“It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us … that this nation … shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” (Abraham Lincoln)
I have to confess, the history of the American Revolution failed to stir my imagination in high school. Those godawful powdered wigs. The morality tale of Washington fessing up to chopping things down with his little hatchet. Snooze-inducing stuff like The Stamp Act (which turns out not to be boring at all).
The American Revolution. I chalked it up to one big yawn. Especially when compared to the high drama, pathos, and moral imperative of the American Civil War. With its roots in the question of extending/ending slavery, its families divided North and South, and the terrible carnage at Gettysburg, Antietam, and Shiloh, the Civil War had me at hello. I crushed on Abraham Lincoln, that hero of the scruffy cheek; the wise, sad eyes. He epitomized all that was kind and brilliant and just—his own life an enduring reminder that poverty is a condition and not a character flaw.
I first borrowed Irene Hunt’s now-classic YA novel Across Five Aprils from my school library in fourth grade. It was a book I would take out five more times before moving on to middle school. If I’d been awarding points for best American conflict, the score would have looked like this:
Civil War: 100
American Revolution: 0
So I was not prepared to be especially moved by the TV series John Adams (HBO, 2008) based on David McCullough’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book of the same name.
Note to self: It’s important to re-examine one’s assumptions from time to time.
John Adams put me in another set of shoes, in another time. Made me think in new ways. Moved me to reassess old prejudices. And stirred something in my soul. Perhaps one just has to live long enough to appreciate what an enormous, pain-in-the-derriere struggle it was to forge a new nation from 13 wrangling colonies who saw eye to eye on very little. Crazier still, a representative democracy.
For what could be more egotistical, more foolhardy than to declare this fledgling union a democracy in defiance of a Europe still dominated by monarchies and old aristocrats? What living models could the colonists turn to for guidance? The Corsican Republic had a written constitution toward the end of its short life—little more than a decade—but was crushed by the French in 1769. All else was monarchs and oligarchs.
Adams, Jefferson, Franklin and the rest would have to cobble together their new government from the ether of political philosophers’ ideas. Men like Aristotle, Thomas Paine, John Locke, and Baron de Montesquieu. It was Montesquieu’s argument for an independent judiciary that Madison pressed for in the drafting of the Constitution.
Through the Looking Glass of Time
Not surprisingly, historians in every era since have weighed in on what the founding fathers concocted.
Writing in the wake of his extended visit to America in 1831, Alexis de Tocqueville credited the rise of equality to greater economic opportunities from increased trade and commerce, the cheapening of the nobility by the royal sale of titles, and the abolishing of primogeniture. He admired much in the new American democracy: the way everyone shook hands with each other, the considerable number of people active in public life, the fabled New England town meetings where all citizens were entitled to a say in civic matters. He pronounced America’s four-year cycle of presidential elections a “revolution.”
Yet, de Tocqueville had his concerns. In a society of equals, he feared, the majority would always hold sway and silence minority opinion and rights. He observed this “tyranny of the majority” in the North where free black men who had the legal right to vote were often prevented from doing so by the white majority. “I know of no country in which … there is less independence of mind and true freedom of discussion than in America,” he wrote.
Boston University political scientist, historian, and activist, Howard Zinn, weighing in 150 years later, viewed the American Revolution through the lens of progressive 20th century sensibilities. Zinn claims the Founding Fathers received more than their due of adulation, and debunks them as democracy’s true
heroes. While admitting they led the War for Independence, he takes them to task for their motives, stating it was not for equal access to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness they fought, but for a government that would “protect the property of slave owners, land speculators, merchants, and bondholders.” The true revolutionaries, he says, were men like the soldiers of Pennsylvania and New Jersey who mutinied against their gentry officers, George Washington among them, for the luxurious treatment they enjoyed. Men like Massachusetts farmer, Daniel Shays, who led a revolt against the seizure of homes and farms for nonpayment of extortionate taxes.
From Harvard historian Alex Keyssar: “It’s hard to argue that we were a democracy while slavery existed or while African Americans were denied the franchise.” To that, one could add the suffrage in 1776 did not admit white men who owned no property, Native Americans, or women of any station.
