What Are Traditional American Values? (And How Can We Best Use Them?)

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Tensions boil like a witch’s cauldron in Washington D.C., stirred by hyperbolic media commentators across the political spectrum.

Scandals erupt every day, a fatiguing parade that includes a broad range of the shameless to the clueless, from government officials with serious conflicts of interest to movie stars trying to get their not-so-serious kids into a good college.

Neo-nazis march, sending chills up our spines. School shootings continue, breaking our hearts. Climate change and its unpredictable consequences loom on the horizon, literally.

The size of the federal deficit is not something many of us can really comprehend. We just wonder if Social Security will still be solvent when we get ready to retire.

Faced with all these crises and challenges, questions arise in the mind of any sane, thoughtful person: has it always been like this, or are we simply more aware of all the bad things going on in the world thanks to mass media and the internet? Who is responsible? And, probably most importantly, is there anything I can do about it?

The answers: yes, probably, difficult to say, and absolutely. The first step in a solutions-based discussion about that last question—what do we do about it?—is to locate the philosophical cornerstone upon which our hopes, future, and salvation rest.

Very simply put, the question we must ask ourselves as we face an uncertain future is simply this: as Americans, what is it we hold dear?

Protecting Our Valuables

Obviously, I’m not speaking in terms of our homes, savings accounts, jewelry, or Sundays reserved exclusively for sports. I’m addressing the issue of values. These are the concepts in which we place importance, hold sacred, and, as the word denotes, deem to be of ‘value’.

To be clear, I’m not using the term as code, as a euphemism for homophobia or racism. We’ve all heard people speak of ‘family values’ or ‘traditional values’ in a way that subtly (or blatantly) promotes discrimination against those who don’t ‘share their values’.

That’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about the ideals that draw the boundaries on our behavior, establish the benchmarks for our ethics, and inform how we act when no one else is watching.

These are the beliefs that go above and beyond what is ‘legal’. They resonate in our hearts and guide us to recognize and choose what is right over what is wrong, what is fair over what is unjust, and, in their highest form, what is noble over what is easy.

Values are essential. We have laws, but our society cannot function on a daily basis without values and the social contract they construct and enforce. You could lie to your friends and cheat on your spouse. If someone is lying on the side of the road, injured and in need of help, you could drive right past them and not stop to help.

All of these actions are technically ‘legal’. But most of the time, you choose to be honest with your friends, loyal to your spouse, and a good Samaritan to those in need because of the values that you’ve been raised with or those you’ve adopted along the way.

And while it might be more difficult sometimes to ‘take the high road’, ‘do the right thing’, or ‘stand up for the little guy’, do you really want to live in a world where people are just looking out for themselves? No, you don’t.

In fact, we seek just the opposite. We search for a philosophy or ‘value system’ that we can hang our hat on, a ‘code’ that we can live by, an ethos that we can use as a touchstone to give our life meaning, direction, support, boundaries, continuity, structure, and a sense of belonging.

This collection of beliefs can be found in the religion we were raised with as we grew up, with its sense of comfort and community. It can be found in the camaraderie, loyalty, and discipline we learn when we serve in the armed forces. Young men and women often find it in the ‘team spirit’ they experience when they play organized sports that challenge their physical, mental, and emotional limits.

Whatever it is and wherever we learn it, our values inform our actions, our choices, and, often, how our lives turn out, individually and collectively.

When values become codified, they become more present and often require a higher standard of behavior. This standard of behavior, simply put, frequently distills down to this: there are things you do, and there are things you don’t do.

Of course, there are benefits for adhering to values, and consequences for straying. Circumstances, personal preferences, or peer pressure from outsiders play a very small role in our actions when we understand and adopt a set of values fully.

Everything Old Is New Again

So, now that we’re clear on what values are and why they’re important, what are the values that will benefit us, as a nation and as individuals, now and in the long term? I’m glad you asked. (Wink, nod.)

There is a culture in America that some people have heard of, but few have really studied. It is not an obvious social phenomenon, but it is very real, very permanent, and very powerful. It’s called “Old Money’.

The term refers to families and individuals who’ve had wealth and privilege for three generations or more. Its origins in America are found in Boston, among rock-ribbed and square-jawed Yankee merchants who settled and built the city. They held thrift, hard work, education, and discretion near and dear. They amassed fortunes, established universities and museums, spoke and dressed plainly. They married within their social circle. They were hard on their children, hard on their employees, but just as hard on themselves.

More than two hundred years later, most metropolitan cities in America have families that can be fairly termed ‘Old Money’. You may even know someone who’s been referred to as ‘Old Money”. The important thing to digest is this: when a family has the intelligence, drive, and perspective to create and preserve their wealth for decades and even centuries, it isn’t just because they’re lucky. More often than not, they’ve unconsciously or quite intentionally adopted what I refer to as Core Values.

These values—and the priorities and habits they spawn—enable these families to not only preserve their wealth and enjoy its advantages but to experience a consistently high quality of life.

Related: What Are Core Values and How Do They Control My Life?

This quality of life, as opposed to a standard of living, is only partly dependent upon the possession of wealth. Comfort and independence are elements of it, to be sure, there is a sense of fulfillment, which is something no amount of money can buy. These positive benefits result when someone consistently understands, embraces, and reinforces these Core Values.

A Good Start

So let’s take a look at a few of these values in order to determine how they can help you, as an individual, and us, as a country, improve and turn things around.

