“The world must be made safe for democracy. It is a fearful thing to lead this great peaceful people into war, the most terrible of wars. But the right is more precious than the peace, and we shall fight for the things that we have always carried nearest our hearts…for democracy…for the rights and liberties of small nations, for a universal dominion of right by such a concert of free peoples as shall bring peace and safety to all nations and make the world itself at last free.”
President Wilson’s view of the United States as the stalwart of world democracy wasn’t shared by everyone, however. Six of the 96 U.S. Senators voted against the declaration of war. The House of Representatives passed the resolution April 6, 1917, but only after 13 hours of emotional and heated debate. Forty-nine Congressmen and the only Congresswoman (Helen Rankin of Montana), voted against the declaration.
By mid-summer General John J. Pershing’s American Expeditionary Force was landing in Europe. But even as Colonel Charles E. Stanton stood before the tomb of Revolutionary War hero Marquis de Lafayette’s tomb in France to proclaim, “Lafayette, we are here”; trouble was brewing at home. Congress’ new program of conscription under the Selective Service Act was mandating registration for military service by every American man between the ages of 21 and 30. Not since the Civil War had an issue arisen to so divide our Country.
While George M. Cohan wrote patriotic songs like “Over There” (actually penned on April 6, the same day Congress finally passed the Declaration of War), other citizens began to protest American involvement in “Europe’s troubles” and the forced recruitment of soldiers under the Selective Service Act. By the summer of 1918 the war in Europe had forced the Government to take control of industry, railroads, and food and fuel production. Taxes were raised to fund the war, postal rates went up, and censorship of some mail was being officially conducted. In May Congress passed the Sedition Act which allowed war and draft protesters to be jailed. More than 2,000 Americans were already behind bars for interfering with the draft, including one former United States Congressman (Victor Berger of Wisconsin).
In the midst of all this domestic turmoil and dissension, a Nation-wide essay contest was held to develop an American’s Creed. The winning entry was submitted by William Tyler Page of Friendship Heights, Maryland. Mr. Page was a descendent of President John Tyler and former Congressman John Page who served in the House of Representatives from 1789-1797. William Tyler Page himself had also served in Congress – – as a Congressional Page in 1881. His winning essay established the American’s Creed with the following words:
“I believe in the United States of America as a Government of the People, by the People, for the People; whose just powers are derived from the consent of the governed; A democracy in a republic, a sovereign Nation of many Sovereign States; a perfect Union, one and inseparable; established upon those principles of Freedom, Equality, Justice, and Humanity for which American Patriots sacrificed their Lives and Fortunes.
I therefore believe it is my duty to my country to Love it; to Support its Constitution; to obey its laws; to Respect its Flag; and to defend it against all enemies.”
The American’s Creed defines what it means to be American, both the need for FAITH in who and what we are as a Nation, and the RESPONSIBILITY we all have to love and respect our Nation and its Flag. Its message is appropriate for each generation of Americans, but becomes even more meaningful when we understand the historical context of its origin…written during a time of conflict and turmoil at home and abroad.