We find ourselves at a crossroads in the history of the USA. But, it’s not exactly a new place. It’s a new fork in an old road that we’ve travelled since before the foundation of the Republic. We’ve confronted this choice before, and now we face it again in very stark terms. We have to decide what kind of country we want to be, what kind of future do we want.
Who gets to be “The People” in the first three words of the Constitution , “We the People …” , is the central conflict in the history of the USA. Before the 14th Amendment, that answer was simple, white male property owners. After 1865, the meaning of “The People of the United States” became ever more expansive. Until now. Do we want to continue expanding that designation, or do we want to restrict it to those who are somehow entitled, who have somehow “inherited it” or “earned it?”
Here are two memorials to two fundamentally opposed conceptions of the United States. The first is the Lincoln Memorial, the temple that is not quite a temple designed by Henry Bacon with Daniel Chester French’s colossus of Lincoln enthroned like the Olympian Zeus as its centerpiece. It is as much a monument to the union of the states as it is to Lincoln’s memory. The names of the states are carved on the attic story and on the entablature. Inside are the the Second Inaugural Address and the Gettysburg Address inscribed on the walls.
“Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.
Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.
But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate, we can not consecrate, we can not hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, 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.”
With these brief words dedicating a military cemetery, Lincoln transformed the Declaration of Independence from a quaint old relic into a binding document, a mission statement for the United States (as Gary Wills pointed out). “We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these rights are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.” These once antique words rose off the parchment to guide future generations to transform the abstract concepts of Equality and Liberty into concrete reality for an ever widening enfranchisement of all types and conditions of humanity. Freedom and Dignity would become universal birthrights.
The meaning of the Lincoln Memorial would be renewed and expanded by the many historical events that took place on its steps from Marian Anderson’s Easter Concert in 1937 to Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” speech in 1963.
The Confederate Memorial on Stone Mountain in Georgia is the largest bas-relief sculpture in the world. It shows three leaders of the Confederate States of America, Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, and Stonewall Jackson. Carving of the Memorial began in 1916 at the behest of the Daughters of the Confederacy. Gutzon Borglum began the sculpture, but abandoned it to work on Mount Rushmore. A succession of sculptors finally completed the monument in 1972. It is carved out of the very substance of the State of Georgia, a large natural rock outcrop. The monument commemorates the rebellion and secession of the Southern states against what they saw as a threat to their “way of life.” Articles of Secession from a number of states made clear what they saw as at stake. Here is a passage from the Texas “Declaration of Causes: February 2, 1861,” Texas’ declaration of secession:
“We hold as undeniable truths that the governments of the various States, and of the confederacy itself, were established exclusively by the white race, for themselves and their posterity; that the African race had no agency in their establishment; that they were rightfully held and regarded as an inferior and dependent race, and in that condition only could their existence in this country be rendered beneficial or tolerable. That in this free government all white men are and of right ought to be entitled to equal civil and political rights; that the servitude of the African race, as existing in these States, is mutually beneficial to both bond and free, and is abundantly authorized and justified by the experience of mankind, and the revealed will of the Almighty Creator, as recognized by all Christian nations; while the destruction of the existing relations between the two races, as advocated by our sectional enemies, would bring inevitable calamities upon both and desolation upon the fifteen slave-holding States.”
Using language that consciously echoes the Declaration of Independence, the Texas Declaration repudiates the very idea of human equality, and likewise appeals to the Creator as the author of such an order. The Confederacy was about more than defending slavery. It was about the divinely ordained dominion of the white race as they saw it. The rightful place of all the rest of humankind was under the tutelage of the white race
It could be argued that the Confederate Memorial commemorates an idea that is much more securely rooted in the realities of human history. Most of that history is a record of aggression, conquest, and defeat. The great Swiss Protestant theologian Karl Barth argued that history in the end was nothing more than the natural struggle for survival and domination projected into the social sphere. The historian James McPherson pointed out that the South in 1860 with its large plantation farms and slave labor looked much more like the rest of the world than did the North with its industry and independent small farmers. The Confederacy was much more truly like ancient Greece than the self-proclaimed democratic North. In light of such a view of the world, as an arena of endless struggle for survival and dominion among nations, the ideas behind the Lincoln Memorial appear to be the most ridiculous liberal sentimentality.
And yet, those ideas proclaimed in the marble of the Lincoln Memorial are at the heart of modernity, ideas that the human condition is not immutable, that it can be changed, that we are not doomed to win our bread in painful toil after all, that kings and queens and nobles are not necessarily our divinely ordained guardians, that perhaps we can decide for ourselves how we wish to be governed. While the success of those ideas may very well be in doubt, there is no doubt that vast numbers of people continue to pin their hopes on them and vote for them with their feet. From fugitive slaves fleeing the South, to African Americans fleeing Southern segregation, to Irish fleeing famine and oppression, to Germans fleeing violent reaction, to Jews fleeing Tsarist Russia and Nazi Germany, to people fleeing Communist rule in Europe and Asia, to rural people migrating to cities, to now legions of frightened people fleeing the bloody chaos of a collapsing Middle East or gang violence in Central America or bloody conflicts in Africa, people continue to vote with their feet for Freedom and Dignity over Tutelage and Domination.
I very much hope that the coming return to ideas proclaimed on Stone Mountain is but a brief pause in the real mission of the USA, and not a permanent retreat.