“I stand here today as hopeful as ever that the United States ofAmerica will endure, that it will prevail, that the dream of ourfounders will live on in our time.”
Barack Obama, 18 January 2009
President Barack Obama swore on Tuesday to protect and defend a Constitutionthat was not written in anticipation of his presidency–that was not,in fact, written in anticipation of his citizenship.
And that is where we should begin to measure the historic turning thathas taken place this day.
The American experiment began with its promise constricted by the narrowvision of Virginia plantation owners who saw an African-American asthree-fifths of a human being–and that scant measure only for thepurpose of granting the South a greater share of the seats in a Congressthat would for the better part of a century be all white, all male andall of the propertied class.
America was founded on the original sins of human bondage and violentdiscrimination.
Barack Obama’s inauguration does not erase that history. As W.E.B. DuBois told us, “One is astonished in the study of history at therecurrence of the idea that evil must be forgotten, distorted, skimmedover…We must forget that George Washington was a slave owner… andsimply remember the things we regard as creditable and inspiring. Thedifficulty, of course, with this philosophy is that history loses itsvalue as an incentive and example; it paints perfect man and noblenations, but it does not tell the truth.”
Obama’s inauguration turns the tables on the founders.
Those who proposed and accepted the Constitution’s initial compromises,have been put in their place–not dismissed, but confirmed, finally andunequivocally, as having possessed a vision insufficient for the Americathat would be.
That goes for Jefferson, Madison, even for Washington (Obama’s “man wholed a small band of farmers and shopkeepers in revolution against thearmy of an Empire”)–all the “good guys” who were not good enough toreject the crude calculus that in the words of Du Bois “classed theblack man and the ox together.”
Yet Obama speaks, often and favorably, of the founders, describing themin Philadelphia just days before his inauguration as “that first band ofpatriots… who somehow believed that they had the power to make theworld anew.”
The reference to making the world anew was borrowed–imprecisely–from one of founders. Thomas Paine called his comrades to therevolutionary cause with the cry: “We have it in our power to begin the world over again. A situation, similar to the present, hath not happened since the days of Noah until now. The birthday of a new world is at hand, and a race of men, perhaps as numerous as all Europe contains, are to receive their portion of freedom from the event of a few months.”
Obama quoted frequently from Paine, and particularly from Common Sense, during his campaign for the presidency. And he did so, again, on Tuesday, referencing Paine in a speech that spoke of a “return to these truths” of the American experiment.