“From whence shall we expect the approach of danger? Shall some trans-Atlantic military giant step the earth and crush us at a blow? Never. All the armies of Europe and Asia… could not by force take a drink from the Ohio River or make a track on the Blue Ridge in a trial of a thousand years… No, if destruction be our lot we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of free men we will live forever or die by suicide.”
Abraham Lincoln spoke these words in his first-ever public remarks, addressed to the Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois, on Jan. 27, 1838. His topic: The Perpetuation of Our Political Institutions.
His conclusion: When a tyrant rises in these states united, “it will require the people to be united with each other, attached to the government and laws, and generally intelligent, to successfully frustrate his designs. Distinction will be his paramount object, and although he would as willingly, perhaps more so, acquire it by doing good as harm, yet, that opportunity being past, and nothing left to be done in the way of building up, he would set boldly to the task of pulling down.”
If our survival as a nation against tyranny be now dependent on our unity with each other, our devotion to self-government, and our cultural appreciation of intelligence, then I fear, my friends, we may indeed not long endure.
At the helm of the good ship America, we have a man incoming who lusts after his own distinction above all else, and I have all undoubting faith he will seek to obtain it at any price, by hook or crook, for good or ill. And as a people, we are at present without the tools to frustrate him, for we are not united; we do not seem to have a general understanding of the foundational concepts of self-governance; and we are far from being culturally devoted to intelligence.
The columnist Molly Ivins once pointed out that, “It is possible to read the history of this country as one long struggle to extend the liberties established in our Constitution to everyone,” and I believe this notion is instructive in now taking stock of the long view of history on the American experiment, and where we may go from here.
The experiment was seeded in Thomas Jefferson’s fusion of the plain language of Thomas Paine’s Common Sense with the loftier exclamations of John Locke’s Second Treatise on Civil Government, declaring not only American independence from Britain but also “inalienable” human rights, amending Locke’s “life, liberty and property,” to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” a slightly ambiguous if historically lapidary construction.
Jefferson went on to declare that government is formed and exists by the “consent of the governed,” thus launching the American experiment itself: The idea that government arises from the people and is not a gift to or imposition upon them. The self-evident genius of this notion of self-governance is tainted only by the strident hypocrisy of its slave-holding author.
(Jefferson construed slavery as an “obtrusion” of monarchy in a paragraph in the declaration struck out by his colleagues and highlighted in his Autobiography of 1821; though his views cannot be misconstrued, with regard to all men being created equal, to mean anybody other than white, male property-owners.)
Slowly, state by state, property qualifications for the franchise were eliminated, from the first, Kentucky (1792), to the last, North Carolina (1856).
And the experiment pressed forward, tainted as it was by its original sin, with Henry Clay and Daniel Webster banging out compromises over bourbon to extend the shelf life of this house divided against itself. When the house began to fall, Lincoln stepped in to brace the I-beams with his back and clench the finger-joints together with his fists. The forces of division shook the timber against him, and nearly 700,000 Americans lost their lives in the bloody struggle.
With the ratification of the 15th Amendment in 1870, voting rights were extended to non-white men and freed slaves (though Jim Crow laws successfully kept the franchise suppressed among these populations for another century after reconstruction was sold out in a deal handing the presidency to the loser of the popular vote, Rutherford B. Hayes, in 1876). The Dawes Act in 1887 granted citizenship, and thereby the vote, to Native Americans who disavowed their tribal allegiances.
In 1920, the ratification of the 19th Amendment guaranteed women the right to vote. In 1924, all Native Americans regardless of tribal affiliation were afforded the franchise. In 1961, residents of Washington D.C. were granted the right to vote in Presidential elections by the 23rd Amendment. In 1965, Protection of voter registration and voting for racial minorities, later applied to language minorities, was established by the Voting Rights Act of that year.
In 1971, the 26th Amendment granted voting rights to those 18-years-old and over after Vietnam War protests successfully argued that those old enough to fight were old enough to participate in self-governance. In 1986, United States Military and Uniformed Services, Merchant Marine, other citizens overseas, living on bases in the United States, abroad, or aboard ship were granted the right to vote by the Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act.
But please do not let the banal exposition of these dates and accomplishments undermine the fact that this progress was made at considerable cost, and bitterly opposed by those wishing to retain unearned primacy in the machinery of American self-governance.
To say its been a slog is to say the least of it, and to indicate that simple extension of the franchise is tantamount to overcoming all manner of overt and covert civil oppression is to do grave injustice to the creative intransigence of the ill-intended, and the heroic efforts of those who spilled their blood fighting for equality.
And so with that, I come ’round to the nub.
In 2004, a man who would become America’s first black president gave a speech at the Democratic National Convention calling for the nation to put away petty differences and unite in the embrace of the audacity of a hopeful future. This is how Barack Obama entered the national spotlight.
To the “spin masters” and “negative ad peddlers” ready to divide America, Obama addressed himself thusly: “I say to them tonight, there is not a liberal America and a conservative America — there is the United States of America. There is not a black America and a white America and Latino America and Asian America — there’s the United States of America.”
After being elected president four years later, Obama summoned Jefferson’s declaration of human rights while again calling for unity in his first inaugural address.
“On this day, we gather because we have chosen hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord. On this day, we come to proclaim an end to the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn-out dogmas that for far too long have strangled our politics. We remain a young nation. But in the words of Scripture, the time has come to set aside childish things. The time has come to reaffirm our enduring spirit; to choose our better history; to carry forward that precious gift, that noble idea passed on from generation to generation: the God-given promise that all are equal, all are free, and all deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness.”
Shortly into his term, his political opposition in U.S. Congress made their strategy clear. In response to his calls for unity, they would respond with the most recalcitrant disunity. Answering his calls of appeal to the better angels of our nature, they would embrace the worst, and obstruct him at every turn. Where he sought a united front, they sought division and racial resentment.
On our cultural stage, a real estate billionaire by the name of Donald Trump, who had found 21st Century celebrity on reality television, made his own foray into politics in 2011 by publicly questioning the President’s American citizenship and stoking the flames of racist conspiracy theories that President Obama was in fact a Kenyan Muslim.
Five years later, after running the most openly divisive, racist, sexist, anti-intellectual campaign the country has seen since America achieved empire, that same man, Donald Trump, was himself elected President.
Now far be it from me to say what is in the hearts of the nearly 63 million voters who cast ballots for this man Trump. Sixty-three millions voters, 63 million different reasons, a generous person might say. But the method of his political ascent is undeniable.
And in the long view of history, in the context of the American experiment and its original sin as I’ve attempted to sketch out in woeful brevity here, I expect posterity will be harsh, and judicious. ‘White’ America (as it were, race being a social construct) continues to be unwilling to accept, much less atone for, the shameful history of our country’s original sin, and is loathe to recognize the discordant tones that history continues to play on our collective culture and politics.
The question is whether that failure has finally put the dagger to the country’s own breastbone, by our own hand, and how we may now stave it off.
I’ll leave the last word to James Baldwin, who observed, “The great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways, and history is literally present in all that we do.”
D.C. DeWitt is a writer and man of sport and leisure. He has also written for Government Executive’s RouteFifty.com, the National Journal’s The Hotline, and The New York Observer’s Politicker.com. He is the Associate Editor of The Athens NEWS in Athens, Ohio. DeWitt can be found on Facebook and Twitter @DC_DeWitt.
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