Remember When Trump Said “I Alone Can Fix It?

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As I watch cities burn, the economy tank, people die of COVID-19, and our political culture rage in an election year, my mind wonders to 2016.

On July 21, 2016, Yoni Appelbaum, an editor at The Atlantic, responded to Donald Trump’s speech in Cleveland as he accepted his party’s nomination for president.  Here is a taste:

In 2016, Donald J. Trump mounted the stage, and told America that the nation is in crisis. That attacks on police and terrorism threaten the American way of life. That the United States suffers from domestic disaster, and international humiliation. That it is full of shuttered factories and crushed communities. That it is beset by “poverty and violence at home” and “war and destruction abroad.”

And he offered them a solution.

I am your voice, said Trump. I alone can fix itI will restore law and orderHe did not appeal to prayer, or to God. He did not ask Americans to measure him against their values, or to hold him responsible for living up to them. He did not ask for their help. He asked them to place their faith in him.

He broke with two centuries of American political tradition, in which candidates for office—and above all, for the nation’s highest office—acknowledge their fallibility and limitations, asking for the help of their fellow Americans, and of God, to accomplish what they cannot do on their own.

But when Trump said, “I am your voice,” the delegates on the convention floor roared their approval. When he said, “I alone can fix it,” they shouted their approbation. The crowd peppered his speech with chants of “USA!” and “Lock her up!” and “Build the wall!” and “Trump!” It booed on cue, and cheered when prompted. It seemed, in fact, to chafe—eager to turn a made-for-TV speech into an interactive rally, and frustrated by Trump’s determination to stay on script. Not every delegate cheered; some sat stiffly in their seats. But there was no question that the great bulk of the delegates on the floor were united behind Trump—and ready to trust him.

Read the entire piece here.

Then came Trump’s inaugural address. I wrote about it recently at USA Today. Trump promised to bring an end to the “carnage” scattered across the American landscape. In my piece I asked, “How should we think about Trump’s use of this word in the context of closed businesses and record unemployment during the pandemic?

Now we add urban race riots to the carnage and the man who claimed that he “alone can fix it” has done nothing to bring healing. Instead, he is fighting with a social media company, threatening violence with violence (he has always aid his favorite Bible verse is “eye for an eye“), and indulging in fantasies about attacking protesters with “vicious dogs” and “ominous weapons.” Is this what Trump meant by “I alone can fix it?”

He has yet to deliver a public statement to the nation, but I am not sure anyone really cares. By this point he has lost all moral authority to deal with this situation. He can only appeal to his base.

Take the Trump Inaugural Address History Exam (My Piece This Morning at *USA Today*)

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Here is a taste of “Did he free us from disease? 15 essay questions for a Trump inaugural address history exam”:

One day soon, students will read Donald Trump’s inaugural address. Good history teachers will understand the speech, as they do with all presidential rhetoric, in the larger context of the Trump presidency.

I recently revisited the speech amid this coronavirus pandemic. I imagined what kind of essay questions I would put on a future exam related to this period in American history. Here are a few:

Trump never had an approval rating over 50%. Considering this fact, how should we explain his calls for national unity? Other presidents saw their approval ratings soar in times of crisis. Why didn’t this happen to Trump?

Trump said that the “Bible tells us, how good and pleasant it is when God’s people live together in unity.” Did this kind of spiritual harmony exist during Trump presidency? Did the church speak truth to power with a united voice? Discuss the state of American Christianity in the age of Trump.

Read the rest here.

The Mixed Blessings of Civil Religion

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The editors of The Christian Century see the positive and negative affects of American civil religion. Their recent editorial was prompted by the lack of civil religiosity in Donald Trump’s inaugural address last month.

Here is a taste:

Theologians have long been wary or dismissive of civil religion, noting that it often functions as a rival religion to authentic faith—it’s a brand of Christian heresy. Civil religion borrows Christian themes but celebrates the stories and martyrs of the nation rather than the church and treats the nation rather than the church as the vehicle of God’s purposes. As such, especially in times of war, American civil religion has been an invitation to hubris and self-righteousness; it can cloak mundane self-interest in religious garb.

