Please join me in this ongoing effort to create a working mission statement for America that may help us to hang together lest, as Benjamin Franklin noted, “we shall all hang separately.” (Note to Oval Office: Franklin: a great American, invented electricity, currently dead.) At the end of yesterday’s post, I wrote of four times in our history when leaders articulated a common story to unite us. At least three things bind their stories together: (1) the community (later nation) faced a severe crisis; (2) The stories were aspirational – that is, they tried to inspire future actions, rather than glorify, or even justify, past behaviors; and (3) the later ones built on the ones that had gone before – and sought to expand the community to include those who had previously been left out. As such, they were building blocks in the ongoing project of constructing a nation.
1630: John Winthrop and his small band of Puritans aboard the Arbella faced a frightening and, to them, hostile wilderness, having left behind everything they had ever known, except each other. They had not come to practice religious toleration but to escape it, and they ill-treated almost everyone they encountered, annihilating the Native Americans, hanging the occasional Quaker who wandered into their Massachusetts Bay Colony, banishing Antinomians and all other heretics from their midst, and generally trying to build as exclusive, intolerant and holy a community as they could. Mostly they failed, although one runs into their spiritual descendants from time to time.
1776: When the Framers looked out across America a century and a half later, the Puritan community had been superseded by all kinds of people clamoring for a place: Protestants of almost infinite denominations; Catholics; Jews; Deists; even Black freedman . . .but of Native Americans, slaves, women, and even most non-property owners, there were none. But the Declaration of Independence was also a declaration of war, and so the framers, at least rhetorically, opened their arms to “all men.”
1863: In response to this nation’s greatest crisis, Abraham Lincoln expanded the definition of its community beyond what anyone had ever imagined – extending it to four million slaves who had until then been the property of fewer than 400,000 families. Yet again the job was not complete. Many of the generals who had led the Union army went on to exterminate the Plains Indians; women were nowhere to be found in the new definition; nor were the great waves of immigrants coming to stoke the furnaces of our massive industrial growth.
1963: As Freedom Riders launched a surging movement for simple justice against Jim Crow and American apartheid, Martin Luther King, Jr.’s speech at Lincoln’s Memorial pushed boundaries further than they had ever been pushed before – even in the face of intractable resistance from those who sought not to broaden, but to constrict, America’s community.*
A floodgate had opened, as others kept coming forward to demand their place in the definition of America, including the gay community, the disabled, and working class whites.
Next up: Identity Politics
*“In the name of the greatest people that have ever trod this earth,” said Alabama Governor George Wallace, also in 1963, “I draw the line in the dust and toss the gauntlet before the feet of tyranny . . . and I say . . . segregation today . . . segregation tomorrow . . . segregation forever.”