Tag Archives: politics

Guarding against the Dangers of Good Intentions

Good intentions will always be pleaded for every assumption of authority. The Constitution was made to guard the people against the dangers of good intentions. There are men in all ages who mean to govern well, but they mean to govern. They promise to be good masters, but they mean to be masters.

Daniel Webster, US Senator, 1827 – 1840,  known as “Defender of the Constitution”

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Reconciliation Is More Beautiful than Victory

Michigan lake

This date in 1865, the signal act of reconciliation in American history took place, in the dusty hamlet of Appomattox, Virginia. The last embers of the Civil War were dying, as had 625,000 soldiers, blue and gray.  The courtly Southerner, Robert E. Lee, came to surrender his threadbare army, and he met the most unlikely of counterparts.  Union General Ulysses S. Grant had been a clerk in a leather goods store when the war began.  He wore his usual ordinary soldier’s coat, mud-spattered and distinguished only by the three stars in each lapel.

When the papers were signed, Lee thanked Grant for his surprisingly generous terms.  Union soldiers watched respectfully as the gray-clad troops filed past; the order had come down from Grant that there was to be no celebration.  Most importantly, the terms of surrender ensured that there would be no retribution against Confederate officers.  Since General Grant,  hero to the public in the North, had signed the document, the radicals and newspaper editorialists could shout for trials and vengeance until they were hoarse, but it would avail them nothing.

The previous month, in his Second Inaugural Address, President Lincoln had anticipated the war’s end with the words, with malice toward none, with charity for all.  He pledged to bind up the nation’s wounds and to care for those who had borne the battle, and their widows and orphans.  Nowhere did he distinguish between blue and gray soldiers.

The common wisdom might be that the Southerners were the beneficiaries of Grant and Lincoln’s generosity.  The better  view of reconciliation is found in the words of Shakespeare.  The quality of mercy is not strained, the Bard wrote.  It is twice blessed, blessing him that receives, but also he that gives.  By choosing reconciliation, the victor eschews the darker, revengeful  side of human nature.  He is then touched, as Lincoln said, by the better angels of our nature.  Given the fertile soil of accommodation, the slow process of evolutionary growth can proceed.

Significantly, with the abandonment of post-war Reconstruction, the promise of reconciliation was denied the freedmen, even the 180,000 who had fought valiantly in the Union Army.  This retreat from equality remained a  stain on the nation’s record for a century.

In recent decades, the simple, but profound message of the meeting between the aristocrat and the former store clerk at Appomattox Court House has been lost in the noxious atmosphere of American politics.  Triumph at the polls is now the occasion for contempt, not respect, for the vanquished.  The new majority arrogantly rams through its agenda without concern for the minority’s deeply held values.  Reconciliation?  How quaint.  However, as Lincoln, Grant, and Lee knew, victory without reconciliation is a prescription for an endless cycle of rancor and revenge.

“Reconciliation is more beautiful than victory.”
Violeta Barrios de Chamorro, President of Nicaragua, 1990

Somewhere I Read of the Freedom of Speech

In bygone times, when you came across a political commentator  you found annoying, the solution was to change the channel. Now, an online mob forms with the fervent intention of silencing the offending voice. To the cyber barricades!   Hashtag campaigns, public shaming, boycott the advertisers! And ironically the mobs are often composed of those who label their opponents “authoritarian.” Ah, but the Constitution’s  45 word First Amendment and its resilient spirit of free speech  has proven to be  the most reliable bulwark against real authoritarians.

Dr. King: Hew out of the Mountain of Despair a Stone of Hope

April 4, 1968, America lost Dr. Martin Luther King to a sniper’s bullet.  That evening, ignoring police warnings of violence, Robert Kennedy spoke to the black community of Indianapolis in the most  heartfelt speech I have heard   He spoke in words of anguish, yet he offered hope for America, thus echoing Dr. King’s call to “hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope.”  While rage at Dr. King’s murder exploded into riots in scores of American cities, Indianapolis was spared violence.  Perhaps because people there  believed a leader actually cared?  Robert Kennedy’s voice, though silenced 2 months later by an assassin, speaks to us today.

What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence and lawlessness, but is love, and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or whether they be black.

Conversion while Witnessing the Flames

For International Women’s Day, a story of a pioneer, Frances Perkins, first female U.S. Cabinet secretary, architect of the New Deal,  and the day that changed her life.

One spring day in 1911, Frances Perkins witnessed one of the most heart wrenching scenes in American history. The epiphany she then experienced led her to a path less traveled, as she became  the first female Secretary of Labor and the leading architect of the 1930s New Deal.