Yet because civil religion claims a transcendent purpose for the nation, it has also offered a basis for judging the nation’s failures and spurring it to reform. Because the nation has claimed high ideals for itself, it has invited a moral critique. It was in that tradition that Martin Luther King Jr. blended biblical ethics with democratic principles to condemn racial segregation as a betrayal of the nation’s creed of equality for all. It is in that tradition that protesters took to the streets in recent weeks to insist that the United States fulfill its promise to be a beacon of freedom to refugees from all lands and religions.

Christians have no ultimate stake in the survival of American civil religion. Its demise under Trump could conceivably encourage the church to claim and assert its distinct identity apart from the rhetoric of American politics. Yet insofar as the demise of American civil religion spells the contraction of moral imagination and the loss of a horizon of moral judgment and aspiration, it is hardly a development that Christians can cheer. The collapse of a Chris­tian heresy can lead to things that are far worse.

Read the entire piece here.

Sean Spicer: “America is the Greatest Country on Earth.” Donald Trump: “Make America Great Again.”

make-america-great-againEarlier today Sean Spicer, Donald Trump’s press secretary, said to reporters:

Look, coming into this country is still a privilege. We’re the greatest country on Earth. And being able to come to America is a privilege, not a right. And it is our duty and it is the president’s goal to make sure that everybody who comes into this country to the best of our ability is here because they want to enjoy this country and come in peacefully. And so he takes that obligation extremely seriously.

Wait a minute, I am really confused now.  I thought America was a land of carnage and decay that can only be fixed by Donald Trump.  If America is the “greatest country on Earth” then why do we have to make it great again?

Here is how Trump described America in his inauguration address:

But for too many of our citizens, a different reality exists: Mothers and children trapped in poverty in our inner cities; rusted-out factories scattered like tombstones across the landscape of our nation; an education system, flush with cash, but which leaves our young and beautiful students deprived of knowledge; and the crime and gangs and drugs that have stolen too many lives and robbed our country of so much unrealized potential.

This American carnage stops right here and stops right now.

Why would so many refugees and immigrants want to come to a dump like this?

🙂

HT: Marty Masar.

Donald Trump is Historically Challenged

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Here is a taste of my recent piece at History News Network:

Four days before Inauguration Day 2017 Civil Rights hero and Georgia Congressman John Lewis questioned, in light of Russian hacks that seemed to hurt the candidacy of Hillary Clinton, the legitimacy of the Trump presidency.  As is his custom, Donald Trump responded via Twitter: “Congressman John Lewis should finally focus on the burning and crime infested inner-cities of the U.S….”  It happened on the day before America celebrated Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

As expected, this exchange of words fueled the usual partisan politics in Washington.  Some thought Lewis was out of line to say that Trump was not a legitimate president.  Others were appalled that Trump would respond in the way he did to a living legend who almost gave his life in the Civil Rights Movement.

Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson tried to steer a middle course in the debate, but in the process he put his finger on a serious problem with the Trump presidency.  Trump’s response to Lewis, Gerson wrote, suggested that he “seems to have no feel for, no interest in, the American history he is about to enter.”  Gerson added, “He will lead a nation that accommodated a cruel exception to its founding creed; that bled and nearly died to recover it’s ideals; and that was only redeemed by the courage and moral clarity of the very people it had oppressed.”

Gerson is right about Trump’s failure to understand his presidency as part of a larger American story.   His inaugural address only reinforced this point. Trump made no attempt to situate his vision for the nation in a shared past.  In this sense he echoed the revolutionary Thomas Paine who told the British-American colonists in 1776 that “we have it in our power to begin the world over again.”  

Read the rest at HNN.

 

“America First” In Historical Context

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Pundits are calling Donald Trump’s inaugural address the “America First Speech.”  Thanks to the work of historians, many Americans are now aware of the history behind this phrase.  But just in case you have not had a chance to get caught up on the meaning of “America First,” I want to call your attention to Krishnadev Calamur’s recent piece at The Atlantic.

