“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.
So let us mark this day with remembrance, of who we are and how far we have traveled. In the year of America’s birth, in the coldest of months, a small band of patriots huddled by dying campfires on the shores of an icy river. The capital was abandoned. The enemy was advancing. The snow was stained with blood. At a moment when the outcome of our revolution was most in doubt, the father of our nation ordered these words be read to the people: “Let it be told to the future world…that in the depth of winter, when nothing but hope and virtue could survive…that the city and the country, alarmed at one common danger, came forth to meet [it].”
That line is from Paine’s The Crisis, which George Washington did, in fact, have read to the troops in the most difficult days of the revolutionary struggle.
From that reference, on Tuesday, Obama continued:
America. In the face of our common dangers, in this winter of our hardship, let us remember these timeless words. With hope and virtue, let us brave once more the icy currents, and endure what storms may come. Let it be said by our children’s children that when we were tested we refused to let this journey end, that we did not turn back nor did we falter; and with eyes fixed on the horizon and God’s grace upon us, we carried forth that great gift of freedom and delivered it safely to future generations.
It was right that Obama turned to Paine.
When the Pennsylvania Assembly considered the formal abolition ofslavery in 1779, it was Paine who authored the preamble to the proposal.
Paine’s fervent objections to slavery led to his exclusion from theinner circles of American power in the first years of the republic. Hedied a pauper. Only history restored the man–and his vision.
And on this day, this remarkable day, Thomas Paine is fully redeemed.
Paine, to a greater extent than any of his peers, was the founder whoimagined a truly United States that might offer a son of Africa and ofAmerica not merely citizenship but its presidency.
Barack Obama is wise to associate himself with the better angels of ourhistory, including the architects of our republic who, for all theirimperfections, issued–as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. noted onanother crowded day in Washington–“wrote the magnificent words of theConstitution and the Declaration of Independence” and in so doing”(signed) a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir.This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as whitemen, would be guaranteed the ‘unalienable Rights’ of ‘Life, Liberty andthe pursuit of Happiness.’ It is obvious today that America hasdefaulted on this promissory note, insofar as her citizens of color areconcerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has giventhe Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked’insufficient funds.'”
“But,” concluded King, “we refuse to believe that the bank of justice isbankrupt.”
The bank of justice, unlike those of Wall Street, has proven to besolvent.
Our new president–and we the people–do well to recognize those whosigned the promissory note.
But that does not mean that we should presume that the founders were allequally wise, or equally good.
It was Paine, the most revolutionary of their number, who proved to bethe wisest, and the best, of that band of patriots–for his time, andfor this time.
Today belongs to Barack Obama.
But it also belongs to Thomas Paine.
When our new president says that his election proves “the dream of ourfounders is alive in our time,” it is Paine’s dream of which he speaks.
That dream may not be fully realized. But it is alive–more, indeed,today than at any time in the history of a land that might yet begin ourworld over again.