Things are moving fast. However this new regime has come into power, through Russian intervention, dark money, gerrymandering, voter suppression or sheer chicanery, it has revealed the underbelly of America. I had thought we lived in an advancing society, where the ills that have plagued this nation since its inception were gradually being addressed by law or convention or a real change in values. But the veils have been torn back.
I started a research quest about our national history. What I’ve learned has clarified for me why we shouldn’t be surprised by the tenor of politics today. Maybe this is what our country really is, and those of us who thought otherwise have been both mistaken and naive.
What follows is a bare bones tracking of some of the heinous beliefs that are leading our country today. As you read, think about recent legislation, who the perpetrators are, and the direction that our country seems to be moving.
John Winthrop, first governor of Massachusetts, gave a sermon in 1630 naming the settlement of the New World to be “the shining city on a hill.” His words called for a virtuous community that would set an example to Old World. In reality, this community excluded anyone who practiced a religion other than Puritanical Christianity or had a different color skin.
In fact, Roger Williams, a Massachusetts minister, wrote a pamphlet stating that freedom of religion was a natural right which required church and state to be separated. This way of thinking, in addition to his demand that the Native Americans be paid for the land that had been taken from them, got him convicted of sedition and heresy. (He escaped and founded the settlement of Providence, Rhode Island, whose original charter insured both religious freedom and separation of church and state.)
The shining city concept mutated into the notion of American Exceptionalism with the Declaration of Independence. The well-heeled white landowners who wished to be free of a financial obligation to Great Britain believed that America’s new institution was a very special creation. But it didn’t stop there: America must now remake the world in its image. Thomas Paine wrote:
“We have it in our power to begin the world over again. A situation, similar to the present, hath not happened since the days of Noah until now. The birthday of a new world is at hand, and a race of men, perhaps as numerous as all Europe contains, are to receive their portion of freedom from the events of a few months.”
But that freedom was limited to one segment of the population. When the Constitution was created in 1787, our founding fathers, many of whom were slave owners, created and condoned the “three fifths compromise.” Each African-American held in slavery was to be counted as three/fifths of a person. This shocking concept gave the southern states more seats in Congress than if slaves, who weren’t allowed to vote, had been left out. It also affected the electoral college by favoring states states whose white male voting population was small, mainly those that practiced slavery. The result was that for thirty-two of the first thirty-six years of the presidency, slave owners from Virginia helmed the country, and slaveholder interests dominated the government until 1861.
Thomas Jefferson, one of those Virginian slave owning presidents, doubled the size of the country with the 1803 Louisiana Purchase. He also funded the Lewis & Clark expeditions, and and, shortly afterward, the whole continent became fair game. American Exceptionalism metastasized into America’s Manifest Destiny, a belief that God gave the United States the duty to “redeem the heathen and remake the west in the image of the original colonies.” In 1811 John Quincy Adams wrote:
“The whole continent of North America appears to be destined by Divine Providence to be peopled by one nation, speaking one language, professing one general system of religious and political principles, and accustomed to one general tenor of social usages and customs.”
The War of 1812 was, in part, about this principle. The U.S. had long wanted to annex Canada for several reasons: to completely expel the British from North American, to stop raids by indigenous peoples into the Northwest Territories, and to gain additional land. The war ended in 1814 with the Treaty of Ghent. The British had hoped to set up an Indian state in the territories below the Great Lakes, but the American diplomats rejected this idea:
“The United States, while intending never to acquire lands from the Indians otherwise than peaceably…are fully determined…to reclaim from the state of nature, and to bring into cultivation, every portion of the territory contained within their acknowledged boundaries.”
This statement shocked the British negotiators, one of whom remarked, “Till I came here, I had no idea of the fixed determination which there is in the heart of every American to extirpate the Indians and appropriate their territory.”
Skip forward a few decades, and Manifest Destiny becomes one of the root causes of the Civil War. White settlers in Mexico had fought to claim the territory known as Texas. They beat Santa Ana in 1836 and created the Republic of Texas. The Republic was annexed by the United States in 1845. The new state claimed that its southern boundary was the Rio Grande; the Mexican government said that it was the Neuces River further to the north.
So what else to do but to invade Mexico. The war lasted from 1845 to 1848, ending when the U.S. forces captured Mexico City. The negotiations for peace included a payment of fifteen million dollars to Mexico and the acquisition of even more territory. In fact, the United States considered annexing the whole of Mexico to insure peace in the region. But this was controversial — it would mean extending U.S. citizenship to millions of Mexicans. Senator John C. Calhoun of South Carolina spoke these words:
“We have never dreamt of incorporating into our Union any but the Caucasian race—the free white race. To incorporate Mexico, would be the very first instance of the kind, of incorporating an Indian race; for more than half of the Mexicans are Indians, and the other is composed chiefly of mixed tribes. I protest against such a union as that! Ours, sir, is the Government of a white race….”
With all these new lands poised for possible statehood, the big question arose: which new states will be allowed to practice slavery? The Southern states were eager to impose their belief system on the rest of the country, insuring slave holding states the majority in Washington. So the big political question became one of “states’ rights”, not one of the moral depravity of holding a human being as a slave. Of course, what followed was the formation of the Confederacy and the Civil War, not a war against slavery, but a war to keep the states united.
I could continue forward for decades. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. The Japanese internment camps during WWII. The refusal of twelve states to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment. The gutting of the Voting Rights Act. Citizens United.
It’s true, there have been some remarkable people and enlightened moments in our history. Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, Teddy Roosevelt’s trust-busting battles and his establishment of the National Park System. All the women who fought for the right to vote. FDR’s insistence on the safety nets of Social Security and Medicare. The Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act. Roe v. Wade.
Sadly, though, the political views established at the very outset of our great experiment are still in play. The Civil War continues to be fought today, and the ghosts of the white slave owners have returned. Our first black president was vilified and thwarted at every turn, not because of any political disagreement, but because he was black. Our Native American population is again being deprived of their ancestral lands. The Supreme Court is in danger of returning to the kinds of decisions it made when it ruled in the Dred Scott case. The education system is shifting from an attempt at egalitarian opportunity for all to one rigged for the rich; the economic system is returning to the age of the robber barons.
Ironically, it may be that the concept of states’ rights that will save some of us. Governor Jerry Brown of California has teamed with the western states to fight climate change. Oregon’s Governor Kate Brown has named Oregon a sanctuary state. The state of Washington denied a lease for a coal export terminal. Thirty-seven states (and the District of Columbia) have legalized same sex marriage. Eight states have legalized marijuana. State governments are going after the gerrymandering that has legitimized an unfair voting system. State courts in Washington and Hawaii are fighting against the illegal and unconstitutional “travel ban.”
Is this going to lead to another Civil War? Will the economic strength of the “blue states” prevail just as it did in 1865? What frightens me most, though, is living in a nation whose values seem to be so perverse. Through hard work and dogged pressure we may be able to change who the politicians in charge are. But will we able to change the deeply held beliefs that dominate the worst political discourse these days? How do we go about doing that?