Here is a taste:

The phrase in itself might provide comfort for those of Trump’s supporters who have long railed against what they see as lawmakers in Washington catering to special interests, corporations, and other countries at the expense of, in their view, the American worker. But the phrase “America first” also has a darker recent history and, as my colleague David Graham pointed out Friday, was associated with opponents of the U.S. entering World War II.

The America First Committee (AFC), which was founded in 1940, opposed any U.S. involvement in World War II, and was harshly critical of the Roosevelt administration, which it accused of pressing the U.S. toward war. At its peak, it had 800,000 members across the country, included socialists, conservatives, and some of the most prominent Americans from some of the most prominent families. There was future President Ford; Sargent Shriver, who’d go on to lead the Peace Corps; and Potter Stewart, the future U.S. Supreme Court justice. It was funded by the families who owned Sears-Roebuck and the Chicago Tribune,but also counted among its ranks prominent anti-Semites of the day.

“It had to remove from its executive committee not only the notoriously anti-Semitic Henry Ford but also Avery Brundage, the former chairman of the U.S. Olympic Committee who had prevented two Jewish runners from the American track team in Berlin in 1936 from running in the finals of the 4×100 relay,” Susan Dunn, the historian, wrote on CNN last April.

But charges of anti-Semitism persisted, and were compounded with perhaps one of the most infamous speeches given by one of AFC’s most famous spokesmen, Charles Lindbergh. In a speech in Des Moines, Iowa, on September 11, 1941, Lindbergh expressed sympathy for the persecution Jews faced in Germany, but suggested Jews were advocating the U.S. to enter a war that was not in the national interest.

Read the entire piece here.

It is also worth noting that the cartoonist Theodore Geisel, aka “Dr. Seuss,” published several cartoons critical of “America First” in the pages of the left-leaning, interventionist New York newspaper PM.

Here are a few of those cartoons:

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The Bible and Inauguration Day

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Here’s a piece I wrote on Inauguration Day.  It ended up never seeing the light of day at a news outlet, so I am posting it here.  –JF

On Friday morning Donald Trump attended a pre-inaugural service at the historic St. John’s Episcopal Church in Washington D.C..  As part of the service he heard a sermon from Robert Jeffress, the pastor of the First Baptist Church in Dallas.  The minister was one of the first evangelical leaders to endorse Donald Trump’s candidacy for President.

Jeffress used the Old Testament story of Nehemiah to claim that God had placed Trump in the presidency for a “great eternal purpose.”  He urged Trump and Vice-President Mike Pence not to let their critics distract them from that purpose.|

In an interview with Fox News host Bill O’Reilly on the evening before the service, Jeffress explained why he thought Nehemiah was appropriate for such an inaugural sermon.  Nehemiah, after all, was a builder.  God told him to build “a giant wall around Jerusalem to protect the citizens.” The megachurch pastor described Israel in Nehemiah’s day as a nation that “had been in bondage for years in Babylon” with an “infrastructure” in “shambles.”  No one could miss the analogy.

Jeffress’s attempt to connect the Bible to contemporary political issues facing the United States—in this case immigration, infrastructure development, and national security—is nothing new.  Politicians and preachers have been using the Bible to promote similar agendas since the American republic was born.

In his famous revolutionary-era pamphlet Common Sense, Thomas Paine tried to convince the colonies to declare independence from George III by invoking the devastating spiritual and political consequences that the nation of Israel suffered after God gave them a King.

Abraham Lincoln quoted from the Sermon on the Mount to bring healing to the nation in a time of Civil War.  John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan turned to Matthew 5:14 (or at least the 17th-century Massachusetts Puritan John Winthrop’s use of it) to extol America’s exceptional role in world affairs. Barack Obama loved to remind Americans, using Genesis 4:9, that “we are our brother’s keeper.”

Patriotic clergymen in American history have not hesitated to mistake New Testament references to the spiritual liberty that Christians enjoy through faith with the political freedoms that all Americans enjoy as citizens.

