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The Lessons of History | The Nation

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The Lessons of History

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AP ImagesJohn Hope Franklin attends to one of his many orchids in the greenhouse behind his home in Durham, NC, October 2005.

About the Author

John Hope Franklin
John Hope Franklin is the James B. Duke professor emeritus of history at Duke University and for seven years was...

The great historian John Hope Franklin passed away this morning at the age of 94. The first African-American department chair at a white institution and the first African-American president of the American Historical Association, Franklin, the author of the seminal From Slavery to Freedom: A History of Negro Americans, was an integral part of the team of scholars who assisted Thurgood Marshall to win Brown v. Board of Education, the 1954 case that outlawed the "separate but equal" doctrine in the nation's public schools. Here we repost a powerful speech by Franklin we published originally at TheNation.com in 2006. It came on the occasion of his receipt of the Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. Award from the Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt Institute.

It is a signal honor to receive the Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. Award from the Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt Institute. Franklin D. Roosevelt was my hero when I was in college, and I shall always remember my unsuccessful effort to chase him down during my senior year in the attempt to enlist his aid. As president of the student body, I sought the aid of President Roosevelt as the students protested the lynching of a young African American lad who had been seized from a house near the campus, taken to an adjoining county, castrated, and lynched for an alleged crime for which he had already been exonerated in a court of law. I was unable to reach President Roosevelt at his Warm Springs retreat. More accurately, the president of my college did not fulfill his promise to put me in touch with President Roosevelt.

Historian John Hope Franklin delivered the Arthur M.
Schlesinger, Jr. Lecture at the New-York Historical Society on October 17. It is published here as part of The Nation's ongoing Moral Compass series, highlighting the spoken word.

The following year, 1935, I acquired a new hero in the person of Professor Arthur M. Schlesinger, Sr. in whose seminar I was enrolled. At the very first meeting of the class, Professor S., as we were to call him affectionately, invited his seminar to his home. There I met his family, including Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. who, by this year, 2006, has been my valued friend for more than seventy years. My relationship with the family placed me in a good position to observe and admire Arthur's meteoric rise in the academy and subsequently in the world of public service. One can only say that he has been as distinguished and diligent as a public servant as he has been as an original and outstanding scholar in the academic world.

I wish to talk, albeit briefly, about what appears to be happening in the world and, especially, what seems to be happening in our country as we face one of the most difficult periods in our history. Those in a position to speak for the country and to outline its current mission insist that we citizens are undertaking to share with the world the blessings of a free and prosperous society and to spread democracy throughout the world. Under the most favorable circumstances, this would be a remarkable mission; and it is not too much to argue that these are not the most ideal times for such an undertaking. Before we enter upon such an ambitious mission it is well to remember that we ourselves are still in the process of becoming democratic, and it has taken us more than two hundred years to arrive at this stage. A democracy is a government where power is vested in the people, all of the people, and one in which the power is directly exercised by the people all of whom enjoy social and political equality.

At the outset, we did not even claim to be democratic, and it was not at all clear that such a state of political and social grace was one to which we seriously aspired. Indeed, it became quite clear as early as the meeting of the Constitutional Convention in l787 that a real concern of a considerable number of the delegates, for example, was that the direct election of the president, by popular vote was much too democratic, and it would be much better, they thought, to have wise electors who would know much better than the general population who could best govern the fledgling republic. Consequently, the electoral college was established, and for the past two hundred years, the American electorate has not had the pleasure or the privilege of choosing directly the president of the United States.

This indirect election of the president by an electoral college has established the practice not only of adhering to the notion that the populace cannot be trusted with the difficult and complicated task of choosing the chief executive, but of regarding the undemocratic electoral college as the most democratic method of electing the president. Thus, we have placed ourselves in the peculiar position of various Americans, at times a former president of the United States, of monitoring elections in other parts of the world. These monitors want to make certain that the people, all of the people, participate in choosing their leaders directly, when we ourselves do not engage in the same practice. In the last two presidential elections in the United States, the contest has been fiercely fought; and the dispute over the outcome reflects a lack of confidence in the entire electoral process. We all recall, of course, the election of 2000 that was not settled, if it ever was, by the United States Supreme Court that made a decision regarding the validity of the ballots in the state of Florida, which determined the outcome of the election. One can still hear reverberations stemming from the decision that the Court handed down, thus awarding the presidency to the candidate who, incidentally, did not receive a clear majority of the popular vote. Thus, he would not have become president if we had not had the electoral college because he did not receive a clear majority of the popular vote. It is clear that many among us would be upset and resentful, of course, if any sovereign nation would dare suggest that presidential elections in the United States are not fair or democratic and should be monitored to make certain that even if they are not truly democratic, every citizen should have the opportunity to cast a direct ballot for the nation's chief executive. Turnabout is fair play, however, and we ourselves should practice what we expect of others. Surely, if we undertake to spread democracy throughout the world, we must make certain that our own institutions, especially the presidency, are democratic.

We did not have a national army until the Civil War. Before that time we had, as provided by the Constitution, a militia that, most of the time, depended on enlistments through the states. In April, l86l, President Lincoln, just after the firing on Fort Sumter, called for a 75,000-man militia, after which much of the military force of the United States consisted of federal volunteers. When that proved inadequate, the Congress passed a new Militia Act. It provided that the militia should include all male citizens between the ages of eighteen and forty-five, after which President Lincoln assigned quotas to the states and ordered a draft through the states to fill any unfilled quotas. These were preliminary steps to the more comprehensive democratic conscription law in March, l863, that made eligible all male citizens between the ages of twenty and forty-five, after which president Lincoln assigned quotas to the states liable for military service upon call by the president. On the basis of this, and in due course, all males could be called up for military service. At long last, the United States could boast that it had a citizen army to which any and all male citizens could be drafted. This practice remained the basis for a democratic military force from the time of the Civil War until after the conflict in Vietnam.

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