Reason and American scripture

The first to plead his case seems right, Until another comes and examines him.
– Proverbs 18:17 (RSV)

Here’s a question for those of us who discover in our nation’s founding a covenant-based civil religion1: Could the U.S. Constitution be a primary source of virtue for our civic life, much as the Bible is for Christians?

From our bedroom this morning

One of my favorite verses about the relationship between text and virtue is from one of Paul’s letters to Timothy, in which he refers to what Christians now call the Old Testament:

All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: that the man of God may be perfect, throughly furnished unto all good works. (2 Timothy 3:16 – 17, KJV)

Scripture leads to correction and instruction, which in turn leads to maturity. Can civil scripture do the same in our civil life?

Two New England Federalists came to different conclusions. Timothy Dwight believed that constitutions and their ilk cannot foster virtue:

The formation and establishment of knowledge and virtue in the citizens of a Community will more easily and more effectually establish order, and secure liberty, than all the checks, balances and penalties, which have been devised by man.

Dwight, a Congregationalist minister and later a Yale president, took a position similar to Jonathan Mayhew’s before him, according to Philip Gorski’s American Covenant: A History of Civil Religion from the Puritans to the Present. Gorski’s summary: Mayhew and Dwight “believed that the endurance of a republic depended more on public virtue than on institutional design” (71). While both are important to a republic’s health, public virtue is separate from institutional design, and if Dwight would have had to have picked one, he would’ve picked the former.

John Adams, though, believed that institutional design fosters public virtue. In his 1787, three-volume book A Defence of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America, Adams made out this causal relationship:

The best republics will be virtuous, and have been so; but we may hazard a conjecture, that he virtues have been the effect of the well-ordered constitution, rather than the cause.

Adams wrote before the U.S. Constitution has been drafted or ratified, but Madison agreed with his faith in the then-proposed U.S. Constitution’s instructive powers. In Federalist No. 49, Madison implied that the Constitution, if adopted, would begin to frame public debate and, in the process, inform it.

Madison wrote No. 49 in response to those who advocated that any argument between branches of government be resolved by the direct intervention of the people. In many such anticipated questions, Madison said, the multitude would be more influenced by the combatants than by the Constitution’s provisions, and the constitutional question “could never be expected to turn on the true merits of the question.” The nature of good republican government, by contrast, is to increase the chances that reason would override passion. Madison summarized the outcome of a direct appeal to the people:

The passions, therefore, not the reason, of the public would sit in judgment. But it is the reason, alone of the public, that ought to control and regulate the government. The passions out to be controlled and regulated by the government. [Emphasis original]

Charles Kesler understands Madison’s position in No. 49 as placing the Constitution as mediator between the public’s passion and its reason:

So the reason of the public controls the government, which in turn regulates the public’s passions. Notice that this is not a formula for the direct rule of reason over passion in politics. It calls rather for the reason “of the public” to control the passions through the mediation of the government. The direct rule of reason over passion in politics might be said to dictate the suppression of rights and freedom in the name of duties or virtues. Publius does not endorse this, but neither does he allow rights to sink to their lowest common dominator, to become expressions of mere self-interest or passion. Instead, he calls for the “reason of the public” to become responsible for the passions of the public. He defends a form of government that will encourage rights to be claimed and exercised responsibly. The Federalist‘s concern for veneration fo the Constitution shows that a purely calculative or self-interested attachment to government is not sufficient to secure republicanism. The Constitution must attract the loyalty, admiration, pride, and even reverence of American citizens if the rule of law is to be firmly grounded — if republicanism is to be responsible.2

The Constitution, then, was constructed in part to teach civic virtue by permitting the rule of reason and the subjugation of passion. But how does this happen?

I’m no longer a rationalist, at least as Jonathan Haidt uses the term: “anyone who believes that reasoning is the most important and reliable way to obtain moral knowledge.”3 Haidt has persuaded me that my reason is mostly a construct to justify myself or my intuitions to others.