For over two-hundred years Christian preachers have used their pulpits to argue that God’s promises to Old Testament Israel apply to the United States of America. With this context in mind, it is worth noting that Jeffress’s sermon was just the beginning.

In his inauguration address Trump quoted from Psalm 133:1: “How good and pleasant it is when God’s people live together in unity.”  What was originally written as a call for the gathering of Israel to worship the Lord in Jerusalem was used by the new president as a call for Americans to put aside their differences and unite around the Trump presidency.

And it did not stop there.  In her closing invocation, evangelical pastor Paula White conflated Psalm 90:17 with the Pledge of Allegiance.  She prayed: “Let your favor be upon this one nation under God.”

There were few references to the Bible on Inauguration Day that did not use the sacred scriptures of Christianity to buttress either the United States of America or Trump’s particular vision for it.  The closest exception came when Rev. Samuel Rodriguez read Matthew 5—a passage, known as the “Beatitudes,” that reminds Christians to be poor in spirit, humble, meek, pure in heart, peacemakers, and suffer persecution for their beliefs.

If taken seriously, the message of the Beatitudes should serve as a stinging rebuke to the new President as he enters office.  Only time will tell if that is the case.

If Trump’s campaign and period of transition are any indication, I have my doubts

Trump’s Greatest Speech So Far

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When you practice the same speech over and over again you get pretty good at delivering it.

Since Donald Trump announced on June 16, 2015 that he was running for President of the United States he has been giving the same stump speech around the country. Yesterday that speech became his inauguration address.  In terms of delivery, force, and its appeal to his base, it was the best speech I have ever heard Donald Trump deliver.

Barack Obama called us to hope.  Donald Trump basically said that there is no hope apart from his presidency. Trump made no reference to American ideals. There were few references to our better angels.  There were no references to taking care of each other or working for the common good.  Trump painted a picture of a nation defined by “carnage” and “decay.”  The only hope of rising above it all, he seemed to suggest, is to put one’s faith in the strongman. Trump represents the worst form of populism.  At times he sounded like the leader of a religious cult.  At other times he reminded me of the Twilight Zone character Major French riding around in an old jeep and carrying a machine gun as he tried to solidify his power in a post-apocalyptic America.

Trump won the election because he understood the plight of white working people. Indeed, these folks have been left behind.  Factories are closed. Jobs have gone overseas. Globalization is destroying local communities.  People want better trade deals. The national infrastructure is in a state of decay.  Trump has become their champion.

Others voted for Trump primarily because he promised to deliver the Supreme Court. These Americans worry about things like abortion and gay marriage and religious liberty. Their political decisions are often informed by nostalgia for the good old days–a time when the country was less diverse. Rather than drawing upon the resources of their faith to shape their political witness, they have turned to the political strongman for support in helping to reclaim America and make it “great” again.  Trump discerned their fears and won them over in massive numbers much in the same way, as New York Times columnist Ross Douthat has suggested, Syrians turn to Assad for protection.

Let’s face it–Trump proved to be a brilliant politician.  He heard the people and responded.  In the process he got into the gutter with the rest of the politicians and showed them he could play politics better than they could.  As Trump played fast and lose with the truth, demonized and dehumanized everyone who got in his way, and generally took the immoral nature of politics to its logical conclusion, the GOP and many evangelical Christians compromised their consciences for a big mess of political pottage.  I could hardly watch Trump speak at a luncheon for GOP leadership on Thursday without thinking about the compromises that each one of those politicians had to make in order to be there.

Some might say that I am being unfair to Trump.  After all, he did use his inaugural speech to appeal to national unity.  “When you open your heart to patriotism,” Trump said, “there is no room for prejudice.”  This is a nice turn of phrase, but what does it mean?  I have no idea.  I am guessing it is some kind of a call to unity since the phrase was written in the same paragraph as Trump’s reference to Psalm 133:1: “How good and pleasant it is when God’s people live together in unity.” (A verse calling Israel to unity in their worship of God in Jerusalem).

