What to the slave is the fourth of July?

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America, perhaps now more than ever, finds herself in a tenuous political situation. As a nation we are a diversity of interests divided across political lines and socio-economic circumstances; in fact, America can hardly be considered one nation of united citizens. So what does the fourth of July mean to us? How is unity possible under such circumstances? Has the American experiment failed?

Perhaps America is most divided against herself because we have forgotten that it is an experiment in self-government, rather than a failsafe solution to suffering. In Federalist 1, Alexander Hamilton famously observed of this experiment that

it seems to have been reserved to the people of this country, by their conduct and example, to decide the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force. If there be any truth in the remark, the crisis at which we are arrived may with propriety be regarded as the era in which that decision is to be made; and a wrong election of the part we shall act may, in this view, deserve to be considered as the general misfortune of mankind. This idea will add the inducements of philanthropy to those of patriotism, to heighten the solicitude which all considerate and good men must feel for the event.

Although his statement smacks of declarations previous to his own, (The shining city upon a hill imagery is taken from Jesus’ “sermon on the mount” and John Winthrop understood that America was to become this city) the sentiment is worth remembering, for it traces the burden borne by us Americans. Hamilton wisely declares that “if there is any truth” in this American exceptionalist rhetoric, that our conduct, whether good or bad, will either provide a great misfortune for mankind or will be considered an act of philanthropy for all men everywhere. It was once believed that America had the opportunity to act as a beacon that shines her light to all men in all places, is this still evident?

No man understood the irony of such exceptionalist rhetoric more than Frederick Douglass. Thus, on July 5th of 1852, as a free black man, he dared to ask the question “what to the slave is the fourth of July”? Given our precarious political situation, his answer is one that we will soon be reminded of in our media: “Your celebration is a sham…There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices, more shocking and bloody, than are the people of these United States, at this very hour”. Why did Douglass believe that our celebration was a sham? Did he see any hope that this nation may right her wrongs? Is there any hope today?

Twenty years later, Douglass would deliver another speech. His aged reflections provide the tonic to his more candid rhetoric. Despite his earlier reminder regarding the great irony of the Independence Day, he reminds us Americans why Hamilton’s experiment in self-government is worth saving and worthy of our devotion. He reminds us

Nothing can bring to man so much of happiness or so much of misery as man himself. Today he exalts himself to heaven by his virtues and achievements; to-morrow he smites with sadness and pain, by his crimes and follies. But whether exalted or debased, charitable or wicked; whether saint or villain, priest or prize fighter; if only he be great in his line, he is an unfailing source of interest, as one of a common brotherhood; for the best man finds in his breast the evidence of kinship with the worst, and the worst with the best. Confront us with either extreme and you will rivet our attention and fix us in earnest contemplation, for our chief desire is to know what there is in man and to know him at all extremes and ends and opposites, and for this knowledge, or the want of it, we will follow him from the gates of life to the gates of death, and beyond them.

So is Trump’s America worth saving? Although it often seems that we are one nation divided under God, America still provides the greatest opportunity for kinship with our fellow man and honest reflection upon the nature and virtues of humanity. Is there any nation more diverse than America? Is there any city that dares declare that it will act as example to the world as much as our own? How many localities in the world organize county fairs under the premise of fawning over livestock, only to band together with their fellow citizens over a funnel cake or a box of popcorn? How many in America, on the other hand? How many races have been welcomed into our country, despite our more recent shortcomings? In other countries are such conversations regarding the propriety of immigration even possible, or are such conversations settled before the debate may even take place? Despite our recent tendency to close our borders, how many students of different colors, origins, and religions still study under the same roofs of our schools and break bread at the tables at those school? How many of those schools provide that bread that is to be broken? How many millions would be willing to provide that bread for those students if the common fund was unwilling? How many Americans would be willing to fight and die to save those children if a second 9/11 were to occur? How many have made that high sacrifice? How have we forgotten?