But Haidt acknowledges that reason is essential in public bodies:

I’m not saying we should all stop reasoning and go with our gut feelings. Gut feelings are sometimes better guides than resigning for making consumer choices and interpersonal judgments, but they are often disastrous as a basis for public policy, science, and law. Rather, what I’m saying is that we must be wary of an individual’s ability to reason. [Emphasis original]4

Madison, I think, would have agreed with Haidt. In the same Federalist 49, he wrote that “The reason of man, like man himself, is timid and cautious when left alone, and acquires firmness and confidence in proportion to the number with which it is associated. ” [Emphasis original] As Haidt points out, however, to be able to reason with one another presumes that we are in relationships that are conducive to listening to one another.

John Marshall’s Supreme Court represents such a relationship. For most of twenty-nine years, this Federalist chief justice worked with the appointees from mostly Republican presidents bent on reshaping the court’s outlook. These presidents largely failed. As Jean Edward Smith points out in John Marshall: Definer of a Nation, most of the court’s opinions during most of Marshall’s tenure were unanimous. Smith attributes this frequent unanimity to Marshall’s insistence that the justices live and take their meals together.5 The justices were, therefore, forced to recognize their political opponents’ humanity. In many cases, they ended up liking their opponents and got used to reasoning with them to come up with thoughtful opinions that probably would have eluded the pens of justices acting alone.

The Constitution and other American covenants, such as the Declaration of Independence, can still frame our debates and teach civic virtue, but only in the context of a civic body. Civic virtue through our constitution and laws requires a polity, just as spiritual growth through scripture requires a church. Without a greater body, our timid reason will remain the mere instrument of our passion, and each of us will stay walled up in his political ghetto, uncritically absorbing his political ghetto’s version of the news.

  1. I’ve been examining our covenant-based civil religion. I’ve written elsewhere about how Lincoln spoke of the Constitution as part of a civic/sacred text. It’s a flawed text, Lincoln believed, and it would be superseded (or “fulfilled”) in certain places by the Civil War Amendments after Lincoln’s death, much as the Mosaic covenant is said to be fulfilled in Christ.
  2. Charles R. Kesler’s introduction to the Signet Classic edition of The Federalist Papers, at xxix – xxx.
  3. Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, page 7.
  4. Kindle loc. 1632.
  5. Page 507.

The wrong side of history

Many progressives believe that history is linear, that mankind moves inexorably toward universalism and greater individual rights. Many reactionaries also believe that history is linear, that their tribe’s story moves inexorably from an idyllic past to the present pollution to a future restoration of the idyllic past. In a sense, these progressives and these reactionaries both prophesy.

In Macbeth, Shakespeare examines the notion that prophecy is not an attempt to see the future but to shape it in the broad daylight of the present. Prophetic rulers sometimes bring rapid regime change or suffer from a tragic blindness, or both. How about the ruled? They’re unlikely to act if, with respect to the future, the fix is in. Religion is not the opiate of the masses; prophecy is.

The progressive idea that, despite inevitable setbacks, history inexorably bends to progressive ends can be seen in one of President Obama’s favorite opprobriums: something or someone is “on the wrong side of history.” This notion’s underlying assumptions are tragic: the future (including the prophetic present) sees the past (and, because of it, the present) cooly and clearly, progressive values will ultimately prevail no matter what we do (or don’t do), and it is possible for the clearsighted to see his opponent in a light both objective and disparaging.

But the future is not fixed. Only history is fixed — or, rather, only the past is fixed. History is debatable, and the future is malleable. In fact, history is warmly debated in large part because the future is malleable.

Hero time

Some specialists are rushing to hold the republic together. I’m reading two more books that recast two lifetimes of research and thought as efforts to chip away at the thickening wall between left and right. One book’s approach is psychological; the other’s is philosophical. The first book, Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion, admits this rush:

People who devote their lives to studying something often come to believe that the object of their fascination is the key to understanding everything. Books have been published in recent years on the transformative role in human history played by cooking, mothering, war . . . even salt. This is one of those books.

Friends of friends of mine, prophets, came to town years ago and asked me point blank what made me tick. “I want to save the world,” I admitted rather sheepishly under some questioning that seemed intense, given the social context. They shook their heads sadly.