She was lunching that afternoon with friends at a small café in the Greenwich Village district of New York City. Nearby, the Triangle Shirtwaist factory occupied the upper floors of a grimy, rundown building. In crowded quarters, young immigrant women sewed clothes in nine hour shifts, six days a week, for paltry wages.

The Witness

While Perkins was sipping tea and conversing, a hidden fire smoldered in the lint and scraps of cloth  in the factory. When it flared up, the women ran to escape.  The fortunate discovered  a  way out, but many workers found exit doors impossible to open. Banging and pounding on the doors proved futile, and their desperate pleas went unanswered. One hundred feet above street level, they were trapped with the flames. The Triangle owners  had locked doors from the outside, so they could control the workers leaving the plant.

Smoke poured from the upper floors, and Perkins went into the street to see what was happening. Women climbed out of the windows and stood precariously on the  ledges, hoping for a miracle. The fire trucks arrived, but their ladders did not reach high enough. The firemen watched helplessly as women began to jump to their deaths, driven by the searing flames. One hundred forty-six workers perished. The youngest among them were fourteen year-old Kate Leone and Rosaria Maltese.

In a civil suit resulting from the fire, the plaintiffs were awarded $75 per deceased victim.  Two years later, one of the owners was found guilty of again locking factory doors during working hours, and he was fined $20.

The Path Less Traveled

Perkins, then 31, was a social worker by profession, but after watching the horror of the Triangle fire, she chose a  new direction. She threw herself into political reform to advocate for the working class. When women won the right to vote in 1920, more doors opened for skilled and dedicated women to rise in the progressive movement.

Perkins joined the administration of Governor Franklin Roosevelt in New York. When FDR became president in 1932, with the country prostrate and demoralized in the Great Depression, Frances Perkins became the Secretary of Labor. She was the first woman to serve in the Cabinet. She found herself right at home in the rough and tumble of national politics.  Perkins was tough, but she was also persuasive. She knew how  to work with people on their terms—an invaluable skill, particularly for a woman in the 1930s.

Perkins became the New Deal’s chief policymaker, overseeing reforms that would allow blue collar workers greater participation in American life. The American middle class flourished in this fertile soil. In the process, Roosevelt’s Democratic Party grew to be a broad coalition, with the working class as an integral  partner. This realignment of American politics endured for two generations.

The Charlatans

In 1968, a young man wrote a book entitled Revolution for the Hell of It. Abbie Hoffman was a leader of the late 1960s counter culture and the icon of a new social type, the celebrity protester. He was famous for being famous, and the television cameras, like faithful puppies, followed him from protest to protest.   His remarks, however inane, regularly made the evening news.  As his book’s title implies, Hoffman mocked the diligent efforts of reformers in the mold of  Frances Perkins. He was, indeed, openly derisive of the American working class and its culture and values.

It has been remarked that as the Vietnam War became more unpopular with the American public, the anti-war protestors became even more despised.   While this might seem a paradox, the attitude and behavior of the Abbie Hoffmans of that era dispels any apparent contradiction.  Although the vast majority of anti-war protestors demonstrated peacefully, the fringe who instigated violence were always sure to attract the media’s attention, and the American public reacted.  The provocateurs’  contempt for working class Americans goes a long way to explain the election of conservative Republican Richard Nixon as president in 1968 and his landslide re-election four years later.

Yet, a strange thing happened after the Democratic Party’s presidential election debacle in 1972. As the years went by, through the 1970s and the 1980s, the attitudes held  by the 1960s extremists migrated from the fringes to become more  prevalent in the Democratic Party. Perversely, repeated defeats led to a doubling down on failure.  Instead of a searching self-examination, Democrats of the leftist persuasion blamed the  voters, especially those in the working class who were white. This arrogance was no longer confined to the activists, but came to permeate the party leadership.

Frances Perkins would have been appalled, both on a personal and political level.  The Democratic Party had not only turned its back on her constituency, but it had also eschewed her politics of persuasion.

Last Full Measure of Devotion: I Discover a Personal Lincoln

Lincoln Memorial

Lincoln Memorial, NPS photo

Sheltered in the warmth of a Detroit library’s archives on a blustery fall evening, I happened upon a clue to  Abraham Lincoln’s political artistry.   Having often visited Washington, I have met the  marble Lincoln seated at the Memorial, his presence like  an ancient oracle  looking out toward the reflecting pool, his famous words etched on the walls, and a steady stream of tourists looking up to a revered, if distant, figure. The setting last Thursday allowed me a more personal insight.

Reblogging this in honor of Abraham Lincoln’s birthday

The archivist led our small group into an alcove where the library kept fragile materials.  A letter on yellowed paper, too frail to be touched, rested on a display table. Written in a forceful, cursive hand, the note  was dated October 11 in the first year of the Civil War.  The writer sought the aid of the Secretary of War.  The signature at the bottom read, Abraham Lincoln.

