[Mark Safranski / “zen“]
“Jack Hays“. Mr. Hays has considerable experience in a number of political and policy positions inside government and out and shares with the ZP readership our appreciation for history, strategy and other things further afield. He wrote this brief essay elsewhere and gave permission to share it freely.
Nearly the entirety of American history resolves to an argument over whether the Declaration of Independence is true. If all men are created equal and the sole legitimate purpose of government is to secure liberties conferred by a Creator, then those premises yield a series of imperatives that tend inexorably to the expansion of the American promise to all men of all origins.
This is not a new observation: to the contrary, it has been the engine of our life as a free people. To paraphrase Ferling in his epic 2015 “Whirlwind,” the American Revolution did not end monstrous injustices like slavery — and by implication every societal oppression rooted in a denial of man’s nature — but it made inevitable their end. Throughout the history of the republic we see Americans return again and again to this: that however awful the circumstantial particulars of America, the only hope is the fulfillment of the aspirational idea of America. So we see Frederick Douglass, a former slave at the apogee of the slave power, nonetheless declare the Constitution a “glorious liberty document.” So we see Abraham Lincoln conclude that the Declaration inexorably moves his governance to the end of enslavement. So we see Jose de la Luz Saenz, a south-Texas schoolteacher in a decade when the Texas Rangers waged a campaign of murder and terror against Mexican-Americans like him, respond with enthusiasm to his draft notice to serve in the First World War — and exhort his students to remember George Washington and Valley Forge in his farewell. So we see Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., ascend the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and declare that he has come to redeem the “promissory note” of the American Founding.
So we see my father, who attended a (de facto) segregated elementary school in the Rio Grande Valley and was told as a child that as a Mexican, he should be “realistic” about his prospects in life, join the United States Air Force and serve America in war and peace.
On the one side, you have these Americans. They see America and her imperfections with immediacy and pain. But they also see the ideas and symbols of America, and they understand that these things are for them too. And they know their only recourse is the “appeal to heaven” — and the appeal to America’s promise.
On the other side, you have the others: those across nearly two and a half centuries who have argued, implicitly or explicitly, that the Declaration of Independence is a lie: either because its core assertions are false, or because America is so corrupted by its nature that those assertions are effectively fiction, un-fulfillable and kept vital as an opiate to the masses. There have been many of these too.
So, on the one hand you have the American Founders, Lincoln, Douglass, King, Saenz, and every single man and woman who saw the flag or read the Declaration and believed that this too was for them and their children.
On the other hand you have His Majesty George III of Great Britain, John C. Calhoun, the Confederate States of America, Ta-Nehisi Coates, the alt-right, and all the Pittsburgh Steelers save one.
Choose your side.