Thor and his brother Loki in Thor: Ragnarok

I told that story to a friend of mine. “Saving the world is something people give up in their teens,” she reflected. Yes, well, that’s because most people spend their youth testing their limits. I spent mine balancing my idealism by reading a lot, first Mad Magazine and later the Bible, both of which helped me develop a greater sense of irony. (Reinhold Niebuhr also learned his irony from the Bible: The Irony of American History is based on the Bible’s ironic worldview.)

Haidt’s ironic statement, evincing both self-deprecation and purpose, probably will lead to a lot of head-shaking. But it’s an idealistic age, even if some idealists, like me, wish to help talk some part of the world off the high ledge of political idealism.

After Thanksgiving dinner, we walked through the lit, empty outdoor mall by our condo to see Thor:Ragnarok. After long captivity, Thor tries to escape by throwing a large red ball through a window. He’s halfway through a refrain — an inspirational and idealistic proclamation about heroism — when the ball bounces off the glass, hits him in the head, and floors him. The motivational, non-diegetic music that accompanies the proclamation stops, too. But the music resumes as Thor gets up, completes his statement, and files through the window thanks to the crack the ball has made.

Today’s comic-book heroes enjoy irony, which separates these movies from the dark-and-light banality of their comic-book predecessors. But Thor:Ragnarok could be the marriage of comic-book Thor and Alfred E. Neuman, the mascot of Mad, whose satirical comic stories featured antiheroes and loads of prepubescent irony.

Our ideals, Thor: Ragnarok seems to suggest, must grow to accommodate irony and to encounter setbacks and even self-understanding. We cannot become like Thor’s trickster brother Loki or his captor Valkyrie, who let their experiences and cynicism trap them in selfishness in the universe’s hour of peril.

The second book, the philosophical one? American Covenant: A History of Civl Religion from he Puritans to the Present by Philip Gorski. Both books start with what we know: the country is divided, hopelessly so. Seemingly hopelessly. Both, then, start like comic-book movies.

Each of us, having dedicated our lives to something we now understand can save the republic, must come to understand that we are only one of those so dedicated and so motivated. And we must admit that we may have missed out on some normal stage of development.

He that sitteth at meat

Christian republicanism is a thing. So asserts Philip Gorski in his American Covenant, citing John Milton first and Jonathan Mayhew, a Harvard-trained Congregationalist minister, foremost (67 – 68). Mayhew’s most influential work was the widely published text of his 1750 sermon “Discourse Concerning Unlimited Submission,” which Gorski calls “an exceedingly clever defense of popular resistance to political tyranny”:

[The sermon] took the locus classics for the doctrine of passive obedience (chapter 13 of Paul’s epistle to the Romans) and used it to justify a natural right to resist unjust rule. In Mayhew’s interpretation, Paul argues “not in favor of submission to all who bear the title of rulers, in common; but only, to those who actually perform the duty of rulers, by exercising a reasonable and just authority, for the good of human society.” (68, emphasis original)

In asserting a right to resistance, of course, Mayhew echoes earlier writings by Aquinas and Locke.

Mayhew’s distinction between a titular and an actual ruler came up in our devotional reading this morning:

And there was also a strife among them, which of them should be accounted the greatest.  And he said unto them, The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them; and they that exercise authority upon them are called benefactors. But ye shall not be so: but he that is greatest among you, let him be as the younger; and he that is chief, as he that doth serve. For whether is greater, he that sitteth at meat, or he that serveth? is not he that sitteth at meat? but I am among you as he that serveth. (Luke 22:24 – 27, KJV)

Maybe Christian republicanism gets its understanding of what constitutes a true ruler from Jesus’ brief discourse here.

If republicanism is waning in America, maybe it’s due to how we see one another. If we elected a king — if the future bears out our fears that we voted out the republic last year — is it because we see one another as Jesus and the Jews of his community saw the Gentiles, as those outside the covenant?

Jonathan Mayhew

Silence in paradise

An espousal of equality, even the ontological equality at the intersection of Christianity and Lockean liberalism, must get around to answering this: what about property? (We saw a school production of Robin Hood Saturday that brought the issue back to mind.)

