With so much vitriol and ignorance being winged at one another these days by politicians, social media gurus, political analysts, talking heads, and just about anybody in the country with a forum, I thought I’d share with you a book-in-the-making about the long influence cast on us by our Revolution and the Constitution.
The manuscript, to be published next year, is about the two faces to the American Revolution: one was devoted to satisfying the goals of the largely white Americans who led the Revolution and led America over the following century, and the second subscribed to the notion that liberty, equality and freedom were the principle contributions of the great American experiment, the “exceptional” America. Both views were offered by the same Americans.
The first goal has many different names, some recognizable by all of you in school at one time or another, like “manifest destiny,” “imperialism” “capitalism,” “racism” and “white supremacy,” just for starters. The second goal is altruistic and is based on Americans’ understanding of natural law and their other great source of principles to live by, Christianity. This is sometimes labeled the multiracial and multicultural nation.
So, what was it? What is our nation about? The answer by the author, a retired historian from the University of Georgia, Lester Langley, is what makes this book so good.
The answer is not static or bound by time. We are, in fact, on a journey and are devoted to reconciling the conflicting ideals of the Revolution. We believe — all in one breath — in liberty, equality, freedom, democracy, capitalism and progressivism, and now, it seems, we have held our noses in the collective face of historical realities (Stalin, Castro, Mao, etc.) and even subscribe to democratic socialism, which, in my book at any rate, is a non sequitur.
José Martí, the great Cuban patriot of the late 19th century, described this duality well. Martí admired the ideals of self-determination, independence and equality in America, but he also was rightfully suspicious of American imperialism, especially with respect to his home island of Cuba.
Other Latin Americans also admired the devotion to self-determination, democracy, liberty and equality in North America. But they were suspicious of the imperial side of the gringos to the north, whether it was stripping Mexico of half its national territory after the Mexican-American War of 1848 or supporting dictators friendly to the U.S. during the long Cold War, for example.
The tension in American life between liberty and the existence of slavery came to a boil in the mid-19th century, and the Civil War decided finally and with authority that slavery had to go, and the federal union possessed the final authority over states’ rights.
If you want some insight into today’s apparently irreconcilable conflicts, look at how Americans in the decades preceding the Civil War assailed each other in public forums as viciously as today. Passions ran high because so much was at stake — the very nature of man and the government he created — and today’s loud and contentious, not to speak of rude and crude, civil discourse was every bit as deeply felt and expressed 150-200 years ago. We may not be headed to another Civil War or Revolution, but the recrudescence of violence as a means of expressing one’s self does not bode well.
What’s the upside here? What did all Americans active in making our country have in common? Was it democracy, liberty, equality, imperialism, manifest destiny, capitalism, socialism or some combination of “isms” that bound us together?
Let me suggest as gently as possible, especially to readers who may be atheists, agnostics, or of faiths other than the Judeo-Christian tradition, that it was none of the above. The cultural and religious fabric of our country is Christianity, born in Judaism, and telling us — in quite simple and clear ways — what is right and wrong in the world we inhabit.
I know some of you may turn to science and reason for the answers, and, assuredly, a lot does come from our inventive geniuses who gave us everything from rocket ships to tweets, although the latter may be a mixed blessing at best. Or perhaps you find natural law, or democracy among the Greeks (lots of war between them also; check out Athens and Sparta), or some other source for your truth. But the truths — clear, unequivocal, and absolute — are in Scripture. They are the common context which unite, rather than divide, us.
Okay, end sermon. Pass the plate, and off to lunch.
Larry Clayton is a retired University of Alabama history professor. Readers can email him at email@example.com.