many for the benefit of the few.
We believe that free speech, free assembly, free elections, free practice of religion are the cornerstones of such a government. We believe that the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights of the United States of America offer the best and most workable framework yet devised for such a government.
We believe in justice and law. We do not believe in curing an evil by substituting for it another and opposite evil. We are unalterably opposed to class hatred, race hatred, religious hatred, however manifested, by whomsoever instilled.
We believe that political freedom implies and acknowledges economic responsibility. We do not believe that any state is an admirable state that lets its people go hungry when they might be fed, ragged when they might be clothed, sick when they might be well, workless when they might have work. We believe that it is the duty of all of us, the whole people working through our democratic system, to see that such conditions are remedied, whenever and wherever they exist in our country.
We believe that political freedom implies and acknowledges personal responsibility. We believe that we have a great and priceless heritage as a nation -- not only a heritage of material resources but of liberties, dreams, ideals, ways of going forward. We believe it is our business, our right and our inescapable duty to maintain and expand that heritage. We believe that such a heritage cannot be maintained by the lacklustre, the selfish, the bitterly partisan or the amiably doubtful. We believe it is something bigger than party, bigger than our own small ambitions. We believe it is worth the sacrifice of ease, the long toil of years, the expense of our heart's blood.
We know that our democratic system is not perfect. We know that it permits injustices and wrongs. With our whole hearts we believe in its continuous power of self-remedy. That power is not a theory -- it has been proven. Through the years, democracy has given more people freedom, less persecution and a higher standard of living than any other system we know. Under it, evils have been abolished, injustices remedied, old wounds healed, not by terror and revolution but by the slow revolution of consent in the minds of all the people. While we maintain democracy, we must maintain the greatest power a people can possess -- the power of gradual, efficient, and lawful change.
Most of all, we believe in democracy itself -- in its past, its present and its future -- in democracy as a political system to live by -- in democracy as the great hope in the minds of the free. We believe it so deeply rooted in the earth of this country that neither assault from without nor dissension from within can ever wipe it entirely from that earth. But, because it was established for us by the free-minded and the daring, it is our duty now, in danger as in security, to uphold and sustain it with all that we have and are. We believe that its future shall and must be even greater than its past. And to the future -- as to the past of our forebears and the present of our hard-won freedom -- we pledge all we have to give.
from The Family Reading Book: Selections from the World's Great Writers and Thinkers Past and Present, edited by David G. Legerman, 1952, Doubleday & Company.
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Stephen Vincent Benét was born on July 22, 1898, in Fountain Hill, Pennsylvania, to a military family, which meant a great deal of travelling. Benét was raised around the United States, living in California, Illinois, North Carolina, and New York.
He published his first volume of poetry, Five Men and Pompey, in 1915 at the age of 17. His second volume, Young Adventure, followed two years later. A year after that, Benét graduated from Yale University. His writing career, centered around fantasy and American themes, began in earnest in the 1920s after his marriage to writer Rosemary Carr.
At the height of his all-too brief career, Benét was one of this country's most popular and critically acclaimed writers of fiction and poetry. His bestselling epic poem -- try that, nowadays -- of the Civil War, John Brown's Body, won the Pulitzer Prize for American verse in 1929. At the time, the poem was called "the Iliad of the Western world" and its author "the Homer of the Civil War"; Margaret Mitchell said she was inspired by the work when writing Gone with the Wind. I picked up a first edition not too long ago for all of $10.
In the early 1930s, Benét published two works infused by American history and legends. The first, Ballads and Poems, 1915-1930, appeared in 1933, and contained the poem American Names, whose last line,
"Bury my heart at Wounded Knee"
was taken by historian Dee Brown as the title for his classic 1970 work, subtitled "An Indian History of the American West".
The second, A Book of Americans (1933), called by Time Magazie "a lyric history in verse", was written with his wife Rosemary. Five of these -- about George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Nancy Hanks, and Negro spirituals -- were collected by Helen Ferris in her children's poetry anthology, Favorite Poems Old and New. One poem from the book, about Johnny Appleseed, was turned into a picture book about five years ago, with illustrations by S.D. Schindler.
Benét's classic short story The Devil and Daniel Webster, an American version of the Faust legend, was first published in The Saturday Evening Post in 1937 and won the O. Henry Award. Benét wrote the screenplay adaptation for the 1941 movie (also known as All Money Can Buy), starring Walter Huston (Anjelica's Canadian-born grandfather) as old Scratch. The story was later selected for Benét's short story collection, Thirteen O'Clock, which also included the classic early science fiction piece, By the Waters of Babylon.
Another of his short stories, The Sobbin' Women, was based on the Roman myth of the rape of the Sabine women and later turned into the screenplay for the MGM musical, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. Lyricist Johnny Mercer took Benét's story title and turned it into a musical number, Sobbin' Women ("Y'heard about them Sobbin' Women who lived in the Roman days; It seems that they all went swimmin' while their men was off to graze...")
In the 1940s, with the prospect of another world war looming on the horizon -- Benét was turned down for military service in World War I because of either poor eyesight or the effects of a childhood bout of scarlet fever (I couldn't be sure which in my Googling) -- Benét turned toward government service, writing radio broadcasts and other works, such as the creed above, to urge America's entry into the war. Other works included narration for the 1940 Rural Electrification Administration documentary Power and the Land (if you get only one DVD about the Great Depression to watch with your children, make it this one); the 1942 radio play They Burned the Books, about Nazi book burning in German; a short history of the United States, America, commissioned by the Office of War Information for translation and distribution in Europe; and, commissioned by poet Archibald MacLeish, then Librarian of Congress, “The United Nations Prayer”, to be used by President Franklin D. Roosevelt to close his radio address on Flag Day, June 14, 1942. Some of Benét's radio scripts, We Stand United, and Other Radio Scripts, 1940-1942, can be found online.
Stephen Vincent Benét died of a heart attack in New York City, on March 13, 1943, at the age of 44. He was awarded a second Pulitzer Prize posthumously in 1944 for the unfinished poem Western Star, which was to be a multi-volume verse epic about the American frontier. Rosemary Carr Benet died in 1962, at age 64, of cancer.
Worth noting: Benét's brother, the poet and critic William Rose Benét (1886-1950), was the editor of a book I've mentioned before and find very, very useful: The Reader's Encyclopedia: An Encyclopedia of World Literature and the Arts, 1948, published by the Thomas Y. Crowell Company. I'll stick with my older edition, thank you, but you can find a new edition here. William Rose also won the Pulitzer Prize, in 1942 for The Dust Which Is God; his other works include Rip Tide (1932), a novel in verse, and A Book of Poems in Wartime (1944). He edited the works of his wife, poet Elinor Wylie, as well as The Oxford Anthology of American Literature (with Norman Pearson) and The Poetry of Freedom (with Norman Cousins). He was survived by his fourth wife, the children's writer Marjorie (Story of Ping) Flack.