The Uniquely American Story of Peter W. Schramm: An Example of Why America is Worthy of Preservation

*All quotations are from “Born American, but in the Wrong Place” by Dr. Peter W. Schramm. The full essay can be found here. It is an essential read for any human being and citizen.

(For those who do not know Dr. Peter Schramm, a short biography can be seen at the bottom of the page and then proceed with reading the rest.)

America is worthy of preservation. There will be many people who immediately point out its shortcomings, but the fact that we view these things as a problem and have the freedom to discuss them is itself indicative of what is good and unique about America. As the late, great Peter Schramm has been known to say, “You Americans invented freedom.” But is this really true? It could be said that a large number of countries are free in their democratic forms, including England, but Dr. Schramm believed that freedom in fact was superior to freedom in form. From a people who walk and talk with confidence and are open to discussion with complete strangers to a dedication to this nation most seen in times of tragedy we can see examples of why it is worth keeping, even though there seems to be a myriad of reasons why it is not.

As any Ashbrook Scholar or anyone who knew Dr. Schramm can attest, this man loved America. Dr. Schramm’s patriotism is something most Americans can appreciate, but in any other nation, this love of country would not be understood. His famous line spoken by his father was that they were “born American, but in the wrong place.” What does this mean? This is not to say that they had American blood, but the spirit of freedom that permeates the American people as most seen in the idea of the American dream. In America, this Hungarian family could immigrate and become known as American, but this is not possible in any other country. In America, one’s title as American is not dependent on place of birth, but rather a choice based on adherence to common principles rooted in freedom and natural rights. Were we in Hungary, Japan, or most any other place, no one can ever become Hungarian or Japanese, but they are merely outsiders who happen to live there. The only people who are Japanese are those with ties to blood and soil rather than reflection and choice. The American dream that makes America appealing to immigrants is what makes this country great from its Founding all the way to the present. An America for all people who want to work here and become citizens is fundamental to this nation of immigrants.

Dr. Schramm achieved his American dream, and encouraged everyone else to see the good in this country. While we native-born Americans may be quick to judge the faults of this country and take it for granted, Dr. Schramm did not. He did not merely hear about the lack of freedom in other places because he experienced it. This country gave him a happy life, and he in return gave his unwavering devotion to this country. Dr. Schramm is an example that proves the American experiment to be successful. As he wrote, “I am in the ironic position, here at this Midwestern liberal arts college in central Ohio, of teaching native Americans (I mean native-born Americans, not American Indians) how to think about their country. How odd it seems, and yet how perfectly American, that they should need me, a Hungarian immigrant, to teach them.” America is good because we have the freedom to take it for granted and live our comfortable lives. Dr. Schramm did his best to fight this sort of apathy expressed by most and make them appreciate their good fortune to live here. He taught me to be the best human being and citizen possible by teaching me what it means to be American. We are not Americans just because we were born in the right place, but because of our daily lives. As Dr. Schramm described, America is seen in what we consider to be ordinary. That plucky American character in which we believe we can achieve great things is not possible in most any other place. In other places, aristocracy and a class system are deeply entrenched within the people which limits their view of themselves.

A low-class farmer in Russia does not foresee any opportunity to become the next great scientist, but in America one can be whatever they want to be. It is seen in Dr. Schramm, whose family left Hungary and he went on to become one of the intellectual giants in the history of American Conservatism. He encouraged countless others to do more than they ever thought they were capable of..

Only in America is the story of Dr. Schramm possible. Dr. Schramm was a walking example of what is good about America. I may not have fully appreciated him while he was here, but his example has cast a permanent effect on me. He wrote about how he taught us native-borns: “And their blessing, their great good fortune, lies in the nation into which they were born. I tell them not only that their country, the United States of America, is the most powerful and the most prosperous country on earth, but also that it is the most free and the most just.” America is the most free and the most just. That is why it is good, unique, and worthy of keeping and I hope we can all appreciate that thanks to the example of Dr. Peter Schramm.

**For more context on my understanding of the American idea read my earlier piece “The Principles Upon Which this Nation Rests” which can be found here.

***Short Biography: Dr. Peter W. Schramm (December 23, 1946 - August 16, 2015) was born in Hungary and fled to Southern California during the Hungarian Revolution in 1956. He would go on to earn his B.A. in history, M.A. in Government from Claremont Graduate University in 1975 and another M.A. in International history from the London School of Economics and Politics in 1976. He would then go on to become one of the great students of Dr. Harry Jaffa earning his Ph.D. at Claremont Graduate School in 1980. He was one of the founders of the Claremont Institute and then served in the Reagan Administration as the Director of the Center for International Education in the Department of Education. But it was in 1987 that he came to work at the Ashbrook Center at Ashland University as Associate and then Executive Director. But his position as Professor of Political Science and Director of the Ashbrook Scholar Program is how I and countless other students came to experience this intellectual giant who inspired us all.  (You can also read Jonah Goldberg's remembrance of Dr. Schramm here for more details.)