To someone steeped in the Book of Genesis as well as in Locke’s Second Treatise, property accumulation may feel like the moral equivalent of divorce. Jesus says that “Moses because of the hardness of your hearts suffered you to put away your wives: but from the beginning it was not so.” And John Locke’s version of the Garden of Eden, the state of nature, involved no accumulation of property as a means of oppressing others.

Joyce Appleby saw that Locke’s version of paradise connects property “with a moral end: God’s desire to provide sustenance for man. The labor which made the common gift into private property executed God’s design. The picked apple facilitated nourishment at the same time that it became private. The introduction of money,  however, destroyed the moral purpose associated with God’s gift of the earth, for it removed the check on accumulation” (Appleby’s Liberalism and Republicanism in the Historical Imagination at 88 – 89).

Joyce Appleby

Appleby says that Locke later, in effect, contradicted himself by championing the old balance-of-trade monetary theory during the recoinage battle of 1696. In that battle, he argued that mankind “put an imaginary value upon gold and silver. This intrinsic, unique value of specie had created the utility of money because it made possible a standard for all other commodities. Because men held gold and silver in unique esteem, they were willing to trade useful goods for them.” (I’m quoting Appleby’s summary of Locke’s position, not Locke himself.) Therefore, the king couldn’t put an arbitrary value on coins because people would always weigh the coin’s silver and trade it based on how much the silver was worth. Locke’s view was discredited on economic grounds, but it led to his conclusion that “the value of money was rooted in nature” (Appleby’s words), or at least in nature in the sense of beyond the reach of man or even kings to fix or change.

Locke was wrong from a macroeconomic standpoint, but he laid the metaphysical groundwork for Adam Smith some eighty years later. Smith added the market to liberalism’s doctrine as something that had a mind of its own — discernible, but incapable of being contradicted by tyrants or by anyone else, really — like natural law itself.

Looking out his Parisian window at pre-Revolutionary France, however, Jefferson wrote to Madison that the existence of the “unemployed poor” meant that “the laws of property have been so far extended as to violate natural right.” In a society with unemployment, private property  is no longer God’s means of providing for his children but a means of oppressing them.

A longer excerpt from Jefferson’s letter:

I am conscious that an equal division of property is impracticable. But the consequences of this enormous inequality producing so much misery to the bulk of mankind, legislators cannot invent too many devices for subdividing property, only taking care to let their subdivisions go hand in hand with the natural affections of the human mind. The descent of property of every kind therefore to all the children, or to all the brothers and sisters, or other relations in equal degree is a politic measure, and a practicable one. Another means of silently lessening the inequality of property is to exempt all from taxation below a certain point, and to tax the higher portions of property in geometrical progression as they rise. Whenever there is in any country, uncultivated lands and unemployed poor, it is clear that the laws of property have been so far extended as to violate natural right. The earth is given as a common stock for man to labour and live on. If, for the encouragement of industry we allow it to be appropriated, we must take care that other employment be furnished to those excluded from the appropriation. If we do not the fundamental right to labour the earth returns to the unemployed. It is too soon yet in our country to say that every man who cannot find employment but who can find uncultivated land, shall be at liberty to cultivate it, paying a moderate rent. But it is not too soon to provide by every possible means that as few as possible shall be without a little portion of land. The small landholders are the most precious part of a state.

Jefferson here seems to propose the end of primogeniture with regard to inheritance, an indexed property tax rate, and the grant of small parcels of land. But he leaves a qualified door open for other ideas (“legislators cannot invent too many devices for subdividing property, only taking care to let their subdivisions go hand in hand with the natural affections of the human mind”).

But why “silently” in Jefferson’s “silently lessening the inequality of property”? Because the rich would otherwise discover the lessening and stop it? Because (as happened in France a few years later) the loud lessening of equality means violent revolution? Because the dignity that people find in work requires that any supports remain silent, almost providential?

Close

Last night, Victoria showed me a Facebook post picturing a couple and their three young boys. The mother is pregnant with triplets — all girls. I’m still waiting for the 19th Amendment to hit home.

But maybe at the national level it’s “greater and opposite” as opposed to “equal and opposite reaction.”