At first glance, the letter’s content seemed   mundane. Lincoln was asking the Secretary of War to assign two junior army officers to a general named Sherman. Never having seen one of Lincoln’s letters up close, I mused over this bit of history.   For me, there was a sense of the past looking over my shoulder.

Walking out of the alcove, I found myself imagining the story that might lie behind the letter. I pictured Lincoln in the White House with his young son, Tad, playing nearby.  A  Congressman from a Midwest prairie district, fortified for the occasion by a prior visit to nearby Willard’s bar, asks the president for a favor for two constituents.    Perhaps one had been a small town lawyer and the other a local politician; now they were  officers in the  Union Army.  Did I mention that Lincoln is a Republican and the Congressman a Democrat?  Lincoln listens intently, turning over the Congressman’s request in his mind.  Rather than committing himself, Lincoln tells a droll story, and the two men share a hearty laugh.  Today, this scene would be impossible,, but in 1861, politics worked in just this fashion.

Abraham Lincoln mastered the political arts as a lifelong endeavor, beginning with many years spent brokering deals in the fractious Illinois legislature.  His shrewdness and deft touch have never been equaled in American history.   Lincoln’s strengths met the ultimate test in the  Civil War, where military triumphs required a sturdy foundation of political success.   In the North, popular support for the war remained problematic, from the opening shots at Fort Sumter to the last bugles at Appomattox Court House.  Lincoln faced a precarious high wire balancing act during his presidency.

Rancorous partisan strife marked politics in Lincoln’s time.  Yet, if  Democrats deserted the war effort, the Union cause would be lost. One key to their support was the appointment of prominent Democrats, sometimes woefully unqualified as officers, to positions in the Army.  Lincoln knew that such concessions to political reality were unavoidable, though no one felt the resulting loss of life more deeply than he did.  Fortunately, he eventually found the commanders he needed to win the war.

Lincoln’s simple words in a faded letter remain with me as I write this.  Certainly, his speeches deserve to be enshrined in our country’s memory, yet it should not be forgotten that he was first and always a politician of great sensitivity and finely honed persuasive ability.  He could reach out to an opponent, arrange a deal, and reach a compromise—all the while keeping his eyes on the prize.  Such is the legacy that Lincoln left us, if we would only learn from his bequest.

Leadership, Love, and the Last Full Measure of Devotion

Fugitive slaves seek the Promised Land

Abraham Lincoln’s expressive face impressed  an author who remembered  Lincoln’s gray-brown eyes as perhaps the saddest he had ever seen. “Yet, when a good story was told,” the author recalled, “whether by himself or another, his homely face lighted up till he was positively handsome.” In a largely pre-photographic world, however, the American people would come to know their president’s human quality  by his moral courage and empathy.

As the green  leaves of summer  took on fall colors in 1862, one year after the Civil War’s opening battles, Lincoln’s courage and political judgment faced a defining  test. The president announced, on the eve of a critical election, that he would issue the Emancipation Proclamation, which would put slavery on the path to extinction.  Significant numbers of the  North’s white voters, harboring visceral racial prejudices, despised the Proclamation. Even moderate Republicans balked over this issue. As a result, Lincoln’s party suffered major losses in that fall’s Congressional elections.

Why had not Lincoln, arguably American history’s shrewdest politician, waited until after the elections for his unpopular move? Certainly, that has been the course taken by  recent presidents. Yet, Lincoln knew that the loyalty and trust of the common people was an asset to be valued far above rubies, in the words of Proverbs, and not to be wasted  buying electoral advantage with dishonesty. If the nation were to endure the Civil War, he needed the people’s  trust. Indeed, for the coming trial by fire, Lincoln needed to win their love. Losing Congressional seats was simply the price that had to be paid to strengthen Lincoln’s bond with the people–as someone who meant what he said. Such is the sterner stuff of which leadership is made.

It does not surprise us to learn that when the Union cause was at its low ebb, the common people, though war weary, retained their personal affection for  Lincoln. Their faith in him endured, even during the  summer of 1864, when the casualty lists from the murderous battles in Virginia brought sorrow to every crossroads hamlet and town in the North. Their ranks dwindling daily, the toughest soldiers on the planet, the Union’s Army of the Potomac, still knew Lincoln simply as Father Abraham. Their chosen name for him testified both to their religious faith and their love for their commander. The reverential term, used by black and white soldiers alike, expressed as clearly as a bell that true leadership’s touchstone is love. With this emotional bond, Lincoln’s soldiers gave their last full measure of devotion, winning for the nation a new birth of freedom.