Two things jump out at me as I read these assessments:
1) Persons and events of historical note are almost universally held to account by the standards of the historian’s day. De Tocqueville, for example, was untroubled by women’s exclusion from the suffrage and did not view it as an inequality because, like his peers in the 1830s, he believed women did not belong in political or economic life.
While there’s no denying that the fledgling America excluded all but propertied, white, Christian men in its concerns for democratic rights, in this the founders were no more backward or reactionary than the world they inhabited. Judging the value of what they created by the measure of modern progressive sensibilities is like decreeing Shakespeare sucked as a playwright because he reflected the prevailing attitudes of 1600, and failed to champion political and social equality for women, Jews, and Moors. In holding the past to a standard it had not yet dreamt of, we may miss what was truly revolutionary in the moment.
Indeed, ratification of the Constitution was held up because a number of the original framers and state delegates insisted it include a list of individual rights. In 1791, such a list was added—ten amendments known as The Bill of Rights specify restrictions on the government’s power. The Constitution, itself, outlines a process in Article V for further amendments to be made through the people’s elected representatives. In the past 226 years, seventeen amendments have been added, including the 13th Amendment which abolished slavery at the close of the Civil War.
History, quite fortunately for historians, always has a tidy beginning, middle, and end, but all the living present ever offers us mere mortals is uncertainty.
The Real Gift of the Founders
John Adams does not paint the founding fathers as heroes of epic stature or selfless idealists. Adams, himself, is portrayed as something of a pompous curmudgeon, riddled with vanity and insecurity, but his dedication is undeniable, unrelenting.
When asked to view John Trumbull’s now-iconic painting, The Declaration of Independence, a mammoth work that depicts Congress gathered in stately fashion for the presentation of the draft document, Adams takes a brief glimpse, then turns away. “It was never like that,” he tells Trumbull.
Apocryphal or not, it may be the truest and most profound line of the series. For it was not an ideal democracy ordained and presided over by godlike geniuses that was the great gift of the founding fathers, but the idea of democracy. An idea that has fired imaginations and shaped the dreams of men and women for the past 240 years.
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness—That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed…
The idea of democracy has inspired men and women like Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, Margaret Sangar, Barbara Gittings, Martin Luther King, Jr., César Chávez, Gloria Steinem, and millions more whose names have not made the history books. It has informed labor unions, the Civil Rights movement, the Women’s Movement, The Rainbow Coalition, and the LGBTQ Rights Movement. It has given rise to events such as The Great Railroad Strike of 1877, the Bread and Roses Strike of 1912, Selma, Little Rock, Stonewall, the anti-war protests of the 1960s, and Standing Rock.
The Center for American Progress writes: The activists and leaders of these movements believed deeply in the empowerment and equality of the less privileged in society, the primacy of democracy in American life, and the notion that government should safeguard the common good from unchecked individual and commercial greed.
The idea of democracy.
No Great Idea Goes Unchallenged
It would be disingenuous to suggest the struggle for democracy goes unchallenged. It is and has been challenged every day since the ink was still wet on the Constitution. John Adams, himself, took potshots at it during his presidency. Afraid France would make war on the new nation, and distressed by increasing press attacks on his administration, he passed four pieces of legislation in 1798, known as the Alien and Sedition Acts, granting greater authority to the federal government, especially the president.
The last of the four laws, the Sedition Act, allowed Adams to define what constituted treason including writings he deemed false, libelous, or malicious. He intended to silence the newspapers and pamphlets he felt unfairly criticized him. Twenty-five men were arrested and imprisoned, including Benjamin Franklin’s grandson, a newspaper editor.
Backlash was immediate. Adams actions were rightfully considered abuse of his powers and a threat to free speech. Jefferson’s party gained control of Congress and the presidency in 1800, where they let three of the four Acts expire. (The Alien Enemies Act, though modified, has survived into the present and was used as an argument to intern Japanese, German, and Italian Americans during World War II.)
Fifty-seven years later, on the eve of the Civil War, the Supreme Court ruled in Dred Scott v. Sandford that “a black man has no rights a white man is bound to respect.” In what has been called the worst decision the Supreme Court ever made, it was decided that black Americans whether enslaved or free were not and never could be U.S. citizens.