All of the lip service he paid to national unity in his speech rings hollow in the context of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign and his divisive period of transition.  Future historians, as long as they are still around and remain concerned with reading documents in context , will interpret the speech this way.  Trump wants unity on his terms and on the terms of the minority of Americans who voted for him.  If we wants to be an effective president he will need to offer Americans a vision that everyone can embrace.  I doubt it will happen.

David Frum on the Peaceful Transition of Power

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Former George W. Bush speechwriter David Frum is tired of all of this talk about the “peaceful transition of power.”  Here is a taste of his piece today at The Atlantic.  This is going to get some folks upset, but what he says is worth considering:

Americans so insistently celebrate the peaceful transfer of power precisely because they nervously recognize the susceptibility of their polity to violence. The presidential election of 1860 triggered one of the bloodiest civil wars in human history. The presidential election of 1876 very nearly reignited that war. Since 1900, two presidents have been murdered; six more—Teddy Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Gerald Ford, and Ronald Reagan—were either wounded by a would-be assassin or else escaped by inches…

…The message will be stated and restated this day: For the 58th time, the system has worked, and power has smoothly transferred from one heir of George Washington to another. The truth is not so happy. With full advance notice, and despite the failure to gain a plurality of the nation’s vote, the United States will soon inaugurate someone who owes his office in some large part to a hostile foreign intelligence operation. Who is, above and beyond that, a person whose character that leaves him unqualified to hold the presidency, and threatens the country with an impending sequence of financial and espionage scandals—a constitutional crisis on two legs.

The real message of today is that the system has failed. The challenge of the morrow is to know what to do to save the remainder.

Read the entire piece here.

Robert Jeffress’s Sermon at Pre-Inaugural Prayer Service

He preached on the Old Testament story of Nehemiah.  Very interesting.  As you know, Nehemiah built a wall.

Last night Jeffress talked to Bill O’Reilly about the sermon he gave this morning at St. John’s Episcopal Church.  Jeffress and O’Reilly call Nehemiah a “regular guy” who God chose to “built a giant wall around Jerusalem to protect the citizens.” But Jeffress took it even further.  He tells O’Reilly that in Nehemiah’s day “the country had been in bondage for years in Babylon, the infrastructure was in shambles, and then God said to Nehemiah that the first step to rebuilding the nation is to secure the nation with a border to keep the enemies out.”  He also compares Nehemiah’s critics to the mainstream media.

This is the kind of thing that happens when Biblical interpretation is subordinated to politics.  There is nothing unusual about what Jeffress has done here. Clergymen have used the Bible since the beginning of the republic to promote politics in this way.  In fact, I was lecturing about this the other day in a series I am teaching at my church on religion and the founding.

Of course I also discussed this practice in my Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?: A Historical Introduction.

Here is a link to a CNN piece on Jeffress’s sermon.

ADDENDUM:  Sarah Pulliam Bailey has an article on it here.

Eight Years Ago Last Night

Here is what Donald Trump said tonight at a pre-inauguration dinner with his supporters:

In case you don’t want to watch this, let me summarize some of the main themes.

  • He claims he has the greatest cabinet in American history.
  • He claims that “the other side” (Democrats) is “going absolutely crazy” because he won the election.  We will see what he says later today in his inauguration address, but this statement is quite different from the one written by Thomas Jefferson in 1800.  After a particularly contentious election victory over his Federalist opponent John Adams, Jefferson famously said “We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists.”
  • He says that he interviewed ten “politically-correct” people for Secretary of Agriculture before he chose Sonny Perdue.  He claims he chose Perdue because he was an actual farmer, while all the other candidates did not have “any experience with farms or agriculture.”  How ironic, considering Ben Carson, his nominee to lead the Department of Housing and Urban Development, is a retired heart surgeon who has no experience with housing and urban development.  Betsy DeVos, his pick for Secretary of Education, has no experience with public school education. Rex Tillerson, his pick for Secretary of State, has no diplomatic or political experience. Why didn’t Trump reject these candidates based on a  lack of experience?
  • He mocks donors to his campaign who “got really generous after the election was won.”
  • He boasts about how he defied all the odds and proved the cable news stations wrong.
  • He attacks the press outlets who did not treat him “fairly.”
  • And on and on and on with more self-indulgent rhetoric.

