Among the many events that happened this week in history are three especially noteworthy things. Each of them has something to teach us.
On May 17, 1792, the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) was founded. At the time, it was a far cry from what we have on Wall Street today. It was started by a handful of investors under a tree on Wall Street in New York. Thereafter the men met under that tree regularly, except in inclement weather, when they met inside a nearby coffeehouse. Money invested in Wall Street today makes possible the innovations, inventions, and economic vitality of American businesses, large and small, of tomorrow. The profits from those investments make it possible for many of us, even we “little guys,” to contemplate retirement in relative comfort.
Big things generally start out small. And, as Ben Franklin famously quipped (using the voice of Poor Richard), “From the little acorn grows the big oak tree,” and “Little strokes fell great oaks.” The NYSE started small, but look at it today. But the Nazi Party that enslaved Germany and much of the rest of Europe also started out small, and we know where that led. We should not despise the day of small things, but we should keep a close eye on the bad small things and nip them in the bud before they lead to big problems. Freedom is a fragile thing. Similarly, we should encourage, not hamper, the growth and development of the little businesses and the small investors with excessive government regulation.
On May 20, 1927, Charles Lindbergh–Lucky Lindy–made his now-famous solo flight from New York to Paris, becoming the first man to fly nonstop across the Atlantic. Five years to the day later, Amelia Earhart became the first woman to do so. It’s hard for me to imagine flying such a small plane across so vast a space of nothing but water for such a long time. Today, we think nothing of it as multiple huge jet planes make the trip daily. Lindbergh and Earhart couldn’t sleep during their flights, or watch movies, or read magazines, or work on laptops. And they were all alone. But sometimes worthwhile endeavors take a long time. Without their two long, lonely flights, we might not have developed the relatively short, comfortable trans-Atlantic flights available today.
And on May 18, 1897, Frank Capra was born. Capra became a famous movie maker. But he was not always famous, and his life was not always easy. Coming to America in steerage at age five, he developed an intense patriotism and an appreciation of freedom. He saw the positive in America and the endless opportunities it afforded for anyone who was willing to work to improve himself, and he sought to promote America’s values in the movies he directed. Although he often faced unemployment despite his having earned a college degree, he never gave up on American opportunity. And America rewarded his efforts.
When World War II broke out, he enlisted and was commissioned a major in the U.S. Army Signal Corps, where he put his film-directing talents to use. He directed the seven-part series known as Why We Fight, which many people consider to be the best explanation for America’s involvement in the war. He also directed the making of numerous training films for American servicemen.
The thing that separates Capra from the movie makers of today is that his focus was on the common man and on a positive outlook on life. Watch any of his movies today, and that positive outlook is always present. It wasn’t that he ignored or glossed over the negative but that he showed that the negative could be overcome. He did not glorify the negative the way many movies do today. Rather, he showed how common people could overcome the negatives of life and succeed, helping not only themselves but countless others in the process.
His big post-war hit was It’s a Wonderful Life, starring Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed. Panned and derided at the time for being too “simplistic” and “idealistic,” it has proven over time to be his most acclaimed and best-loved film. In Meet John Doe, he promoted American values and the importance of the common man. In Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, he showed his patriotism and the need and ability to overcome evil in government.
America could use more people who will look at the positive in America, investing in and preventing the over-regulation of those who are willing to take risks in America’s opportunities, allowing the efforts of others to go where no one else has dared to go before and to try what no one else has ever tried, to invent and develop and succeed. And we need to be exemplars of those very values that have made America great.