The Obama farewell address: advice from another world?

Posted on May 16, 2017. Filed under: American history, Politics, U.S. Constitution | Tags: , , , |

At long last we wrap up the close reading of President Obama’s farewell address that we began on January 13! We, like most of the nation, have been waylaid and distracted many times since then by the almost daily, certainly weekly news bulletins from Washington alerting us to almost every conceivable type of crisis or question or misstep arising from the Trump administration.

Five months into that administration, we begin to wonder if it serves any purpose to follow all those bulletins. What good does listening to accounts of our Constitution being violated, our national commitment to making liberty and justice for all a reality being ridiculed and undermined, or our president acting like a king do? What action can we take? Do marches work in the long term? Petitions? Shouting matches at town hall meetings? Jokes on late-night talk shows?

One of those things does work, and it’s nice that it’s the town hall meetings. On this site that so often discusses the Puritans, creators of the American town hall  and town hall meeting, it’s good to be able to join with our last president in his optimistic view of the future by recommending a return to something the Puritans valued deeply: taking right action.

In this case, it’s political action. As those Americans who believe our system of government—that any system, almost any kind of government—is the problem and not the solution, a hindrance at best and a trap at worst, attempt to dismantle it, we have to step up to keep it alive. Participate in local government. Vote, attend town hall meetings, go to candidate information sessions, learn how your government is supposed to work. Keep track of your state government. Write or call the people you elect to get information on how they plan to vote on upcoming legislation. Vote. Get referenda or other popular, grass-roots legislative change engines running if you need to. Do the same for your federal government.

This can be exhausting. Many Puritan men who were full church members and thus entitled to vote and run for political office chose never to become freemen and do so. (Freeman was their term for a full [male] citizen.) They knew how much time it took. Going to meetings after work is tiring. People with families may struggle to do it. Taking time out of the weekend is challenging.

But we were never so desperately in need of our democracy as we are now. So answer the call to right action. Be represented in our representative democracy. Choose the optimism Obama sent as his final message, the message that says if we remain inside our government, if we are its engine, we keep it alive and we keep it honest. Don’t let those Americans who break the government and then say we should throw it out because it’s broken achieve that self-fulfilling prophecy. Don’t wait for Democrats to retake the House and Senate; this is just an aggravation of the partisanship that’s killing us. We need to find ways to unite. Cross as many bridges as you can to create unity behind the real American identity, which is ever-expanding justice, liberty, and the common good.

We’ll finish with a quote from John Adams to motivate us:

There is nothing which I dread so much as a division of the republic into two great parties, each arranged under its leader, and concerting measures in opposition to each other. This, in my humble apprehension, is to be dreaded as the greatest political evil under our Constitution.

Go unite our states.

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Finding historical context for 2016–or manufacturing it?

Posted on December 16, 2016. Filed under: American history, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , |

Since the presidential election, many people, including historians, have stepped up to say that the nastiness of the campaign and the election of Trump are not unique in American history.

You think this election was nasty? Look at Adams v. Jefferson! You think Trump says crazy things? Look at Andrew Jackson! You think Trump is racist? What about Wilson!

This is meant to reassure us that nothing fundamental is changing in American politics or society. But this is critically inaccurate. This type of comparison normalizes Trump, and fits him into a continuum when he is actually unique in presidential history. First and foremost, no other person has come into office swearing to destroy our federal government. Aside from that, we have had about about 60 years of dedicated expansion of civil rights in this country, to black, Asian, and Latino Americans; to women; to gay Americans; to non-Christian Americans.

Trump goes forcefully against the tide of this history and he is the leader of a backlash against civil rights in this country that we fear will last many, many years. Backlash is inevitable, but the fury of it now is alarming. One can only hope that once all the forces of white supremacy and sexism and homophobia come parading out, real Americans can do battle with them and restore the mandate to offer liberty and justice to all given in our founding documents.

So to all historians and others saying we need more civility, we agree up to a point: civil discourse is crucial to democracy. But 2016 was not about civility.  Yes, Jefferson v. Adams was uncivil—does that make it like 2016? No. Something much bigger is now at stake. Something much worse is happening.

We can’t use history to hide our heads in the sand and to (ironically) deny that this is a historic moment in our history. We can use history to inform our response to this historic moment.

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The real allure of the Founders

Posted on April 18, 2008. Filed under: The Founders | Tags: , , , |

Everyone is loving the John Adams special on HBO, and with good reason. It’s well done, and gives a real sense of who Adams was. But does it really spell out why he was great?

I was reviewing a study of De Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, the section where De Tocqueville talks about lawyers. To his mind, they are the linchpin of American democracy because lawyers combine a love and knowledge of democracy with a strong desire for stability and order.

Sounds like Adams, doesn’t it? What made him, and the other Founders, great was that they took their zeal for liberty and democracy and created a workable, stable framework for it to exist and thrive in. They knew that zeal alone resulted in anarchy. They had to combine passion with stability, and they did so with unprecendented success.

So when we see Adams fearing the mobs of Boston, or defending the British soldiers accused of the Boston Massacre, or hammering out what seem like minor policy issues in the Continental Congress, what we see is Adams’ understanding that all that passion in the mob or the Congress has to find an orderly, sensible expression in government. Without government, passion is anarchy. Without good government, passion is killed.

Rather than seeing Adams’ focus on rules as pedantic or evidence of lovable curmudgeonliness, then, we should recognize it as the genius of democracy that De Tocqueville was wise enough to see.

We would be equally wise today to vote for politicians like Adams, who understand and love democracy and our founding principles, and combine that love with a desire to create stable, fair laws for our nation. At a time when politicians seem to rely more and more on stirring up the voters’ passions–usually about topics that have little to do with government–we need to step up and remind those who seek office that their job is to promote our democracy by creating laws that back our founding principles. If we were all passionate about that, we would be in a very good place.

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John Adams has my vote!

Posted on April 11, 2008. Filed under: The Founders | Tags: , , |

I was reading Adam’s 1797 inaugural speech, where he has this to say about the American people, when faced by the obvious inability of the Articles of Confederation to form a “durable” government for the United States:

“In this dangerous crisis the people of America were not abandoned by their usual good sense, presence of mind, resolution, or integrity. Measures were pursued to concert a plan to form a more perfect union, establish justice… and secure the blessings of liberty. The public disquisitions, discussions, and deliberations issued in the present happy Constitution of Government.”

Just so! As I point out in Truth v. Myth: The Declaration of Independence, the usual course of action when a newborn revolutionary government begins to stumble is to descend into total, bloody civil war, out of which a harsh and reactionary government usually emerges.

Not so in the United States.

Adams goes on to say something that was true of him, and should be true of every president and presidential candidate: “I had the honor to be elected to a station under the new order of things, and I have repeatedly laid myself under the most serious obligations to support the Constitution.”

If we were to vote for presidential candidates based on how much and how well they uphold our laws, our Constitution, our system of government, we would be a much-improved nation. If our lawmakers and politicians were willing to experience serious challenges in their support of our Constitution, we would be a much-improved nation.

For, as Adams asks, “What other form of government, indeed, can so well deserve our esteem and love?”

A candidate who loves and esteems our form of government. Think of it! Not someone who has a particular agenda, but someone whose particular agenda is motivated by determination to fulfill our mandate as a democratic nation based on promoting natural rights.

That’s who to vote for. Too bad it’s not 1797.

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