Jefferson wanted “a system of local ‘wards’ or ‘hundreds,’ which were intended to be ‘little republics’ and schools of democracy,” Gorski writes in American Covenant (65). Without such a close atmosphere, we lather ourselves with anti-government sentiment like sunscreen.

Filtration

In the library, playing with lighting. My friend W. says that light is more important than paint. We have freshly painted, gray walls that go warm and cool, depending on the sun. It’s a bit beige at three with purple shadows at dusk. I bought an architect-style desk lamp that toggles among four tints of white, and Thursday I screwed a GE Reveal LED bulb into the library’s floor lamp. White, but not blue-white. Like the walls — every shade but yellow.

I just finished Philip Gorski’s chapter on the Puritans in his new book American Covenant: A History of Civil Religions from the Puritans to the Present. Gorski’s chapters on things I know nothing about — Puritanism, for instance — seem enlightening and, for all I know, erudite. Those on things I know more about — today’s culture wars and Lincoln, for instance — seem facile. Was it I. A. Richards who described books as thinking machines? Sometimes I think books are little more than that.

Philip Gorski

Gorski sees American history in large part as a struggle “between civil religion and religious nationalism.” This helpful framework echos the Jaffa-Rhenquist struggle between equality and natural law, on the one hand (Jaffa’s), and a bottomless conservatism that leads inexorably to nationalism and nihilism, on the other (Rhenquist’s). In this respect, Gorski’s American Covenant should get to know Jaffa’s Storm Over the Constitution. I think the two frameworks are met in John Locke. Locke feels like today’s liberalism, but not so. Locke was as covenant-related as Winthrop or Lincoln.

Anyway, Gorski should read Jaffa and not be so dismissive of Lippmann’s “public philosophy” (natural law).

Today’s liberalism isn’t part of either conversation. (MLK and others are, though. King grounded his liberalism in covenant and natural law, like Locke.) This lack of philosophical ballast is why Democrats struggle to become anything more than a regional party specializing in municipal governing even with the president’s approval ratings at tauntingly record lows. Now that nationalism has taken root in half the country, one can feel an unmoored, whipsaw aspect to liberalism’s causes. Today it’s sexual predation, yesterday it was global warming. Lots of lines but no cleats — dangerous when the wind kicks up. And the current administration is bent on wrecking the ship of state all at once. An issue a day is frenetic, but it’s not fast enough.

Crazy how the Republicans of the Founding generation saw little distinction between the American and French Revolutions even after Robespierre and even Napoleon. Washington and Adams stuck with neutrality, and both paid for it politically. While Adams sent emissaries to France, Vice President Jefferson “was already in the thick of a secret campaign to sabotage Adams in French eyes.” Jefferson

advised the French to stall any American envoys sent to Paris: “Listen to them and then drag out the negotiations at length and mollify them by the urbanity of the proceedings.” Jefferson and other Republicans encouraged the French to believe that Americans sided with them overwhelmingly, and this may have toughened the tone that the Directory adopted with the new administration.

Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton (548 – 549). Jefferson’s — dare I say it? — treason may have been partially responsible for the XYZ Affair, which he believed to be a Federalist hoax. Fake news. Will Trump go down as another Jefferson? Like Jefferson’s, will his party reign for a generation?

I think we’re seeing an infiltration of a foreign government into our domestic political life that we haven’t seen since the Adams administration. Just as many Republicans of Jefferson’s day related to France’s revolutionary fervor and found the Revolutionary French more American than the Federalists, so many Republicans today relate to the “family values” Putin espouses and find his muscular, illiberal nationalism more American than the politics of the American left. In a kind of senility, we’re reverting to our infancy. Maybe we’re getting back to the Founding after all.

Winning two lotteries

For two hours online before almost every show, Hamilton sells up to forty tickets by lottery for ten bucks each. Your odds of winning are less than one in four hundred. Two weeks ago, on our first try, we won.

Victoria had applied on the train to New York, and she told me we had won as we checked into the hotel. I didn’t believe it. I searched the Internet to learn more about this scam. Nothing. We went to the theater, and they put us at the front of the line. Victoria took a picture of me there with the “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” marquee over my shoulder.

