05/01/2013 05:52 pm ET Updated Jul 01, 2013

American Crisis

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A letter printed in my local newspaper this week lamented "how our society, its values, and its problems differ from, say, 75 years ago." The writer goes on to say that "there was crime, but not so much senseless crime and not in these numbers... It was not a perfect world, but it was a better world. What is different today about our values, our lives, our expectations, and our behavioral standards?"

His letter expresses a common theme. The American people sense that we are now living in the most critical time the republic ever experienced, a time like no other in our history. Yet, we must understand that Americans have always lived in critical times. After all, as Thomas Paine famously wrote in 1776, "These are the times that try men's souls." If we could travel back more than 75 years we'd discover another generation of Americans in critical times.

In May 1927, Andrew Kehoe planted a bomb in the basement of the Bath Township, Mich., school and murdered 38 elementary school children and six adults. Gangsters terrorized communities in the early 1930s. Famous bank robbers Bonnie and Clyde were killed by lawmen in 1934. In Harlan County, Ky., violence erupted between striking mineworkers and men hired by mine owners in 1931-1932 and the violence continued sporadically through the 1930s. More than 125 individuals, almost all African Americans, were lynched in America during the 1930s. Violent attacks on ethnic and racial minorities were not uncommon. The 1930s in America is also synonymous with the economic ravages of the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl. And the news from abroad was ominous too. The Japanese invaded Manchuria in 1931, launched the second Sino-Japanese War in 1937, and massacred the inhabitants of Nanking in 1939. The 1930s were the decade of Adolf Hitler's rise to power, German territorial expansion, Kristallnacht, and his systematic persecution of Jews. And in the Soviet Union, Joseph Stalin ordered the "Great Purge," killing hundreds of thousands to rid the Communist Party of "Old Bolsheviks."

Times were just as critical in the decades following World War II. The Cold War plunged Americans into a world always on the brink of nuclear conflagration. Americans built bomb shelters, and school drills taught elementary students to "duck and cover." Americans feared communist infiltration of our institutions and turned to McCarthyism for a purge. In 1955, a bomb exploded on United Flight 629 en route from Denver to Portland, killing all 39 passengers and crew. The 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., was bombed on Sunday, Sept. 15, 1963, killing four African-American children. In June 1964, three civil rights workers were murdered in Neshoba County, Miss. In August 1966, Charles Whitman killed 15 people on the campus of the University of Texas.

I do not minimize the perilous times in which we live today. There continues to be much at stake. As Abraham Lincoln noted at another critical juncture in our history, we are indeed called on to determine if self-government -- "government of the people, by the people, for the people" -- can endure.

What is clear to me, however, is that the American people -- American citizens -- have always lived in critical times. The fact that we have, thus far, always met the challenges that faced our nation should be cause for inspiration. Throughout our history, Americans have engaged their civic duty and responsibilities and measured themselves against American values. At Colonial Williamsburg, we describe those values as our individual freedom and the equality promised by the Declaration of Independence; our American unity and the diversity of region, religion, ethnicity, and other distinctions that enrich our national heritage; our ability to enrich ourselves with private wealth and our community with common wealth -- places of worship, cultural institutions, system of laws and government, infrastructure of roads, bridges, ports, and other essential services; as well as the rule of law and a common sense of ethics.

We constantly debate the best way to define and achieve these values. Even the founding generation understood that these ideals were well beyond the reach of the flawed human experience, but they believed in the hope and promise of these ideals. They understood that the people were engaged in an ongoing experiment in self-government. Yes, the founding generation lived in critical times. We live in critical times. So has every other generation of American citizens. We cannot realize the promise of our American Revolution by restoring the past. We cannot become the "summer soldier and sunshine patriot" of Thomas Paine's The American Crisis. We cannot "shrink from the service of our country." The experience of our revolutionary founding generation informs us that self-government is hard work. The stakes cannot be higher: If we fail, we lose all. But we have the tools at our disposal. And the founding generation certainly inspired us: We can be successful if we work together and build our future.