America is imperfect; the Founding of our country is riddled with contradictions, and sadly some of our founders held slaves in bondage. Today in America, slavery is illegal, although it can be argued that certain forms of slavery still exist. However, I like to think that Frederick Douglass smiles happily upon this divided nation as it attempts to grapple and work through its contradictions through civil discourse and disobedience, however misguided it sometimes may seem. I like to think that were he here with us today, he would understand the great strides we have made to realize the principles of our Declaration and solidify the rule of law under our Constitution. Although our government and our politics is riddled with contradictions to this day, and although our founders can be considered both saints and villains from different vantage points, our divided nation gives us that opportunity to “Confront either extreme [of man] in earnest contemplation” and endeavor to cement a brotherhood more lasting and more enduring. Because of the work of Douglass and the Founders both, we have the opportunity to endeavor to “follow them from the gates of life to the gates of death, and beyond them” and make our mark on this great nation and its experiment in freedom for all, no matter how great or small any of us may be or feel under the weight of the political burdens of our day.

So what is the fourth of July to an American today? It is a much needed respite to reflect on this great opportunity to establish brotherhood with so many unlike ourselves. It is a wonderful time to recognize our civic duty to extend our hands to one another and recognize our similarities rather than our differences.

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Thoughts on Charlottesville

The David was also a very controversial monument in its day. The greatest explanation is that it is a rebuke of the Medici family and an assertion of the strength of the people in the face of tyranny. Where David represented the everyman, the underdog, and the slayer of the giant, the rich and empowered Medici could be tied to Goliath who was overpowered by the man with hidden strength and intelligence. A statue of Hercules was later erected to sit beside David outside the Medici palace as a message that brute strength rightfully rules

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This all started because someone decided to cave and attempt to erase history. History is not for us to love or hate, but to learn from in order that we not repeat the mistakes of the past. So that we be better, wiser, and more prosperous than our fathers before us. Attempting to erase the past will only erase truth as well as our capacity to grapple with it and become wiser in order that we not repeat it.

America is founded upon certain principles. These principles are what Lincoln called the “sheet anchor of American Republicanism”. These principles, although we neglect to recognize it, are our “philosophical cause”, as Lincoln put it. In other words, they brought all other thoughts of America into being. In regimes past, you see, citizens were not free to dispute certain individual principles publicly or politically: it was illegal and punishable by death to go against the word of the representative body or the crown. America’s proclamation that individuals had certain inalienable rights, such as that of speech and demonstration, put an end to this understanding of rule. The Declaration of Independence thereby reversed the role of government and governed and made the ruling body subject to the words and orders of the people rather than vice versa. Because this “philosophical cause” gave weight and expression to all other ideas about American democracy and representative justice, Lincoln understood this philosophical cause as “entwining itself more closely about the HUMAN heart”. In other words, Liberty was something that we could all agree on. I argue that this should therefore be our spring board for civil discourse: it should be understood that this is what we all have in common.

What gave way to the Charlottesville “riots” is a demon that has been brooding in the heart of America and in Americans. It is a spirit much too maniacal to be considered “partisan”, as many have called it. I understand this demon as a depreciation of our capacity to grasp this common understanding of a “philosophical cause” which results in a neglect of an understanding of the common dignity of man. What follows from this understanding of the dignity of man is a certain sense of civility requisite for civil discourse and real self-government.We have lost this understanding, as we have lost what brings it into being. In order to understand our own dignity and the dignity of our fellow man, we have to understand, As Madison once told us, that all men are not angels, else there would be no need of civil government in the first place.

Our forgetting that men cannot become angels has brought us to Charlottesville, or at least the events that led to Charlottesville: the tearing down of General Lee’s statue. Why do we want to tear down monuments? Simply because we believe that we are better than those of the past merely by our existing in a time set apart from that of theirs. Because they can no longer defend themselves we tear them down in order to exalt ourselves. We do not do the due diligence of learning from them, and in turn learning of ourselves and educating our children in matters of right or wrong in order that they may rise to the level of wisdom and equality for good self-government, but rather we hide them from the truth because often the truth elicits some ugliness. We want to destroy all that is flawed in the world so our children do not witness it and we no longer have to bear it. We do this all the while neglecting to understand that we ourselves are flawed and the logical consequence of our destruction of the past and its monuments is a decimation of ourselves.