Now some might say that we must consider the context.  Fair enough.  This is a speech to his supporters.  But I am sure Trump is aware of the fact that he was speaking, via television, to a national audience.  I am astounded by such divisive rhetoric on the eve of the inauguration.  It is the night before he is going to be sworn into office as the 45th POTUS and he still can’t move beyond the election.

By the way, on the eve of the inauguration eight years ago this was happening:

That’s right.  Obama, on the evening before he became the 44th POTUS, visited a dinner honoring McCain.

Andrew Jackson’s First Inaugural Address

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March 4, 1829.  Here is a taste:

…In administering the laws of Congress I shall keep steadily in view the limitations as well as the extent of the Executive power trusting thereby to discharge the functions of my office without transcending its authority. With foreign nations it will be my study to preserve peace and to cultivate friendship on fair and honorable terms, and in the adjustment of any differences that may exist or arise to exhibit the forbearance becoming a powerful nation rather than the sensibility belonging to a gallant people.

In such measures as I may be called on to pursue in regard to the rights of the separate States I hope to be animated by a proper respect for those sovereign members of our Union, taking care not to confound the powers they have reserved to themselves with those they have granted to the Confederacy.

The management of the public revenue–that searching operation in all governments–is among the most delicate and important trusts in ours, and it will, of course, demand no inconsiderable share of my official solicitude. Under every aspect in which it can be considered it would appear that advantage must result from the observance of a strict and faithful economy. This I shall aim at the more anxiously both because it will facilitate the extinguishment of the national debt, the unnecessary duration of which is incompatible with real independence, and because it will counteract that tendency to public and private profligacy which a profuse expenditure of money by the Government is but too apt to engender. Powerful auxiliaries to the attainment of this desirable end are to be found in the regulations provided by the wisdom of Congress for the specific appropriation of public money and the prompt accountability of public officers.

With regard to a proper selection of the subjects of impost with a view to revenue, it would seem to me that the spirit of equity, caution and compromise in which the Constitution was formed requires that the great interests of agriculture, commerce, and manufactures should be equally favored, and that perhaps the only exception to this rule should consist in the peculiar encouragement of any products of either of them that may be found essential to our national independence.

Internal improvement and the diffusion of knowledge, so far as they can be promoted by the constitutional acts of the Federal Government, are of high importance.

Considering standing armies as dangerous to free governments in time of peace, I shall not seek to enlarge our present establishment, nor disregard that salutary lesson of political experience which teaches that the military should be held subordinate to the civil power. The gradual increase of our Navy, whose flag has displayed in distant climes our skill in navigation and our fame in arms; the preservation of our forts, arsenals, and dockyards, and the introduction of progressive improvements in the discipline and science of both branches of our military service are so plainly prescribed by prudence that I should be excused for omitting their mention sooner than for enlarging on their importance. But the bulwark of our defense is the national militia, which in the present state of our intelligence and population must render us invincible. As long as our Government is administered for the good of the people, and is regulated by their will; as long as it secures to us the rights of person and of property, liberty of conscience and of the press, it will be worth defending; and so long as it is worth defending a patriotic militia will cover it with an impenetrable aegis. Partial injuries and occasional mortifications we may be subjected to, but a million of armed freemen, possessed of the means of war, can never be conquered by a foreign foe. To any just system, therefore, calculated to strengthen this natural safeguard of the country I shall cheerfully lend all the aid in my power.

It will be my sincere and constant desire to observe toward the Indian tribes within our limits a just and liberal policy, and to give that humane and considerate attention to their rights and their wants which is consistent with the habits of our Government and the feelings of our people….

 

Read it all here.

