Thomas Jefferson was hopeless and hopeful. He admitted that slaveholding rendered his own class depraved “despots” and destroyed the “amor patriae” of their bondsmen. But his fear was universal. “Can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are of the gift of God?” This advocate of the natural rights tradition, and confounding contradictory genius, ended his rumination with the vague entreaty that his countrymen “be contented to hope” that a “mollifying” of the conditions of slaves and a new “spirit” from the revolution would in the “order of events” save his country.
For that republic to survive it took far more than hope and a faith in progress. Indeed, it did not survive; in roughly four score years it tore itself asunder over the issue of racial slavery, as well as over fateful contradictions in its constitution. The American disunion of 1861-65, the emancipation of 4 million slaves, and the reimagining of the second republic that resulted form the pivot of American history. The civil war sits like the giant sleeping dragon of American history ever ready to rise up when we do not expect it and strike us with unbearable fire. It has happened here – existential civil war, fought with unspeakable death and suffering for fundamentally different visions of the future.
Republics are ever unsteady and at risk, as our first and second founders well understood. Americans love to believe their history is blessed and exceptional, the story of a people with creeds born of the Enlightenment that will govern the worst of human nature and inspire our “better angels” to hold us together. Sometimes they do. But this most diverse nation in the world is still an experiment, and we are once again in a political condition that has made us ask if we are on the verge of some kind of new civil conflict.
Monday, September 11, 2017
The Sleeping Dragon