Shortly after the Civil War, Myra Bradwell applied for admission to the Illinois Bar, but was denied admittance by the Illinois Supreme Court because she was a woman. Bradwell appealed the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court, claiming the 14th Amendment’s Privileges and Immunities Clause protected her right to practice law. The Supreme Court disagreed: The 14th Amendment did not apply and therefore the decision was up to the state of Illinois. Bradwell’s gender was a critical factor for several SCOTUS judges. Justice Bradley noted: [the] natural and proper timidity and delicacy which belongs to the female sex evidently unfits it for many of the occupations of civil life… The paramount destiny and mission of women are to fulfill the noble and benign offices of wife and mother. This is the law of the creator.”
“The Creator” has often been used to justify denying various groups of American citizens their democratic rights—women, people of color, LGBTQ folks. It was a cruel irony that black American soldiers sent to fight Hitler in World War II returned home only to suffer the fascism of the Jim Crow South.
In recent years, the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United v. FEC has allowed corporations and their billionaire CEOs to drive America’s destiny by heavily funding extreme right wing candidates who do their bidding, and financing hundreds of millions of dollars in attack ads against any candidate who supports environmental protections, stricter gun laws, or checks on Wall Street—even though most Americans support these things.
Greed, racism, misogyny, homophobia—the idea of democracy has always been challenged. Yet, its promise continues to energize millions of Americans to protest, to strike, to risk imprisonment for their beliefs. Witness the recent Women’s March, the constituents speaking out against “Trumpcare” at Town Halls, the No Wall No Ban protests, the Climate March.
The idea of democracy, it seems, refuses to lie down and die. As John Steinbeck’s Tom Joad says in The Grapes of Wrath: “I’ll be all around in the dark – I’ll be everywhere. Wherever you can look – wherever there’s a fight, so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there. Wherever there’s a cop beatin’ up a guy, I’ll be there. I’ll be in the way guys yell when they’re mad. I’ll be in the way kids laugh when they’re hungry and they know supper’s ready, and when the people are eatin’ the stuff they raise and livin’ in the houses they build – I’ll be there, too.”
The Task Before Us
Two days after the 2016 election, author Neil Gabler, heartbroken, wrote: America died on Nov. 8, 2016, not with a bang or a whimper, but at its own hand via electoral suicide. We the people chose a man who has shredded our values, our morals, our compassion, our tolerance, our decency, our sense of common purpose, our very identity — all the things that, however tenuously, made a nation out of a country.
Whatever place we now live in is not the same place it was on Nov. 7. No matter how the rest of the world looked at us on Nov. 7, they will now look at us differently.
I understand Gabler’s despair in that moment. Empathize with it. Elected officials, especially presidents, and court justices are significant for the power they wield, the good or ill they do to ordinary Americans. They may even threaten the institution of democracy itself. But they can never kill the idea of democracy. It remains impervious to all their blows, their attempts to enslave us for their own greed and aggrandizement. As long as we dream democracy, the idea lives.
We stand at a crossroads. It’s not the first in our history. It is likely not the last. Like our country’s founders, we find ourselves in the living present with all its uncertainty. And the one grand idea they left us: the idea of democracy.
It is up to us to push forward this idea while protecting all that is precious and at risk—freedom of the press, voting rights, civil rights, the environment, healthcare, the social safety net, our public lands, our public schools. It’s a long list at the moment.
Just before finishing this post, I took a trip to that most democratic of all institutions, the grocery store—everyone comes to the grocery store. As I stood in line to check out, I watched the people. Old people, young people, families with kids. Latinos, whites, blacks, Asians. Some people were doing the week’s shopping. Others were grabbing a six-pack of soda and chips. It’s Monday of a long holiday weekend, so people’s faces were more open, their smiles a little wider, their laughter more generous.
I thought about the hopes each of them may harbor. How, basically, everyone wants to live a life free from fear. A life where they have a home and food, and the means to procure both, with a little money and time left over for what they enjoy. How everyone needs to feel respected, a citizen, a voice with a say. A person whose life matters.
That is the idea of democracy. That each of us matters. That we all have a say.
(Featured photo by Franck Prevel)