We gave the ushers our golden tickets, and they seated us in the second row.

Hamilton says it holds the lottery for people who want to see the show but can’t afford tickets. That’s a good definition as any of most teachers I know. I feel as if Victoria and I that afternoon somehow represented all teachers.

Hamilton is about how you make it. It starts with Aaron Burr singing this question: “How does a bastard, orphan, son of a whore . . . Grow up to be a hero and a scholar?”1 We all have accidents of birth, such as our gender, race, our family’s religion and its social and economic conditions – heck, even our parents themselves, and our siblings, relatives, and neighbors, not to mention our own personalities. How does Alexander use or, in many cases, overcome these accidents?

I use the word “accident” in its Aristotelian sense, which the Oxford English Dictionary defines as “a property or quality not essential to a substance or object; something that does not constitute an essential component, an attribute.”2 If Alexander is not the sum of his accidents, who is he? What, in other words, is his “essential component”? Does he – do I – even have a core identity?

Personal identity has political as well as ontological and psychological implications, and Hamilton is, of course, a political play. The play itself is tame as political plays go. Lin-Manuel Miranda wanted to tell a great story, innovate by making most of it hip-hop, and get the facts (mostly) right. In these respects, Hamilton can be compared to, say, Edmund Morris’s Dutch, the Reagan bio that reads extremely well, introduces an important innovation (a fictional character), and gets the facts (mostly) right.

To get the facts right, Miranda made friends with Hamilton biographer Ron Chernow. When Miranda first rehearsed part of the first act, Chernow was “shocked”: all the Founders are black and Latino. According to Miranda’s book on the musical, Chernow got over his shock in five minutes and became “a ‘militant’ defender of the idea that actors of any race could play the Founding Fathers.” (“Militant” is Chernow’s word.)3

It’s the casting rather than the lyrics that raise Hamilton to a truly political play. In other words, the casting moves the play from one about historical politics to one about political mysticism. The casting examines equality, which I think is the political term for “essential component” — or true identity.

Representative government itself is a form of political mysticism. I vote for or against my congresswoman, and by my participation on Election Day she stands in my stead in Congress. Voting, in this way, is an act of faith, much as receiving the Host as the body of Christ, in whatever sense you might do so, is an act of faith.

Consider the representation happening the night Mike Pence, freshly elected to represent us all as the Senate’s president, saw Hamilton. Brandon Victor Dixon, the actor who plays Burr, spoke for the entire cast in addressing Pence from the stage after the show. The cast, he said, represented a particular America: “We, sir — we — are the diverse America . . .” The cast, standing behind Dixon, was visibly diverse in terms of race, gender, and national origin.4

Their costumes made the representation more pointed. The blacks, whites, Latinos, Asian-Americans, women, and men behind Dixon were dressed in Revolutionary-War-era clothes artfully brought up to date. The diverse America, Dixon seemed to be claiming, is the original or essential America – the new and true America.

In this respect, Dixon was only making explicit what the show’s casting had always made implicit: because “all men are created equal,” anyone can relate to the Founders.

At the heart of our country’s political mysticism is our relation to the Declaration’s Equality Clause. This relationship allows me not only to travel to every session of Congress in the person of my representative but also to travel in time to our nation’s Founding. Lincoln describes this mysticism in an 1858 speech. Although half the country has been settled by people whose forebears weren’t in America at the time of the Founding, Lincoln says, they still relate to the Founders in a way that is stronger than blood relation:

If they look back through this history to trace their connection with those days by blood, they find they have none, they cannot carry themselves back into that glorious epoch and make themselves feel that they are part of us, but when they look through that old Declaration of Independence they find that those old men say that “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,” and then they feel that that moral sentiment taught in that day evidences their relation to those men, that it is the father of all moral principle in them, and that they have a right to claim it as though they were blood of the blood, and flesh of the flesh of the men who wrote that Declaration, and so they are. That is the electric cord in that Declaration that links the hearts of patriotic and liberty-loving men together, that will link those patriotic hearts as long as the love of freedom exists in the minds of men throughout the world.5

This connection – this “electric cord” Lincoln discovers in the Equality Clause – is an act of political faith based on who we are – the children of God. I believe with Lincoln that, with a lot of hard work, this connection can again link “the hearts of patriotic and liberty-loving men together.” Once we make that connection, we may rediscover our polity as a large family of our brothers and sisters.

