I enjoy learning about American history. At present, I’m both watching Ken Burn’s documentary “The Vietnam War” and reading a biography of Andrew Jackson entitled American Lion. I recommend both.
One thing I can say about studying history, whether it’s American history, world history, or Church history, is that it offers one thing so often missing from contemporary conversations: perspective.
It’s easy to think that our times are the worst of times (people seem rarely to think their own time the best of times). With a president in the White House who is a particularly easy target of criticism, political polarization in Washington and around the nation, violence in our streets, in our schools and in the workplace, a media that seems more interested in setting the agenda than reporting the news, the reputations of long respected institutions like government and church in the dregs, the family seeming under attack from every angle, and intractable issues like immigration and racial tensions tearing apart communities, one would think that these are truly the worst of times in the U. S. of A.
But, consider the times of Andrew Jackson. There sat in the White House a man who represented the worst of humanity in the minds of his political opponents, and those opponents had little interest in taming their attacks on him. And Jackson gave back as good as he got. Can you imagine if twitter had been in his hands! Trump’s critics claim he abused women and engaged in unsavory business practices. Well, Andrew Jackson actually killed a man in a duel. He also was shot near the heart and carried the bullet in his breast the rest of his life.
People today look to the 2016 election as evidence of corruption in the election process. You want corruption? How about the campaign of 1824? Jackson won the popular vote, but not the Electoral College. It became a three-way competition to be settled by the House of Representatives. Henry Clay, one of those candidates, was accused of having arranged for his supporters in the House to vote for John Quincy Adams, securing the election for Adams. Adams then named Clay his Secretary of State. Jackson’s supporters immediately cried foul, and the supposed arrangement has gone down in history as “the corrupt bargain.”
In the next campaign, 1828, Adams faced Jackson again. Jackson’s supporters accused Adams of pimping for the czar of Russia (literally, as in providing him the services of women), while Adams’ supporters accused Jackson of military atrocities for having executed six men for desertion and accused his wife of being a whore and adulterer. Jackson’s wife died just after the election, and Jackson attributed her death to the stress of the accusations against her by his political rivals. Jackson himself is regarded as one of our country’s greatest presidents and greatest criminals. He certainly changed the presidency, making it a far more powerful institution than it had been in previous administrations, but also forced the Cherokee and other native peoples off their homelands and onto reservations in the West. The polarization we deplore today was nothing compared to that of Jackson’s day, when southern states, and even his own Vice-President, John C. Calhoun, advocated a policy called “nullification,” claiming that the individual states had the authority to “nullify” federal laws with which they disagreed. It was a precursor to the Civil War.
As for the Vietnam War, I don’t have to say much to those who are old enough to remember it. I don’t really know a lot about the history of our conflict in Vietnam, but I’m learning that we ought to have gotten out of there sooner than we did. Our government routinely lied or covered up activities to exploit the public politically. We would have done Vietnam and ourselves a huge favor if we had recognized the political dead-end South Vietnam was and abandoned the corrupt, self-centered leaders of South Vietnam when we knew the war was unwinnable. Sure, Vietnam suffered under communism, and still does politically. But, in recent years, after having reduced communism to economic symbolism and adopted capitalism, Vietnam is a growing economy. Imagine how much sooner that would have happened naturally had we let it. All we accomplished is prolonging a war ten years longer than it otherwise would have lasted, leading to tens, even hundreds of thousands more deaths and vast destruction. Has there been any issue in the last 100 years that so divided the nation more than the Vietnam War? At the same time, the Civil Rights movement was in full throttle. We tend to remember the non-violent aspects of the Civil Rights movement, personified in Martin Luther King, Jr. But, there was plenty of violence and civil unrest. Today’s polarization is nothing compared to the protests, riots, campus take-overs, bombings, burnings, political assassinations, etc… that erupted in those years. Four dead in O-hi-o! Four dead in O-hi-o!
What’s the point of all of this? The point is that thing I mentioned earlier that is so often missing from contemporary conversations: perspective.
We don’t celebrate the independence of the United States of America each year because the U. S. A. is some beacon of perfection among nations. We celebrate it because the ideals propagated in the Declaration of Independence, ideals lived out imperfectly even by the men who exalted them, represent the best humanity has to offer, politically, this side of the Kingdom. No nation, empire, or people in the history of the world, prior to 1776, attempted to form a government “of the people, by the people, for the people.” We take it for granted, but we shouldn’t. Our neighbor to the north has no guarantee of free speech, and their Supreme Court just decided a major set-back to religious freedom, their Chief Justice justifying it by declaring a philosophy of law so malleable as to incite fear into the heart of a freedom-loving people. Our neighbor to the south is struggling with levels of criminal cartel violence and political corruption we’ve never faced, so much so that they’ve put their hopes in a man many compare to Hugo Chavez, an megalomaniac who destroyed his country’s economy and political foundations.
I recall reading a story after the 1984 presidential election. A political militant in South America was watching Walter Mondale’s concession speech, congratulating Ronald Reagan on his victory and vowing to work together to move America forward (you know, the standard stuff). The political militant was dumb-founded. He turned to his American friend, watching with him, and wondered why Mondale didn’t organize his army to take out Reagan and his supporters, then declare himself president. That’s what he would have done. That’s what so many have done in so many other nations in history. In fact, a peaceful transition of power has been less the norm in history than violent take-overs. In so many countries, it still is.
But not here. No, we may not like the results of our elections. We may accuse the winning side of cheating, corruption, collusion with foreigners, and complain that our electoral process is out of date. But, there are no armies marching on the White House. There are no shoot-outs between Trump’s forces hunkered down in the oval office while Clinton’s forces lay siege. Madonna may boast stupidly about bombing the White House, but no one took her seriously. Our Senators and Representatives may argue back and forth, may even occasionally act indecorously, but there are none who feel the need to tell their supporters to gather the guns and bring them to the Senate chamber, as Sen. Thomas Hart Benton did in the 1830’s, or engage in physical attacks on opposing members, like when abolitionist Sen. Charles Sumner was caned near to death by pro-slavery Rep. Preston Brooks in 1856.
Chuck Schumer and Mitch McConnell may exchange unpleasant words, but no one is caning anyone. The assassination attempt on Rep. Steve Scalise was the exception, not the norm, as it nearly was in the 1960’s to the early 80’s (Evers, JFK, King, RFK, Malcolm X, Wallace, Ford, Milk, Reagan).
There is much to celebrate, even as there is much work to be done toward improving our country. The economy is good, unemployment is low, ISIS is largely history, our president did what presidents are supposed to do and listened to public pressure, changing the policy of separating immigrant families, the Supreme Court has, in recent decisions, upheld religious freedom and free speech rights, we are not currently involved in any hot wars in the world. There is much to improve, including de-escalating the violence in our cities, our schools, and our workplaces, continuing to work to end abortion and create real options for women facing crisis pregnancies, abolishing the death penalty, adopting real immigration reform, re-building the reputation of our government and our churches, protecting the family from attack, improving our schools … and so much more.
Even still, I believe the United States represents what Abraham Lincoln said it did in an 1863 letter to Congress just before he signed the Emancipation Proclamation: “In giving freedom to the slave, we assure freedom to the free — honorable alike in what we give and in what we preserve. We shall nobly save, or meanly lose, the last best hope of earth.”
To nobly save or meanly lose the last best hope of earth remains our challenge today. Let’s commit ourselves to pray for our country and to work that the ideals of the Declaration be lived more truly with each passing generation.
Be Christ for all. Bring Christ to all. See Christ in all.