Health is the first Core Value of Old Money. If you’re not healthy, how are you going to work hard, think clearly, and enjoy life? Prioritizing health leads OMGs (Old Money Guys and Old Money Gals) to eat well, exercise, avoid drugs, and moderate alcohol and tobacco.

Even if they’re on a budget (and all of them are) they make the time for regular visits to the doctor and the dentist. Prevention is key, as is a healthy diet. Fresh fruits and vegetables and lean meats are the fundamentals. Fast food is out. Soft drinks are out. Water and fresh-squeezed juices are the beverage of choice.

Walking, running, the stationary bike, the lightweight, the yoga: these simple things that raise the heart rate, increase the blood flow, and tighten and tone the muscles are daily habits for OMGs.

The benefits of this Core Value to you are obvious: you’ll look better, feel better, and have more energy to accomplish your goals. You’ll be sick less often, and for shorter periods of time, with less serious illnesses. For our country, health care costs will be lower, lifespans longer, and productivity higher.

Education is the second Core Value of Old Money. OMGs may live in ramshackle houses, sport well-worn clothes, and drive 20-year old cars, but by God, their children are getting a quality education. Private prep schools and Ivy League colleges cater to them, whipping their potentially spoiled and unruly children into shape. You can start, where you are, with the resources you have, and make education a priority for you and your children, as well.

Turn off the television and pick up a book. Take a class at your local community college. Finish college or get certified at a technical or trade school. Enroll your children in your local public library’s summer reading program. Take them to a second-hand book store and encourage them to read whatever they are interested in. Set aside money for their education before you buy a new car.

Why make these sacrifices? Because the simple, time-tested truth is that nothing lifts people out of poverty and into the middle class, or out of the middle class and into the upper class, like education. People in third world countries who don’t have running water save whatever money they can to send their children to school. Education is your way up, it is your way out.

The benefits of education for you individually are obvious. You can qualify for a better job and make more money. You can enjoy and appreciate art and culture. You can do more for your children. You can manage your money and your life more productively.

As an educated populace, we’ll be more able to understand the history of our democracy and the importance of our vote. We’ll be more aware and better comprehend the issues and options we have before us, and wisely choose a path forward. We’ll be equipped to quickly detect lies and propaganda when they’re spewed from the mouths of our public officials. We’ll be able to recognize candidates for public office who will faithfully uphold their oath of office and be faithful to our Constitution and our system of government, and make our country a better place in which to live.

A third Core Value of Old Money sorely lacking today is Manners. Being sincerely and genuinely polite means being considerate of people who can do nothing to you and nothing for you. Any idiot can be nice to his boss. The challenge is to hold the door open for an elderly lady when you’re late for that big meeting on the 47th floor. A bigger challenge is to ‘keep your cool’ and be polite when someone else is being inconsiderate. But that’s the name of the game.

It’s easy to cast blame for this downward turn in the quality of social interaction. The usual suspects include the internet and ever more casual social norms and dress codes, the prevalence of cell phones, radio, and television. The simple solution lies with awareness. How aware are we of the people around us? Do our actions reflect an awareness and consideration of them? If so, we are being polite. If not, we are being rude.

The elevated playing field of this awareness is etiquette, which can be quite simply defined as the codified rules of being polite. These are important, and you should learn them, but they are no substitute for being kind, patient, and generous as you interact with your fellow human beings.

Being polite benefits you. You hold yourself in higher regard if you place the feelings and needs of others before your own when possible and appropriate. Others will think highly of you. You will grab life, as Thomas Jefferson noted, ‘by the smooth end’.

As a society, manners make it possible for us to interact, and even disagree, and still make progress. You may not like everyone you work with or for. I have news for you: they may not like you. But most of the time you swallow your personal opinions for a paycheck, a promotion, or a purpose (Maybe you want to be your own boss one day and be in a position to not be liked your own employees).

In the political arena, the liberals and conservatives that compose your local government may loathe each other, but guess what? There’s a sewer line that needs to be repaired and the stink that will result from not addressing that issue will be worse than the stink of being in the same room with people you don’t like in order to find a solution. So everyone holds their noses, shakes hands, pulls up a chair, and gets down to business with a measure of civility and common purpose. Your sewer line gets repaired, and that’s a good thing. All because people have manners.

The Road Ahead

I’ve detailed only three Core Values here. Obviously, there are more, including Financial Independence, the Work Ethic, and Privacy, just to name a few. These values have served Old Money families consistently well, generation after generation, allowing them to live well, with less worry and more joy.

Can these same Core Values save a divided and discontented  America? I believe they can. They are the common values our ancestors shared as they founded and freed this country. They were the values we shared when we fought to preserve this union during the Civil War when we fought for the liberty of our allies in World War II, and now, as we fight to preserve our democracy from the less tangible enemies of apathy, hyper-partisanship, and corruption.

Now is the time not only to do what we can, but to do what we should, and, in the end, what we must. We are duty-bound to revisit these values, to sit with them in silent contemplation, take them into our hearts, let them guide our daily actions, and know that they will secure a bright, just, and prosperous future for America.

Related: What Does It Mean to “Be American”

For to live by these eternal, sterling principles may be our only way forward, our only true salvation.

About the Author

Website: The Old Money Book

Grandson of a newspaper publisher and son of an oil industry executive, Byron Tully is author of ‘The Old Money Book‘, ‘The Old Money Guide To Marriage‘, and ‘Old Money, New Woman: How To Manage Your Money and Your Life‘. He lives in Paris and travels frequently.