It’s understandable that a newfound belief that people of color may play the Founders made Chernow “militant.” A reconnection with our nation’s mystic origins (another way of saying that our nation was “dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal”) can reconnect our spirits with our patriotism.

We bring this love-based militancy to political battles in which some forces seek to define some group – a race, a religion, a socioeconomic class, or the unborn, for instance – as less than human. If my vote is an adult expression of my divine origin, as I have implied, then a commission that seeks to disfranchise me seeks to make me less than human. If the Supreme Court rules, after purporting to review the circumstances of our country’s Founding, that blacks have “no rights which the white man was bound to respect; and that the negro might justly and lawfully be reduced to slavery for his benefit,” then the ruling is void ab initio.

Whites have no reason to be proud that the culture currently celebrates people of color playing the Founding Fathers. It’s not as if all people of color have always been dying to play the parts. The Black Panthers, for instance, quoted Chief Justice Taney’s “no rights” language extensively to discredit the racial basis of the Constitution.6 I think also of James Baldwin:

I do not know many Negroes who are eager to be “accepted” by white people, still less to be loved by them; they, the blacks, simply don’t wish to be beaten over the head by the whites every instant of our brief passage on this planet. White people in this country will have quite enough to do in learning how to accept and love themselves and each other, and when they have achieved this – which will not be tomorrow and may very well be never – the Negro problem will no longer exist, for it will no longer be needed.7

The Panthers saw the Equality Clause differently than they understood the Constitution: they argued extensively that the Clause is inconsistent with racism.8 And Baldwin’s implied counsel to whites points us back to the difficult work of discovering our true identity. Because only what is ab initio matters; all else are mere accidents, even the events of the Founding. Hear Lincoln’s praise, the year following his “electric cord” speech, of the Equality Clause’s author:

All honor to Jefferson – to the man who, in the concrete pressure of a struggle for national independence by a single people, had the coolness, forecast, and capacity to introduce into a merely revolutionary document, an abstract truth, applicable to all men and all times, and so to embalm it there, that to-day, and in all coming days, it shall be a rebuke and a stumbling-block to the very harbingers of re-appearing tyranny and oppression.9

Lincoln says, then, that the events depicted in Hamilton, and the Declaration of Independence itself, are “merely revolutionary.” They are merely the plot and lyrics, not the casting. “Merely revolutionary” may sound like an oxymoron, but compared with the ontological content of the Declaration’s Equality Clause, the events of our nation’s Founding are mere accidents.

It’s sad that the chapters of our revolutionary history are filled with accidents: our nation’s gestation and birth were in large part products of genocide, fratricide, slavery, and war.10 It’s shallow and self-defeating to hide from our sad history or to censure those who bring it up. But we can’t fully confront our history, either, if we don’t discover through spiritual work that we’re loved despite it all. The key to that work is discovering our true identity. Our nation, finally, is not the accidents of its birth, important as they are, just as we are not the accidents of ours.

For me, then, Hamilton is about how the country makes it. Our sights must be trained on the invisible, inner man.

It’s not all hard work, I guess. Even monks, who dedicate themselves to their interior lives, have days off. Thomas Merton, then over sixteen years a monk, one day found himself on a Louisville street corner. Then and there, he had an epiphany: he was human. Everyone around him, he then knew, whether he knew them or not, were his brothers and sisters. “A member of the human race! To think that such a commonplace realization should suddenly seem like news that one holds the winning ticket in a cosmic sweepstake.”11 It changed his life.

Happy Fourth. May we, in some mystical sense, reconnect with ourselves and with our nation’s Founding, and act from there.

