Law 1: Every body persists in its state of being at rest or of moving uniformly straight forward, except insofar as it is compelled to change its state by force impressed.
Law 2: The alteration of motion is ever proportional to the motive force impress’d; and is made in the direction of the right line in which that force is impress’d.
Law 3: To every action there is always opposed an equal reaction: or the mutual actions of two bodies upon each other are always equal, and directed to contrary parts.
Isaac Newton, Philosophia Naturis Principia Mathematica, 1687.
Law 4: America is a people in motion.
The common American narrative of the birth our nation is that our principled forefathers cast off the yoke of nearly two centuries of imperial British rule with the Declaration of Independence. The reality, as realities tend to be, is very different from the narrative though. For much of our colonial history, America was left alone. We were a backwater for religious undesirables best observed from afar or speculating businessmen looking to strike it rich in the new world. And for a hundred and fifty years, five generations, the world let the colonies and her colonists be. No document or congress or movement could define a people more than the habit they lived for their first century and a half as a people. We did what we pleased for generations in a time when no one was free to do what they pleased. And Americans were born generations before America.
By the middle of the 18th century, fresh off the victory over the French in the Seven Years war, the new Great Britain tried to consolidate the American colonies and dictate trade, taxation and government as she had begun to do with other subjects across her ever growing empire. Like a neglected child suddenly thrust into the care of a protective and demanding family system, we refused to attach. The rest belongs in text books. We celebrate the day we changed it all with fireworks and barbecues today. But we’re really celebrating the day we refused to be changed.
We are a stubborn nation. A nation who pushes back when pushed on.
Jefferson was a snap back against Adams’ expansion of government and strong puritan Yankee finger wagging. Andrew Jackson was an Appalachian snap back against the two sided debate that was Puritan vs Southern Gentry that dominated the first fifty years of America. Hint: If you want to understand anything about the rise of Trump-ism, I suggest you read everything you can about Andrew Jackson. The loudest snap back in American and perhaps world history was the Civil War. Many believed that slavery was going to be left alone to die on its own at some point. But we expanded west. And the prospect of new states taking sides in the free state vs. slave state debate and forcing their desires on whichever side lost was too much for us to handle. So we went to war again to avoid being told what to do. Even though that what was end slavery.
The next hundred years of Jim Crow, growing evangelical religion and cries for limited government in the South was a push back on the enforcement of Yankee community and equality focused norms during reconstruction. And the race riots and freedom marches were a snap back against that. And Trump-ism is a snap back against eight years of being told by someone different from you that you have to accept and make sacrifices and spend resources we don’t have for people who aren’t and don’t like you. At its basest form, it’s hard to explain the last year in America any other way. And it’s even harder when you realize it’s been four centuries of the same thing.
Make no mistake. We’d rather burn it all down than be told what we ought to do. And the harder we are told and the less like us the people who are telling us to do it, the harder and further we snap back. It’s our way. It’s America.
2017 finds us at the beginning of the next great American snap back. The time to stop it, had we felt it right to do so, wandered past us when we ignored the kinetic energy building up in the heartland of America as we pushed on them to accept laws or people they weren’t willing to accept. But it’s direction and distance are yet to be determined. As Doctor King told us. “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” And the times when the snap back of American moral obstinance has bent along that same arc, it’s been the fulcrum that’s lifted us miraculously and permanently forward. But when we snap back against that just arc, when we build the movement on exclusion and unfairness, we only move it so far before we end up paying for it.
It’s not new. It’s the great lesson of America. And we’re about to learn it all over again. I pray this time, we learn it quicker than we have in our past.