150 Years Of The Atlantic July/August 2006

Idealism & Practicality

This is the sixth in a series of archival excerpts in honor of the magazine’s 150th anniversary. This installment is introduced by James Fallows, a national correspondent for The Atlantic.
The Ideals of America
December 1902
By Woodrow Wilson

In 1902, future President Woodrow Wilson—then the president of Princeton University—enthusiastically welcomed “the century that shall see us a great power in the world.”

It took the war of 1812 to give us spirit and full consciousness and pride of station as a nation. That was the real war of independence for our political parties. It was then we cut our parties and our passions loose from politics over sea, and set ourselves to make a career which should be indeed our own. That accomplished, and our weak youth turned to callow manhood, we stretched our hand forth again to the west, set forth with a new zest and energy upon the western rivers and the rough trails that led across the mountains and down to the waters of the Mississippi. There lay a continent to be possessed ...

That rolling, resistless tide, incalculable in its strength, infinite in its variety, has made us what we are; has put the resources of a huge continent at our disposal; has provoked us to invention and given us mighty captains of industry. This great pressure of a people moving always to new frontiers, in search of new lands, new power, the full freedom of a virgin world, has ruled our course and formed our policies like a Fate. It gave us, not Louisiana alone, but Florida also. It forced war with Mexico upon us, and gave us the coasts of the Pacific. It swept Texas into the Union. It made far Alaska a territory of the United States. Who shall say where it will end? ...

The day of our isolation is past. We shall learn much ourselves now that we stand closer to other nations and compare ourselves first with one and again with another ...

It is by the widening of vision that nations, as men, grow and are made great. We need not fear the expanding scene. It was plain destiny that we should come to this, and if we have kept our ideals clear, unmarred, commanding through the great century and the moving scenes that made us a nation, we may keep them also through the century that shall see us a great power in the world. Let us put our leading characters at the front; let us pray that vision may come with power; let us ponder our duties like men of conscience and temper our ambitions like men who seek to serve, not to subdue, the world; let us lift our thoughts to the level of the great tasks that await us, and bring a great age in with the coming of our day of strength.

Volume 90, No. 542, pp. 721–734

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