As for the technicalities of the Charlottesville tragedy, those who were protesting the tearing down of Lee’s statue had gotten a legal permit to exercise their first amendment rights from the local government. They had followed the proper regulations in order to exercise legal rights. We may dislike them, but their rally was lawful. Contrary to their position, the word went out for a counter-protest to occur which included groups from a different side of the political spectrum. What should have happened is that these two groups should have been kept miles apart. I do not understand why any local law enforcement agency would allow these two groups close proximity.

I do not wish to criticize either group, wrong as I think they each are. We have gotten into the habit of criticizing groups of people in this country, and that is very wrong. If we are to understand Liberty in order that we foster it we must begin to judge individuals with the dignity due to individuals. We must begin to understand that demonizing our opponents as if they are packs of wolves has gotten us nowhere, that both parties have suffered greatly from the onslaught lain at their doors by their opposition, and that justice and self-government, liberty and the safeguarding of individuals rights, is not a zero sum game. If one group loses, then we all lose. If you cut your neighbor down, then your conscience and sense of dignity suffers.

So how are we to understand one another? I am always apprehensive to write about contemporary politics. It is too ugly and complex, and therefore I refrain from passing judgment all too quickly. As Lincoln once said, “Better to stay silent and be thought a fool than to open your mouth and remove all doubt”. I prefer beautiful things that lift people up to sad news that diminishes my respect for “this last best hope” for freedom.

So I turned to Moby Dick, as I always find myself doing.

“Men may seem detestable as joint stock companies and nations; knaves, fools, and murderers there may be; men may have mean and meagre faces; but man, in the ideal, is so noble and so sparkling, such and grand and glowing creature, that over any ignominious blemish in him all his fellows should run to throw their costliest robes. That immaculate manliness we feel within ourselves, so far within us, that it remains intact though all the outer character seem gone; bleeds with keenest anguish at the undraped spectacle of a valor-ruined man. Nor can piety itself, at such a shameful sight, completely stifle her upbraidings against the permitting stars. But this august dignity I treat of, is not the dignity of kings and robes, but that abounding dignity which has no robed investiture. Thou shalt see it shining in the arm that wields a pick or drives a spike; that democratic dignity which, on all hands, radiates without end from God; Himself! The great God absolute! The centre and circumference of all democracy! His omnipresence our divine equality!” 

A few paragraphs ago I pointed to history as a tool for teaching our children so that they may “rise to the level of equality requisite for self-government”. Although a peculiar phrase, I used it intentionally. I used it with my students just as my mentor Peter Schramm used it with myself and my fellow Ashbrooks. Melville and Peter could agree on this, I like to think: we are all born with a certain sense of dignity, being human and naturally free. We have great capacity and all the gifts that “radiate without end from God”; however, it is so very easy to slip up, to lose our privilege of practicing those rights which our forefathers have secured for us. I use the phrase “rising to the level of equality” because it is so easy to lose the privileges that come with the dignity that we are born with. Rising to equality means becoming strong and wise enough to make prudent choices that bolster our ability to practice freedom rather than making the choices that detract from the proper use of our freedom. Abuses of power and imprudent governance makes freedom falter just as we make the choice to limit our freedom when we commit injustices such as murder or theft. Although we like to believe that our natural dignity entitles us to certain privileges and freedoms, history teaches us otherwise. Millions of people before us have made mistakes in governing themselves and have lost the prosperity that their forebearers had worked so diligently to pass down. Although we like to believe freedom is promised, human history speaks to us of a perpetual endeavor not only to reach freedom, but to keep it. Benjamin Franklin famously declared that the founders had given us “A Republic, if you can keep it”. What Franklin, a student of history and a world traveller, understood was that it was much more difficult to keep the rights that our founding secured for us than it was to sign a document declaring that those rights were just.

But notice what Melville proscribes for the keeping of dignity. He claims that it is proprietous for good men to throw their “costliest robes” over the valor ruined. Although it is our impulse to rebuke the unjust, to point fingers and prove to the world that we are right when others are in the wrong, where has this gotten us? I hope and pray that we understand that it takes a community of robe throwers for men to rise to the level of equality and wisdom necessary to promote justice and the good. I pray that one day we will be wise enough to understand the blessings of union and the future felicity that compromise and selflessness have in store for those who can endure the pain of refraining from telling the entire world that they are right and the other side is wrong. I can promise you, that the world will not listen however loud you may proclaim.

