Tuesday, November 1, 2011

American Heroes Contd.

In a previous post I mentioned that I found that Americans of the civil war generation(s) make better, more relatable heroes than those of the Founding generation(s), because they came from a democratic society.  Thinking it over again, I realized that I should perhaps attack the point from another angle.

The Americans of the Founding generation created something new.  They did not know what they were creating -- Providence (as they themselves might say) had it's own ideas about the future shape of the Republic.  But they were creating a new nation and laying out it's principles for the first time.  They were not burdened with a previous constitution or government -- the Articles of Confederation were cast aside after less than a decade in force.  Once British dominion was overthrown, all cards were on the table.

Perhaps this is why their debates can have such an abstract, philosophical quality to them -- things were newer then, and much of what Jefferson or Hamilton thought about what made a republic work was so much theory.  There was no roadmap to creating a republic out of a formerly subject nation.

This is radically different from our situation in the present day.  We have over 200 years of laws, legal precedent and custom to deal with.  Our constitution is older than that of any other major nation, and many provisions, such as the Senate and the Electoral College, started to show their age long ago.

The problem of our aging constitution is only compounded by the tendency of Americans to idolize the founders and their ideals.  Beyond simple hero worship, the abstract quality of the founder's thoughts and writings makes them seem timeless.  And to some extent, they are.   But there is no firm dividing line between the principled and the practical in the actions of the founders or in our constitution, and the principles aren't necessarily right because James Madison held them.

To use a specific example, it is absurd that we treat an institution (the Senate) that was created mostly to appease Delaware as though it were a logical outgrowth of republicanism itself.  I've even heard the continued disenfranchisement of DC defended using the logic of 1787 -- that it wouldn't do to allow the -seat- of government to vote, creating an interest in government itself.  Never mind that almost all the bureaucrats (and the soldiers and the contractors, who are even more numerous) live in the suburbs.  After 230 years, an industrial revolution, a civil war and the complete redefinition (several times over) of citizenship, a lot has changed.

That's where the heroes of the civil war come in.  Because they didn't create this nation, but they helped to redefine it.  Frederick Douglass looked at the same constitution as Jefferson and Madison and Garrison and Taney and saw not a pro-slavery but a pro-freedom document.  Against what it had meant to white men for 60 years, Douglass reinterpreted it.  Beyond the Constitution, Douglass stood up and refused to let white men tell him what America was and what an American was -- he reinterpreted American-ess just as he reinterpreted the constitution.

Lincoln was not a callous tyrant who tossed the constitution aside, whatever the Lost Causers and Paleolibertarians (if there is a difference) may say.  But he used his Executive powers to suppress rebellion to revolutionize American society (and win the war).  In his Second Inaugural he sees the war as cleansing a great American sin -- the nation's actions in the present atoning for and correcting the mistakes of the founding.

In both Douglass and Lincoln I do not see men who saw America as a land blessed with a perfect (almost Pharasaic) Law from the start, but as a work in progress.  They themselves were engines of that progress, along with the nameless Quaker who agitated against slavery before the war, the slave who 'contrabanded' himself in 1862 and the Union soldier (black or white) who fought, killed and died to make the nation whole again.

Viewing our country as a work in progress admits our own responsibility as citizens -- not just to keep things as they were, but to help our nation evolve.  Heroes like Lincoln and Douglass* provide touchstones for a common myth of how our nation once met that responsibility.  It would be a shame if we neglected them, and ceded the American pantheon to those who worship The Way Things Were.

*And George Thomas and the Grimke Sisters and Robert Gould Shaw and...

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