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The Coffeyville Spirit Is America’s Foundation

Armando Simón Forensic Psychologist
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Inspirational stories came out of the horrific Las Vegas massacre – how so many attendees at the concert went back to those persons who had been shot in order to care of them and to drag them to safety and to hospitals, even as the shooter was still shooting down at the crowd. The day after, hundreds of people lined up before The Red Cross to donate blood.

These acts were an instance of what I call the Coffeyville Spirit in the American character.

America is a country of heroes, where heroism comes naturally.

As in immigrant and a historian, I often ruminated about what makes up the American character, and as I grew older and knew more history, I realized that the American character was, and is, unique. An incident that happened in Coffeyville, Kansas exemplifies one crucial aspect of what makes Americans American.

In 1892, the Dalton Gang calmly rode into Coffeyville and headed for the local bank. Although they were wearing beards, a passerby recognized them and quietly alerted the citizenry. When the gang came out of the bank, they were fired upon by those citizens who had armed themselves and were waiting for them. The outlaws then went out the back door where they were again met with a hail of bullets from the citizenry. With the exception of one, the robbers were all killed and the robbery foiled. Four citizens died. There is a little museum in the small town that commemorates the event, yearly attracting a trickle of tourists.

An American reading that account would see the citizens’ reactions as normal. To foreigners, I can assure you, their actions would be incomprehensible: the citizens who confronted the robbers had no business doing so since they had no personal ownership in the bank, they were not law enforcement, they did it themselves instead of letting the authorities handle it, they risked everything and some lost their lives.

Time and again, we see the Coffeyville Spirit. We saw it in the recent hurricanes that hit Texas and Florida, how citizens on their own went out into the flood to help other citizens trapped in their homes and cars (tellingly, we did not see this response in Puerto Rico), some of them even driving from another state to do so. We saw it during 9/11 in United Airlines flight 93; when the passengers finally learned of what had happened at the World Trade Center, they revolted and attempted to gain control of the airplane with the result that they foiled the Muslims’ plan, even though it cost them their lives (a superb movie, United 93, chronicled the event). We saw it when three Americans jumped a gun-toting Moroccan in a French train before anyone was killed. We saw it recently. A robber wearing a mask entered a supermarket and told the cashier to hand over the money, that he had a weapon. At first, everyone was stunned, then a customer sneaks behind him and pins his arm. They struggle, at which point the rest of the customers come to and pile onto the would be thief.

Such actions to the majority of Europeans, Asians, Africans and South Americans are incomprehensible. They would meekly wait for the authorities to “do something.” Foreigners automatically grovel before authority and strength, legal or illegal. When a heat wave struck France a few years back, thousands of French citizens died inside their homes with no one to help them. No one did anything. When a similar heat wave struck America, businesses gave away fans and volunteers distributed to those people who had no air conditioning and thousands of lives were saved.

But such instances are simply the most dramatic manifestations of the Coffeyville Spirit, which is more than heroism. It is the underlying belief that one can—and should—right a wrong, that one can alter one’s surroundings for the better, without help from the State.

This spirit came about through the formation of the country. As individual families migrated West, they did so without the government being present, so they became self-sufficient, yet reliant upon one another. The State was absent. Through many generations, and due to the lack of centralized governmental bureaucracies, such an attitude became second nature to Americans–and immigrants (I am always surprised how quickly immigrants become Americanized, but that is another story). Americans became very individualistic, self-sufficient and suspicious of big government. Hence the hostility towards socialism.

For example, when Western migration took place and towns began to form in the “Wild West,” there was no government present to enforce civilized behavior. So they formed their own! Without permission from the state or federal governments! And it worked well.

Around 1731, in Philadelphia, at the suggestion of Benjamin Franklin, individuals who owned books were invited to pool their resources in order to form a library that would be available to anyone from physicians to blacksmiths; the result was the Library Company, which is still in existence. Then, further volunteer associations were formed to fight fires (we still have that concept in many cities, the volunteer firefighters), to create fire insurance, to create a hospital, paving the streets, etc. This was all due as a result of the governments of both Philadelphia and Pennsylvania’s philosophy that the best government is the one that governs least (in fact, it hardly governed at all).

Nor should we conclude that this spirit was isolated to, or caused by, earlier, more primitive times, which was discarded as formal institutions were formed to deal with the various issues. For example, in every city, public schools periodically carry out fundraisers, wherein money is collected from the public for the purpose of replacing worn out equipment, making repairs, etc. Some of these fundraisers involve the sale of sweets, others, as in my children’s school, organize fall and spring festivals, wherein food is sold, raffles held and fun activities offered for a nominal price. This circumvents state and local governments’ resistance to provide additional funds from those already allocated to that school. Additionally, traffic accidents occur all the time in the nation’s highways and when a particularly serious one occurs, several drivers will instantly stop and render aid; more than one instance has occurred where the persons trapped inside a burning vehicle was rescued by passing motorists instead of waiting for the police, firemen and ambulances.

One last, specific, example: due to government incompetence, a highway sign in Los Angeles was very confusing because it lacked vital information. One citizen decided to correct the ineptitude. He created the necessary information, climbed up to the sign, and glued it on, thereby clarifying a confusing, frustrating, and dangerous situation.

Aside from geographical reasons, there was also the lack of an American aristocracy, as is found throughout the world (although early Americans tended to think that it was a European vice). This is important. In Europe, and elsewhere, persons tried very hard—desperately sometimes—to become attached to the State (whether a king, earl, baron, etc.), because doing so meant a secure livelihood. It became second nature to Europeans and may explain to some degree why socialism has had such appeal to them, while to many Americans it is anathema, since Americans have a deeply ingrained attitude of being able to stand on one’s own two feet and make one’s way into the world.

In the future, we will continue to see inevitable tragedies of all kinds, but from the ruins and the blood we will also see Americans rise to alleviate the tragedies and help out and comfort those afflicted.

America is admirable. Americans are admirable. America is a country of heroes.

Armando Simón is the author of A Cuban From Kansas, The Only Red Star I Liked was a Starfish, and Fables From the Americas


The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.