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This statue of Lincoln was found vandalized on August 16th, in the wake of the Charlottesville tragedy. Let us not fight fire with fire. 

Why Term Limits Won’t Save You

As of late, I have observed the clamoring for congressional term limits. I understand this expression of the American mind to be a very bad thing in itself, and very bad in its consequences.

Thucydides understood the three impulses leading us to clamor as action, money, and power.

We are angered that no action is taken when there are so many problems in need of resolution. We become further angered that our representatives are amassing wealth and refusing to produce value for our society. All of this leads us to feel powerless and unimportant in a regime supposedly fashioned to suit the needs of We the People.

What I hate most about this election cycle is that it has highlighted the vices of our country. Meaningless soundbites have divided an otherwise prosperous and peace loving people, coercing them into the belief that government “of the people, by the people, and for the people” was not a promise reserved for the posterity of Washington, but only for those few favored by chance. I hate it because it makes for bad citizens- citizens who would rather resort to mob rule than moderate themselves by deliberation and choice. I hate it because it inclines good citizens to resort to unsound arguments and untruths- a clear submission to the lie of tyrants that might makes right. I hate it because it undermines the patriotism that our country so needs if we are to sustain our favored freedom at home rather than the shackles and shame of the backward nations across the globe. I hate the apathy assumed by my fellow citizens who I know are inclined to good, but consider their very voice powerless under what they believe to be the weight of a government instituted to protect the lives and livelihoods of a fortunate few. But most of all, I hate it because it causes me to tremble in fear that this last best hope for freedom may perish from this Earth, and our posterity will rebuke myself and my generation for its abatement.

The crux of freedom, as Alexis de Tocqueville noted, is that it suggests the “idea of the indefinite perfectibility of man”. We, being free people, assume that the principle of freedom promises the prospect of limitless progress. We Americans are never satiated, and are held in the constant fancy that we may always, in some way, improve our lot. There always has been, and is, contrary to popular belief, an expanse of opportunity open to each individual in this country. We are free to move from sea to shining sea, and are at liberty to reorder our lives at the drop of a hat if we so wish. Recent studies show that Americans on average change careers seven times within one lifetime. We Americans love change, and when our opportunity for change is limited we lament. The same is true with our public policy. We wish to change it, and change those who have the ability to change it, because we are constantly reinventing new beliefs regarding justice.

Tocqueville generally saw this as a blessing among Americans, but it was nonetheless a problematic blessing, as all earthly blessings are. Because of our tendency for constant change, when we create things our intention is never that they may last long. Because we have freedom to think, we constantly envision the opportunity to create something better, and we constantly desire to improve upon what we have previously created. James Madison saw this as a political vice in need of restraint. In Federalist 62, he claims,“It will be of little avail to the people that the laws are made by men of their own choice if the laws be so voluminous that they cannot be read, or so incoherent that they cannot be understood.” This is where we now find ourselves. The recent Patient Protection and Affordable Healthcare Act marked legislation applicable to every citizen of the United States and ran 20,000 pages long and growing. Within the time it would take one to read the act, you could read the United States Constitution 4,000 times. Because of our love of constant improvement, and our be the change belief system, we have laws on the books that we cannot possibly take the time to read, nevertheless understand and habituate ourselves to faithfully observe. In Lincoln’s Lyceum Address he urges “a reverence for the constitution and the laws”. How can we possibly revere a law that would take a lifetime to read?

The belief in the “indefinite perfectibility of man” goes further, applying to our elected officials as well. Because we are a people who believe in progress and goodness, and a people who see injustice each and every day, we want to create parchment barriers to bar injustice. We are a sympathetic people who believe ourselves robbed of the opportunity to exercise our help to a people who most need it. We have been promised equality, but we constantly see those around us lacking the means to raise themselves up by their bootstraps.

