Victor Nuovo: Indivisibility, liberty, justice
Editor’s note: This is the 68th and last in a series of essays on the history and meaning of the American political tradition.
This is the final essay in my series about the American Political Tradition. The time has come for closing comments, a summation telling what it all means. But now that I have reached this point, I am lost for words. I have written too much to be able to summarize it all in a few sentences, or even a few dozen of them, and as I review what I have written, I become painfully aware that much has been left out. There is no essay about Jane Addams (1860–1935) or Martin Luther King Jr. (1929-68) or James Baldwin (1924–87); and there are very many more, more than enough for another series.
But I must finish what I started, and end this series with a closing statement.
The meaning of the America may be summed up by the concluding phrase from the pledge of allegiance: “one nation indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”
The United States of America is a union of states that were once independent and sovereign; a civil war was fought over the question whether any state or group of them had the right to secede from the union. The Secessionists were defeated and the Union was preserved, and the nation became irrevocably one.
Even so, the Confederacy is a shameful memory, a stain on the fabric of American history. For what motivated the secessionist states to secede was an ignoble desire to preserve the institution of slavery. Their defeat brought an end to slavery in the United States; all slaves were set free and made citizens with all the rights and privileges appertaining thereto. Many former slaves fought and died to preserve the Union, and they proved their heroism and nobility. Even more, Black genius has made an indelible mark on American culture, which Black experience has added richness and depth.
The meaning of the political traditions of this nation may also be summed up by the preamble of the Constitution, which is worth quoting — indeed, we should all know it by heart and recite it every morning when we awake as a reminder of our true identity.
“We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common Defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and to our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”
The United States is a union of states that exists under the rule of law, and the purposes of this law are summed up in these great words: Union, Justice, domestic Tranquility, common Defense, general Welfare, the Blessings of Liberty for all the people now and forever.
But justice and the blessings of liberty have not been universally bestowed, which adds another unfinished chapter to the narrative that I tried to spell out over the past year. The United States of America is a product of the European colonization of the Western hemisphere that began after the voyages of Columbus. The European colonizers who settled here did not believe in human equality. They came to get rich. And, to that end, they committed many egregious wrongs, which today would be judged to be crimes against humanity. The first, beginning with Columbus, was the enslavement and genocide of indigenous people; another was the African slave trade and the American institution of slavery, which made some Americans very rich indeed, among them two of our most eminent founders, who are enshrined at Mount Rushmore. The enduring legacy of these wrongs is racism; it has taken root in the minds of the descendants of the colonizers, and other white folk who came after them, and it has remained like a malignancy doing its dreadful work in the body politic down to the present day. The racially motivated murders of African Americans by white police officers are among its consequences. And such crimes are likely to continue as long as the hateful evil of racism persists, as it does even in Middlebury.
The United States aspires to be a great nation, but the principal source of its greatness resides in its founding principles of freedom and equality, and not until those principles are fully established and universally realized will it ever become great. Like a divine injunction, Americans must write the words “freedom and equality” on the doorposts of their houses and inscribe them in their hearts and join the struggle to achieve them until they become a reality throughout all of the land.
This was the dream of Martin Luther King. And his dream captures what this nation means. So I conclude this series with his prophetic words.
“I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed ‘we hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal’ …
“I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.…
“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.
“I have a dream that one day down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, … one day right there in Alabama little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers..…
“This is the faith that I go back to the South with. With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a figure of hope. With this faith we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood.”
And one very last word from the goodly fellowship of the prophets: “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever flowing stream” (Amos 5:24), from which it follows as surely as the night follows the day that BLACK LIVES MATTER.
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