 

Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address

abraham-lincoln-secondinauguration3March 4, 1865.  Might be a good time to read it again:

At this second appearing to take the oath of the Presidential office there is less occasion for an extended address than there was at the first. Then a statement somewhat in detail of a course to be pursued seemed fitting and proper. Now, at the expiration of four years, during which public declarations have been constantly called forth on every point and phase of the great contest which still absorbs the attention and engrosses the energies of the nation, little that is new could be presented. The progress of our arms, upon which all else chiefly depends, is as well known to the public as to myself, and it is, I trust, reasonably satisfactory and encouraging to all. With high hope for the future, no prediction in regard to it is ventured.

On the occasion corresponding to this four years ago all thoughts were anxiously directed to an impending civil war. All dreaded it, all sought to avert it. While the inaugural address was being delivered from this place, devoted altogether to saving the Union without war, insurgent agents were in the city seeking to destroy it without war–seeking to dissolve the Union and divide effects by negotiation. Both parties deprecated war, but one of them would make war rather than let the nation survive, and the other would accept war rather than let it perish, and the war came.

One-eighth of the whole population were colored slaves, not distributed generally over the Union, but localized in the southern part of it. These slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest. All knew that this interest was somehow the cause of the war. To strengthen, perpetuate, and extend this interest was the object for which the insurgents would rend the Union even by war, while the Government claimed no right to do more than to restrict the territorial enlargement of it. Neither party expected for the war the magnitude or the duration which it has already attained. Neither anticipated that the cause of the conflict might cease with or even before the conflict itself should cease. Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding. Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes. “Woe unto the world because of offenses; for it must needs be that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh.” If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”

With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.

Thomas Jefferson’s First Inaugural Address

ab855-thomas-jeffersonMarch 4, 1801.  Read it here.

A taste:

...when I contemplate these transcendent objects, and see the honor, the happiness, and the hopes of this beloved country committed to the issue and the auspices of this day, I shrink from the contemplation, and humble myself before the magnitude of the undertaking. Utterly, indeed, should I despair did not the presence of many whom I here see remind me that in the other high authorities provided by our Constitution I shall find resources of wisdom, of virtue, and of zeal on which to rely under all difficulties. To you, then, gentlemen, who are charged with the sovereign functions of legislation, and to those associated with you, I look with encouragement for that guidance and support which may enable us to steer with safety the vessel in which we are all embarked amidst the conflicting elements of a troubled world

During the contest of opinion through which we have passed the animation of discussions and of exertions has sometimes worn an aspect which might impose on strangers unused to think freely and to speak and to write what they think; but this being now decided by the voice of the nation, announced according to the rules of the Constitution, all will, of course, arrange themselves under the will of the law, and unite in common efforts for the common good. All, too, will bear in mind this sacred principle, that though the will of the majority is in all cases to prevail, that will to be rightful must be reasonable; that the minority possess their equal rights, which equal law must protect, and to violate would be oppression. Let us, then, fellow-citizens, unite with one heart and one mind. Let us restore to social intercourse that harmony and affection without which liberty and even life itself are but dreary things. And let us reflect that, having banished from our land that religious intolerance under which mankind so long bled and suffered, we have yet gained little if we countenance a political intolerance as despotic, as wicked, and capable of as bitter and bloody persecutions. During the throes and convulsions of the ancient world, during the agonizing spasms of infuriated man, seeking through blood and slaughter his long-lost liberty, it was not wonderful that the agitation of the billows should reach even this distant and peaceful shore; that this should be more felt and feared by some and less by others, and should divide opinions as to measures of safety. But every difference of opinion is not a difference of principle. We have called by different names brethren of the same principle. We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists…

About to enter, fellow-citizens, on the exercise of duties which comprehend everything dear and valuable to you, it is proper you should understand what I deem the essential principles of our Government, and consequently those which ought to shape its Administration. I will compress them within the narrowest compass they will bear, stating the general principle, but not all its limitations. Equal and exact justice to all men, of whatever state or persuasion, religious or political; peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations, entangling alliances with none; the support of the State governments in all their rights, as the most competent administrations for our domestic concerns and the surest bulwarks against antirepublican tendencies; the preservation of the General Government in its whole constitutional vigor, as the sheet anchor of our peace at home and safety abroad; a jealous care of the right of election by the people…

