Can We Recover American Nobility, Piety, and Humanity?

There was a time when a kind of nobility still existed among our leaders. In Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, delivered March 4, 1865, while the nation was still riven by a bloody Civil War, he envisioned a future of national healing. In words now carved in the marble of the Lincoln Memorial, he pledged, “With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right,” to go on “to bind up the nation’s wounds,” and to “do all which may achieve and cherish a just, and a lasting peace, among ourselves . . .”

A few weeks later, when the war actually came to a close, the victorious General Ulysses S. Grant, accepting the surrender of General Robert E. Lee, allowed Lee and his men to keep their horses and their swords, and to return to their homes. 

The victors, Lincoln and Grant, could understand that the Confederates still deserved some respect. As Lincoln earlier had noted, again in his Second Inaugural, the people of North and South “read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes His aid against the other.” 

A little less than a century earlier, following the defeat of the British in the Revolutionary War, John Jay observed in Federalist 2

that Providence has been pleased to give this one connected country to one united people—a people descended from the same ancestors, speaking the same language, professing the same religion, attached to the same principles of government, very similar in their manners and customs, and who, by their joint counsels, arms, and efforts, fighting side by side throughout a long and bloody war, have nobly established general liberty and independence.

That sense of shared humanity, shared piety, and shared nobility has now all but evaporated.

Until the 1960s, there was something like a national consensus on the appropriate approach to politics, and Jay’s assessment of the country remained essentially accurate. 

With the civil rights movement and the response to the Vietnam War, however, the shared notion of this country as essentially noble and benign began to erode, as American campuses fell under the ideology of the Left, with its questioning of American traditions regarding race, religion, family, property, and social class. 

We are now reaping the bitter harvest of that change in the universities, which spread into our secondary schools, entertainment industry, and media, finally overtaking one of our great political parties, the Democratic Party. 

In 1800, in the first American transfer of political power between rival factions, the defeated Federalist president, John Adams, graciously stepped aside, and, after a decision by the House of Representatives following the most vitriolic election contest that had yet occurred, the Democratic-Republican Thomas Jefferson became president.

Two-hundred-and-sixteen years later, when Donald Trump won an Electoral College victory over Hillary Clinton, many Democrats declared him an “illegitimate president” because Trump failed to win the popular vote. This blatant and malicious refusal to accept the result dictated by our Constitution (and thus the rule of law) led to the relentless “resistance,” to Obama Administration holdovers’ clandestine plotting to oust Trump through the Russia collusion hoax, and then to a failed impeachment effort.

We are still a deeply divided country, and it is time for the leaders of both parties to affirm their faith in our shared traditions, and in the existing Electoral College system and the United States Constitution itself.  

In a way we are now experiencing a second Civil War, with the tearing down of monuments, the riots and looting in many of our cities, and many of our intellectuals telling us that ours is a society replete with systematic racism and injustice. The troops of Antifa and the activists of Black Lives Matter (BLM) are agitating for reparations for slavery, and some have justified looting as a kind of “do it yourself” reparations.

The blind rage that leads to such advocacy and conduct is in stark contrast to the words of Lincoln, the conduct of Adams, and the hopes of Jay.

The kind of social justice warrior exemplified by Antifa and BLM, and the kind of ideology and revolutionary fervor promoted by the socialists and anarchists who inspired those movements are antithetical to American tradition. 

If Antifa and the BLM are revolutionaries, they are more like French Jacobins or Russian Bolsheviks than they are like our American forebears, who sought simply to preserve the liberties guaranteed by the British common law.

Those now engaged in the tearing down of American monuments are also engaged in shredding the fabric of our Constitutional order. As Attorney General Bill Barr recently remarked, they are the heirs of one of the intellectual fathers of the French Revolution, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, with his belief in absolutism, and the perfectibility of humankind.

The Christian beliefs so important in American history were anchored in an understanding of the inherently imperfect nature of humanity, its cupidity, and its need to erect a constitutional structure that protected the American people from their governors, and, ultimately from themselves.

The statue-tumblers dwell on an imagined repressive past, but they have little perspective or understanding of human limits. Theirs is a revanchist enterprise, a romantic undertaking against perceived miscreants, but, like all authoritarian socialist undertakings, it is more likely to create a hell on earth than utopia. 

As only intellectuals, sadly, can remain oblivious to the obvious, it is necessary to point it out to them: in our time there is much virtue-signaling, but too little virtue.

Barton Swaim recently observed that the Democrats’ current push for racial justice requires “the constant expansion of state and federal welfare bureaucracies and programs.” It includes the belief “that government at all levels has a duty to monitor the business and social practices of citizens through an array of civil-rights divisions and commissions empowered to prevent any form of discrimination.” To oppose any of this, Swaim saw, “opens you to the charge, veiled or explicit, of racism.”

Racism, in our time, is the ultimate evil, and it is no surprise that our president and his supporters have been freely tarred as racists. That charge, and the “cancel culture” of political correctness that abets it, Swaim noted, results in a “variety of social punishments.”

The presidential election of 2020 offers an opportunity to reject these pernicious beliefs. In the face of 95 percent broadcast media hostility, it will take the most powerful outpouring of the traditional virtue of the American people to overcome them, but it should and must be done, if American greatness as we know it is not to vanish from the earth.

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About Stephen B. Presser

Stephen B. Presser is the Raoul Berger Professor of Legal History Emeritus at Northwestern University’s Pritzker School of Law, and the author of “Law Professors: Three Centuries of Shaping American Law” (West Academic Publishers, 2017). In the academic year 2018-2019, Professor Presser is a Visiting Scholar in Conservative Thought and Policy at the University of Colorado, Boulder.

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