  1. Miranda, Lin-Manuel, and Jeremy McCarter. Hamilton: the Revolution: Being the Complete Libretto of the Broadway Musical, with a True Account of Its Creation, and Concise Remarks on Hip-Hop, the Power of Stories, and the New America. New York, NY, Grand Central Pub., 2016, at 16
  2. “Accident.” Oxford English Dictionary, Oxford University Press, 2017, www.oed.com/view/Entry/1051?rskey=JeB09H&result=1#eid. Accessed 3 July 2017.
  3. Miranda, supra, at 33.
  4. Mele, Christopher, and Patrick Healy. “‘Hamilton’ Had Some Unscripted Lines for Pence. Trump Wasn’t Happy.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 19 Nov. 2016, www.nytimes.com/2016/11/19/us/mike-pence-hamilton.html?_r=1. Accessed 3 July 2017.
  5. Lincoln, Abraham. “Speech at Chicago, Illinois.” Abraham Lincoln: Speeches and Writings 1832-1858, edited by Don E. Fehrenbacher, Library of America, New York, NY, 1994, pp. 439–458, at 456.
  6. Meister, Franziska. Racism and Resistance: How the Black Panthers Challenged White Supremacy. Bielefeld, Transcript-Verlag, 2017, at 65.
  7. Baldwin, James. “Down at the Cross.” Baldwin – Collected Essays, New York, NY, The Library of America, 1998, pp. 296–347, at 300.
  8. Meister, supra, at 78 – 79.
  9. Lincoln, Abraham. “To Henry L. Pierce and Others.” Abraham Lincoln: Speeches and Writings 1859-1865, Library of America, New York, 1996, pp. 18–19, at 19.
  10. A great book in this respect is Alan Taylor’s American Revolutions: A Continental History, 1750 – 1804. It is also the role of a Machiavelli, according to Leo Strauss, to dismiss the founding of our nation because of the injustices that led to it. Machiavelli, according to Strauss, “would not hesitate to suggest a mischievous interpretation of the Louisiana Purchase and of the fate of the Red Indians. He would conclude that facts like these are an additional proof of his contention that there cannot be a great and glorious society without the equivalent of the murder of Remus by his brother Romulus.” Thoughts on Machiavelli, pages 13 – 14.
  11. Merton, Thomas. “A Member of the Human Race.” A Thomas Merton Reader, edited by Thomas P. McDonnell, Doubleday, New York, 1996, pp. 345–346, at 346.

Wang Bi on Charles Wright

Sunlight is blowing westward across the unshadowed meadow,
Night, in its shallow puddles, / still liquid and loose in the trees.
The world is a desolate garden . . .

– Charles Wright, “Images from the Kingdom of Things” (2006)

The dawn of tribalism is both a force (“blowing”) and a movement (“westward”). Its effect on the West (the western meadow) is as involuntary and disorienting as synesthesia (“sunlight is blowing”). An intellectual understanding of tribalism (seeing sunlight) misleads democrats and republicans: they assume tribalism’s dangers are evident to all, even to those who feel a primal attraction to its force (“blowing”).

In tribalism’s brief dawn, the three branches of government, understood here as light’s three primary colors, converge and pan like a searchlight. They discover Western democracy, like the passing night, holed up in the “shallow puddles,” that is, ironically, in the least democratic of institutions: the “trees” of the federal bureaucracy and the various intelligence communities.

chinese art photo
Photo by Naomi Chung’s Daydream Art

“. . . Wang Bi was acutely aware that he lived in dangerous times, and it is quite possible to read his commentary to the Laozi, on one level at least, as a strategy for survival.” — Richard John Lynn, The Classic of the Way and Virtue: A New Translation of the Tao-te ching of Laozi as Interpreted by Wang Bi

Feature image photo by Internet Archive Book Images

Fire and rain

As a teen, I thought that sages lived in a rosy kingdom of their Twenties. No one understood more than James Taylor and Neil Young. Older people, except for Bobby Kennedy, lived elsewhere. Bobby was dead and pushed his hair out of his eyes, so we listened to him, too. How long have generations passed on early, their lives cut short by the next generation? What started it, radio or war? It seems as old as the Divided Kingdom, founded when Rehoboam likened his pinkie to his father’s dick.