Why We Need More Than Just STEM

Barack Obama’s Second Inaugural Address was steeped in American history, but when he talked about education he focused entirely on STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) disciplines.  The folks at the American Historical Association have noticed this discrepancy.  Jim Grossman, the executive director of the AHA, pointed it out in a recent blog post.  Today Kenneth Pomeranz, the current AHA president, has also brought it to our attention in a piece at Inside Higher Ed.

When I heard Obama reference Seneca Falls, Selma, and Stonewall last week, I wondered how many Americans knew what he was talking about.  How many future presidents (or their speech writers) will be able to use American history to move the nation to action?

Pomeranz makes a pretty good argument for the usefulness of historical research as a complement to STEM fields.  History underlies public debate and it shows us that many of the ideas that inform our public life are actually quite “new.”  Here is a taste of his piece:

It hardly seems a stretch to think that a world facing our current challenges might benefit from awareness of other ways that people have thought about the relationship of work, citizenship, adult status, “independence” and dignity, or about consumption, economic growth, leisure and the nature of progress. Or to take some narrower examples, consider the implications of learning how relatively recently life insurance went from seeming like a morally dubious gambling on death to a taken-for-granted tool for managing risk. Or that, while (as Thomas Ricks noted in a recent Atlantic) almost no U.S. generals were removed from their commands for poor performance during Vietnam, Afghanistan or Iraq, many were so removed during World War II – suggesting that the recent situation does not represent an inevitable feature of government, much less of hierarchy generally. Historical knowledge of this kind does not provide lessons as straightforward as “deficit spending can work,” but it can add significantly to our understandings of what is possible, for better or worse, and how things may become, or cease to be, unthinkable.
Research that produces these results, both testing earlier certainties and responding to new questions , thus seems a useful, even necessary complement to research in the STEM fields. Fortunately, most historical research is also relatively cheap, but it does not thrive on complete neglect.

Obama’s Defense of Liberalism

Noam Scheiber argues that Barack Obama has always been a liberal, but it looks as if he is going to use his second term to make an argument for liberalism.  Here is a taste from Scheiber’s piece at The New Republic:

The change we started to see in late 2011, when Obama kicked off a series of populist speeches after his failed negotiations with John Boehner, reflects Obama’s belated recognition of this. And that change was on full display today. Pre-2011, Obama would suggest that the need for “a basic measure of security and dignity” was a matter of consensus and then fulminate against the procedural hurtles to realizing it. Since then, he’s been much more aware of the fact that tens of millions of people disagree with what he regards as a commonsense role for government, and he’s been much more focused on defending it. Today he explained that “no matter how responsibly we live our lives, any one of us, at any time, may face a job loss, or a sudden illness, or a home swept away in a terrible storm.” He added that Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security don’t “sap our initiative,” as Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan would have it. “They free us to take the risks that make this country great.” Those are simple enough points, but they’re powerful and can’t be made enough. 

Of course, you could argue that there wasn’t much new in Obama’s speech if it reflects an m.o. he adopted well over a year ago. But I disagree. Since his emergence on the national scene, Obama has clung to the Eisenhower-era distinction between campaigning and governing: You make your case during election season, then take down the TV ads and stump speeches when it’s over so you can get on with policymaking. Before today, it was possible to believe Obama still clung to that distinction. Yes, he’d started down this new path in the fall of 2011. But by that point the presidential campaign had effectively begun, so a campaign posture made sense. And yes, he’d kept it up during the recent lame-duck period. But, then, it was easy to see the “fiscal cliff” negotiations as an extension of the presidential campaign.  

An inaugural address is unambiguously different though. It’s the thematic roadmap to a president’s forthcoming time in office. By choosing to start his second term with a case for liberalism, Obama announced that arguing for his worldview isn’t a separate task from governing. It’s central to governing.