Monday, January 19, 2009

Historical ramblings below

I have been pondering the significance of tomorrow for quite some time now. I am somewhat reluctant to join in the wave of hope and hyperbole, the myriad dreams that cannot help but go unfulfilled, but yet I cannot escape the sense that we are watching truly historic forces at play here. This is one of those rare moments in history where the republic may well invent itself.

There are very few such moments. You can count them on one hand.

The first obviously is our revolutionary founding, making something from nothing. Our revolutionary history is greatly misunderstood, I believe, and its heritage not fully appreciated. That comes in part from our romanticization of the "founding fathers" as well as from their own self-contradictions. They spoke of self-sacrifice, but for the most part were wealthy men. The most blatant problem, of course, was accurately penned by the wit of Dr. Samuel Johnson, who was amused that he heard the "loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes.”

Yes, they were conflicted and contradictory, but we should know the heritage they left us, of commonwealth and republic. Both basically mean the same thing, the "common good." For a rather old, but still brilliant exposition of this notion, see Bernard Bailyn's Idealogical Origins of the American Revolution. Revolution came from corruption. A once-sacrosant British constitution had been undermined by faction, greed and corruption. The antithesis of corruption was virtue. Virtuous citizens were not rapaciously acquisitive. No, they sacrificed for the common good, the res publica. The argument for revolution was that England was hopelessly corrupt, and to preserve the rights of Englishmen, separation was necessary.

Thomas Jefferson expressed this sentiment well, when he described the Louisiana Purchase as an "Empire for Liberty." He envisioned the purchase as the source of land for generations of yeoman farmers to come.

Unfortunately, res publica crashed into westward expansion, and self-sacrifice and virtue dissolved into acquisitive capitalism. However, transformation was not done.

The American Civil War, where millions of dollars of "property" in humanity became valueless, and the promise of the Declaration, postponed by an ambivalent and somewhat cowardly revolutionary generation, was set on its way to fulfillment. Abraham Lincoln, on January 1, 1863, committed the full force of federal arms to fundamentally reshaping American society.

It is 1933, and America confronts fear itself. FDR, an aristocrat who came into office wedded to a balanced budget, realizes the nature of the moment and commits government to doing something that had not been done to date. Government, in FDR's New Deal, existed to do POSITIVE GOOD in society.

And now, Barack Obama confronts the same challenge, the challenge to stand in his place as we re-invent America. He needs to seize and direct those elements of all the earlier seismic changes. The notions of the public good, virtue, self-sacrifice, the citizenry and personhood of all, and government as a transformational force, must all be celebrated as the defining values of what the new America will become.

Yes we can.

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