Great aunt Mary did it right

Published 12:36 am Thursday, November 26, 2015

An Ohio farm girl’s 1895 ride over a mountain is a metaphor for why we’re thankful for being Americans. In a letter back home to her parents, Mary tells the story of her trip — from “trial and tribulation” to triumph — tracing out our nation’s own exceptional journey.

Mary was traveling to Virginia to take up a new job as an art teacher. Her train arrived at Cumberland Gap at 5 a.m., only to find the tunnel through the mountain had caved in.

“They told us we would have to cross the mountain in wagons. The horses were boney and so were the drivers. I climbed in one with six men so I could sit in the front seat.”

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Thirteen colonies had their own mountain to climb back in 1775, securing freedom by sending their rag-tag soldiers against the mightiest army in the world. A decade later and the battle won, the steepest part of the climb was still ahead, the challenge of self-governance.

“We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union,…do ordain and establish this constitution.” The Founders knew of our imperfections — slavery, denial of rights to women and minorities and a weak and undeveloped economy. But you conquer a mountain incrementally.

“I never expected the horses could get us over the mountain, but they did by stopping to rest every 100 yards up the mountain.” In Mary’s youth, she saw American industry energize our economy. In middle age, she saw the 19th amendment of 1920 actualize women’s suffrage for white women. And though she was 98, Mary finally saw the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Piecemeal progress got Mary — and the boney drivers and horses — to the top of the mountain. “On the summit, we were in three states at once, Kentucky, Virginia, and Tennessee, and I in a fourth, a state of bliss. As far as the eye could see rose one mountain after another, a smoky blue haze hovering around the tops. The road was sandstone but with beautiful flowers growing out of the stones.”

Sometimes we fail to see the grandeur of this country — not only its physical beauty but an economic and governmental system that, though still imperfect, gives more freedom to achieve the “American dream” than any other country in the world. There’s a troubling trend to see the worst of our history and not the peaks of accomplishment — a trend to protest authority, be it local police, classroom teachers, or university presidents.

Borrowing from the song lyrics, we “need to accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative, latch on to the affirmative.” Our younger generations must swell with patriotic pride when they hear the national anthem, salute the flag, and say The Pledge of Allegiance.

My plug for patriotism is more than pedantic or patronizing. It may be a matter of national security. Our young people’s counterparts overseas — and a few here — who are radicalized jihadists have no trouble trumpeting their ideology and saluting a black flag symbolizing death and loss of freedom for everyone else on earth. We need to counter with an American ideology of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness — foreign concepts to our foe.

So as our national day of feast, family, freedom, and football arrives, let’s be thankful for the friends and loved ones with whom we can share a peaceful meal of plenty. By the way, Mary not only got to the top of the mountain, she conquered it. She became a leading businesswoman in Kansas City, passing away at age 101 and leaving her fortune to local charities. God bless America, and my Aunt Mary.


James F. Burns is a retired professor at the University of Florida and a great-nephew of Mary Hosbrook Kincaid.