I, like Tocqueville and Madison, believe this sentiment to be an honorable one, but a problematic one. At one point in our nation’s history we attempted to pass legislation to perfect the art of growing raisins. Believe it or not, this attempt at perfection still plagues us today. The same legislation just reached the Supreme Court in 2015 in the case Horne vs. United States Department of Agriculture. Often times it is more difficult to repeal bad laws than to pass good ones. The more bills that are voted upon in congress, the more the opportunity to perfect existing laws or repeal problematic laws diminishes. Agricultural marketing orders were once introduced as depression era regulations meant to stabilize crop prices. They now endanger the livelihoods of small farmers across the country, and the raisin marketing orders are particularly egregious. Under the USDA the Raisin Administrative Committee decides what the proper yield of raisins should be in any year and meet to decide an equitable price for the raisins that small farmers grow. Each year, they force every raisin farmer to surrender a percentage of their crop to a reserve pool that cannot be sold in the U.S. As the profit margins of raisin farmers have diminished over the years due to low tariffs on foreign raisins rendering them cheaper than those grown in California, the annual return of the farmers has dwindled. In 2003 farmers received zero dollars in return for the 47% of their product that they were forced to surrender to the federal government. Imagine yourself living on 53% of your family’s annual income in order to fulfill an almost hundred year old marketing order that promised the perfection of the industry in which you  find yourself. Similar regulations exist for nectarines and mandarins under the USDA. Did you know that your fruit is color tested, and even “squish” tested? The lesson being: the more distance between the people and their laws, the more ridiculous they become. The higher the laws aim, the more laws are passed. The more laws that are passed, the smaller your opportunity becomes as a citizen to repeal laws that harm you.

The bottom line is that perfection through government may not be possible, and our lawmakers and enforcers may not be angels. We have seen this in the news as of late. But the regime in which we live was fashioned in order that men may better order their lives to become prosperous without the interference of a wicked few attempting to eat the bread that we earn from the sweat of our brows. Perfection is the aim of the individual, protection is the duty of government so that the individual may pursue that perfection. In regards to term limits for your elected officials my advice is what Lincoln learned through experience. If you wish to change public policy to establish justice, leave your law office and participate in politics. Write to your congressman. Read the laws that are being passed in Congress. Withhold your vote if your voice is not being heard. Create a coalition with those in your locality to participate in local and national elections. If your voice is not heard, ensure that your voice will be heard and that you may be better represented. And as Lincoln implores, “Stand with anybody that stands RIGHT. Stand with him while he is right and PART with him when he goes wrong”. It is no easy task, but it is your civic duty and it is in your interest.

Madison feared that the constant reintroduction of new legislation would undermine recognition of the law. Lincoln understood that the inability to recognize the law made it difficult to revere the law and the country to which you owe so much. Tocqueville urged that limiting the years a man may serve would get rid of bad men, but would bar good men from the opportunity to exercise their good judgment.

It has occurred to me that this may not be the most contentious of elections in the annals for our nation’s history. All popular elections are wrought with partisan objection and petty politics. Many elections have been comprised of scandal, as politics always has. The difference in this election being the lacking strength and organization of parties and their ability to restrain their candidates, and the opinion of the people that their votes don’t matter much. This causes them to believe the system broken, and the promise of freedom frittered away. We grope for some ground upon which we may feel that we are in some sense represented. We demand more legislation to mitigate the multitude of duplicity that is the product of our own demands. Public opinion, what Lincoln would refer to as that thing “Upon which our Union rests”, gropes for more action among representatives, more equality, more for the individual, for the group to which the majority belongs, more freedom to do as they please with things that they have not yet earned.

Wrong as we think this current trend in popular government is, we cannot forget the lives lain down for our freedoms. Let us be diverted by none of those sophistical contrivances wherewith we are so industriously plied and belabored. Let us not be dissuaded by such attitudes as “don’t care” on a question about which all true men do care. Do not bow to such disrespect to your grandfathers who did choose to fight, begging and imploring all good citizens to unsay what great things they said and undo what they did. Let us have faith that we still have a stake in this government of ours, and let us understand that God commends our efforts on this small stage of life.