The Soul of ’76
This post is the fifth in a series by Christopher Flannery, host of The American Story podcast, on America’s identity and founding ideals and their implications for 2020. Here are the first, second, third, and fourth installments.—Eds. I wrote a few words the other day about the nationwide riots we are experiencing, and I referred to a Claremont Institute Statement arguing that there are two pretexts for…
This post is the fifth in a series by Christopher Flannery, host of The American Story podcast, on America’s identity and founding ideals and their implications for 2020. Here are the first, second, third, and fourth installments.—Eds.
I wrote a few words the other day about the nationwide riots we are experiencing, and I referred to a Claremont Institute Statement arguing that there are two pretexts for these riots: that America is a racist country and that law enforcement in America is systemically racist.
Both of these pretexts are untrue, and the riots show in an obvious way how destructive these untruths are. But, as Jeremy Carl has pointed out, the protests promise an immeasurably greater destruction. The protests were never about one instance of injustice. They were about the alleged racism of the country where the incident took place and the alleged racism of the “system” of criminal justice in the country.
This is the animating cause—the soul—of the protests, and this is what threatens to corrupt the American soul and to destroy a country that Abraham Lincoln rightly called “the last best hope of earth.” As Lincoln also said, and as bears frequent repeating,
In this and like communities, public sentiment is everything. With public sentiment, nothing can fail; without it nothing can succeed. Consequently he who moulds public sentiment, goes deeper than he who enacts statutes or pronounces decisions. He makes statutes and decisions possible or impossible to be executed.
Every free country has a ruling “public sentiment” that goes deeper than statutes and policies. It is this ruling public sentiment that I am calling the American soul. This is what animates and gives specific character to the American way of life.
The protestors and their elite enablers and supporters intend to establish as the ruling public sentiment in America that America is a racist country. This is the explicit goal of the New York Times’s recently launched 1619 Project, but in fact, liberals and progressives have been working toward this end since the 1960s. It is because they were so close to succeeding that the 2016 elections were so critical; for the same reason, and with even more obvious cause for urgency, the 2020 elections will be historic.
The images of Americans kneeling in submission to and reverence for the cause of these protestors are images of the American future. If what I am calling the Party of 1619 wins in November, this will be the picture of the new “transformed” American way of life. Henchmen of the Party of 1619, in charge of all the most powerful institutions in America, compelling all who dare to disagree with them to kneel or grovel face-down in the dirt. Or else.
As I’ve written, it will take the deepest thinkers years, and books, and libraries to give a full account of this year, but for us millions right now, the critical choice in November is between those who applaud these images as visions of righteousness and those who are nauseated by their obscenity and see them as the pictures of evil in action that they are.
It is desperately urgent that a Party of 1776 rise to oppose the Party of 1619. Leaders need to stand up and rally America to its true and good cause.
The American cause began with a ringing affirmation of a fundamental moral and political truth: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights.” The truth of human equality and liberty was asserted against all despotisms of race, class, or religion. Americans are a people who pledge “our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor” to the vindication of this truth; the American way of life is our always-imperfect effort to live up to it. So far, we have managed to establish, preserve, and defend this way of life despite the greatest threats from internal and external tyrannies.
The American founders believed themselves to have the high honor of securing and transmitting imperfectly and in one small place a universal inheritance, the birthright of all humanity. That men throughout most of history (and throughout most of the world still today) tyrannized one another in an infinite variety of ways was not proof that human beings do not possess equal rights by nature—rather it was proof of how rare and difficult a thing it is to secure them.
It is proof of the philosophic rigor, the high moral discipline, the rare political sagacity, and—one must add—the great good fortune that is required for reflection and free choice to prevail over ignorance, prejudice, accident, and force. Nothing short of such rigor, sagacity, and luck will solve our current problems. But there is no nobler cause.
Proclaiming that all men everywhere and at all times possess by nature equal rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, the American founders undertook the historic effort to secure these rights, so far as they thought they could then be secured. They were acutely conscious of the limits of their ability to secure these rights. When they were able to establish a “more perfect union” they understood full well how far from perfection they remained. It was all the new republic could do in the first century of its existence to keep the experiment in freedom from failing miserably at home as the principles espoused in the American Revolution slowly and uncertainly began to take hold on the minds if not yet in the politics of other peoples in the world.
In the course of its history, the American people have many times fallen beneath the high standards they set for themselves at the beginning. They have strayed from those principles, and they have forgotten them, and become confused about them, and allowed misunderstood self-interest to obscure them. The reason Abraham Lincoln is rightly regarded as the greatest democratic statesman is that he kept America from abandoning those principles as the foundation of American democracy.
His statesmanship preserved for future generations of Americans the moral truth of human equality as the soul—the animating spirit—of their political life: as “a standard maxim for free society, which should be familiar to all, and revered by all; constantly looked to, constantly labored for, and even though never perfectly attained, constantly approximated, and thereby constantly spreading and deepening its influence, and augmenting the happiness and value of life to all people of all colors everywhere.”
What is at stake in November 2020 is the American soul and the American way of life. There is no reason why Americans can’t “rise to equality” again. It will be good for us all.