A Republic….If You Can Keep It

exceptionalism noun (ĭk-sĕp′shə-nə-lĭz′əm)

  1. The condition of being unique.
  2. The theory or belief that something, especially a nation, does not conform to a pattern or norm

How fragile is your appreciation for the country you live in? Is it something you could be convinced to abandon? Is it subject to a review of the facts? Is it natural law?  A recent bill, introduced by the Oklahoma State legislature, and passed preliminarily by the body’s Education Committee serves to give the State Board of Education the ability to replace the existing Advanced Placement History Course with a separate state approved curriculum that emphasizes more “American Exceptionalism”.   Presently, the language of the bill is being “reworded” in response to national criticism. The impact of the bill’s passing will likely be minimal; a more positive, yet reasonably factually correct version of American history for some kids in Oklahoma. The questions its proposal evokes, however, are more interesting. What is American exceptionalism? Where does it come from? If I don’t entirely agree with it, does that mean I don’t love America? I served to defend it in two wars. Clearly I love America. But why? If I dare to look in the dark corners of our past, do I still feel the same way? The only way to find out, is to do just that.  Here’s what you might find.

All men are created equal, but some have a denominator…..

Article 1, Section 2, Paragraph 3 of the United States Constitution, also known as the Three Fifths Compromise, is one we would rather forget. It wasn’t an accident. It was the outcome of a long, intentional, broadly argued and long digested debate on how to account for “non-white” persons in a state for federal taxation and representation purposes. The words as they were written:

“Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons.”

Read, black people and Indians are 60% of a person, written in the same ink as “We the People….”

Mostly Unalienable

How long did we wait to throw the Bill of Rights out the window? About five years. The Alien and Sedition Acts were signed into law in 1798 by President John Adams.   Less than a decade into our existence we had enough of “unalienable rights” and decided to extend the requisite time in country for citizenship from five to fourteen years and imprison or detain anyone in the country who wasn’t a citizen for just about any reason we saw fit. At this point in our country, we had a lot of people who hadn’t been here for 14 years. The country wasn’t even 14 years old. To top it off, we also made it illegal to say anything bad about the government in the press or in public. Fortunately, most of those acts expired in 1800, except one. The Alien Enemies Act is still in place today. It was used to imprison 100,000 Japanese Americans during World War II.

The One Sided Debate

Somehow there is actual debate about the role our country played in the elimination of the indigenous people of North America.   Using words like genocide, extermination or apartheid make people uncomfortable, especially in the land of the free. So instead of debate, I’ll offer you two facts. Do with them what you will. 1) The following speech was read by one of our more celebrated presidents, Andrew Jackson on Dec 6th 1830 in reference to the “Indian Removal Act”. He’s on the $20 bill.

 “It gives me pleasure to announce to Congress that the benevolent policy of the Government, steadily pursued for nearly thirty years, in relation to the removal of the Indians beyond the white settlements is approaching to a happy consummation. Two important tribes have accepted the provision made for their removal at the last session of Congress, and it is believed that their example will induce the remaining tribes also to seek the same obvious advantages.”

2) Prior to European and then American involvement in the territory now encompassing the United States, Native Americans represented 100% of the population. Presently, they represent 2%.

The Somewhat less than Supreme Court

On our way to ensuring there would be no way to wean us off our slavery addiction without unprecedented bloodshed, we run into Scott –V-Sandford, widely regarded as one of the most desctructive of United States Supreme Court rulings. Which is saying something when you consider the whole “separate but equal” of Plessy-V-Furgeson that set back racial equality about a hundred years. The Dred Scott decision, as it is more commonly known, basically made a slave’s freedom entirely unrelated to whether or not he presently resided in a state that prohibited slavery. If you were a slave, and you escaped and moved to a place where it was illegal to own people, legally, your previous owner could come and get you back. By force if he needed to. It may not sound like much but Dred Scott effectively provided Constitutional protection to slavery with the same vigor that it protected freedom of speech or the right to due process. Which is a big deal. Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, in writing his majority opinion outlined the risks that would arise from allowing states to determine the legality of passage of former slaves.

“It would give to persons of the negro race, …the right to enter every other State whenever they pleased, …to sojourn there as long as they pleased, to go where they pleased …the full liberty of speech in public and in private upon all subjects upon which its own citizens might speak; to hold public meetings upon political affairs, and to keep and carry arms wherever they went”

The court ruled 7-2 against Scott, who was really just suing for the freedom of his wife and kids.  It was a landslide by Supreme Court standards.

