What’s our national debt? The financial one that comes to mind is subservient to a second and deeper national debt.
I see a soldier wading ashore at Normandy on June 6, 1944. He’s a farm boy from Iowa, he’s a mechanic from Michigan, a new recruit from Idaho. He’s someone’s son from your hometown. We owe him. We owe that young man — who may well have died on Omaha Beach — a debt of gratitude for defending our freedom from foreign domination.
I see the furrowed brow of a representative to our Constitutional Convention of 1787. He’s wrestling with words that will shape our shared governance into a form for maximizing individual liberty — while providing for our national defense and other necessities where joint action is optimal. We owe that man and his colleagues for giving us a governmental model that’s the envy of the world.
I see a nurse caring for a Confederate soldier. I see another nurse binding up the wounds of a Union soldier. They could be at Gettysburg or Antietam. Regardless, they helped us survive a national crisis that led to freedom for all Americans and kept us welded together as one nation under God. We owe these women a debt of gratitude for selfless sacrifice.
I see my own father lying in a hospital in 1944. A World War I vet, he had a motor repair shop that fixed factory motors round the clock to keep armaments and supplies flowing to the front lines during WWII. Dad was working late at the shop when he suffered a serious injury; but he survived and kept the shop running. We owe a debt to all our producers, the Ed Burnses and Rosie the Riveters, whose sacrifices sustained our supply chains during times of war.
I see millions of men and women working in shops and offices, fields and faraway places. They belong to service organizations, school boards, food banks, town councils and crisis centers. They do double duty as volunteer coaches, Scout leaders, tutors and mentors. They vote and go to church. They form the fabric of a civic- and moral-minded citizenry that the framers of our Constitution knew was needed to sustain liberty and freedom in an open society.
As we enter a patriotic period of Memorial Day, Flag Day and the Fourth of July, let us be more aware of this second and deeper national debt. We stand on the shoulders of sacrificing and courageous ancestors of the past and selfless soldiers, veterans, workers and caregivers of the present. This is a debt we can pay off daily by honoring those in our families and the wider society who have given us liberty, prosperity and, hopefully, humility. Think of them as you place a flag or flowers at a grave or give Old Glory a well-deserved salute in the next few weeks. God bless America.
James F. Burns is a retired professor at the University of Florida.