Freedom Fighters

290,000 men gave their lives to preserve the right to own slaves. To put it in perspective, more than a quarter of all American service men killed in combat in the history of our country gave their lives for slavery. I’ve heard from some of my brothers from the South, especially those of my military brothers from the south, that the war was about states rights. In 1860, after the Stephen Douglas, a moderate who would not support Constitutional protection of slavery, became the front runner for the Democratic nomination for President, delegates from the 10 Southern states left and decided to hold their own convention. Begin war. End discussion on states rights –v- slavery as it pertains to the origin of the war.

How Not to Avoid a Second World War

At the end of World War I, President Woodrow Wilson represented the United States at the Paris Peace Conference, which led to the Treaty of Versailles, effectively ending the war.   One of the pillars of the treaty was the League of Nations. The League, proposed by Wilson, was a precursor to the United Nations and represented an international framework with the aim of eliminating future wars between civilized nations.   After the treaty was signed, The United States Congress failed to ratify American membership because Republican Henry Cabot Lodge, Wilson was a Democrat, led a partisan campaign against it.   We never joined and the league was largely declared irrelevant.   We’ll never know if American membership in the League would have avoided World War II. It would have been nice to find out though.

Off to War…or something like it.

Since 1950, the United States has participated in active combat on a large scale in four countries, in which over 400,000 U.S. service members were killed or wounded. During the same time period, over two million men were drafted into service involuntarily.   The last time the United States Congress passed an official declaration of war was June 5th, 1942 against Bulgaria, Romania and Hungary.  Which means we’ve suffereed a lot of loss and heartache of war, without a war.   I mean this in no way to disparage those who served and sacrificed in these conflicts. As stated earlier, I myself served in two.   The truth is, when history fades our passion and the cold light of day is shone on our motives to wage combat, we tend to feel a lot better about those conflicts for which we put a little more due process behind. And it’s been awhile since we’ve done that.  

So What?

There’s a lot more chronicled catastrophe to be found if want to do a little research. But I think you get the point. There are parts of our history that we have no excuse for and not always because we forgot what our forefathers intended. Sometimes, we’ve gotten it wrong completely because of what our forefather intended. We’ve gotten it wrong so many times with such dire consequences that it’s a wonder we haven’t collapsed under our own injustices at one time or another. Our history is a testament to the power of misguided civic leadership and political zeal. I feel that point is fairly easy to make.  For those of you less tolerant of an assault on American exceptionalism, take comfort though.  It’s actually not my point.  If you fear the fragility of my love of country, like our esteemed representatives from the Oklahoma State Legislature, take heart.  Through it all, my faith doesn’t waver. Let me explain.

My love of my country doesn’t come from our historical record. It doesn’t come from the structure of our government or the paper it was written on 228 years ago. It comes from somewhere else; somewhere anchored in the bedrock of our collective DNA. It comes from the promise that was made, upon our conception. Like a husband promising to honor and obey his wife or a father holding his newborn child promising to always to protect, we made a promise as a nation, as a people to serve the interests of each other, without compromise.  And like all who commit to grand and unforgiving purpose, we fell and will continue to fall short, sometimes too frequently. If we’re worth our salt, we neither fear our shortcomings nor lose sight of what was promised.  Every day we move ever closer to the realization of that promise.

The Constitution of the United States is not a divinely inspired document weaving the framework of God’s intent for the governing of man.   The Constitution was and still is, an aspiration. It’s an aspiration to be fulfilled by its people for its people. As history shows, you can get it wrong. Even when you follow the rules you can get it wrong. Sometimes exclusively by following the rules you can get it wrong. Yet we struggle on with the spirit of that promise engrained in our souls, fueling the righteous progress and the mighty failures that dot the timeline of our history.  We have shaped the modern world for whatever it’s worth.  We are an inflection point in the trajectory of mankind.  But most importantly, we did it, as best we could, in the name of serving each other. Even if our definition of “each other” started far too narrowly, we knew the “pursuit of happiness” only worked if it was for everyone.    Which means we preserve it for everyone.  Benjamin Franklin was asked,  when leaving the Constitutional Convention, whether we had a Republic or a Monarchy.  He replied, “A Republic, if you can keep it.” For 228 years we have. A nation built for the people by the people; imperfect in our actions, pure in our intent. That is why I love my country. I fear no facts.  


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