Lincoln’s words that ‘we shall nobly save, or meanly lose, the last best hope of earth’ ring true today
July is the month we celebrate American independence, so it’s worth reflecting on our history.
One thing I can say about studying history is that it offers something so often missing from contemporary conversations: perspective. It’s easy to think of our times as the worst of times. With a president in the White House who is a particularly easy target of criticism; political polarization in Washington and around the nation; violence in the streets, in our schools, and in the workplace; a media that seems more interested in setting the agenda than reporting the news; the reputations of long-respected institutions like the FBI and CIA in the dregs; the family seeming under attack from every angle; and intractable issues like immigration and racial tensions tearing apart communities, one would think that these are truly the worst times in the U. S. of A.
But consider the times of Andrew Jackson. There sat in the White House a man who represented the worst of humanity in the minds of his political opponents, and those opponents had little interest in taming their attacks on him. Jackson gave back as good as he got. Can you imagine if Twitter had been in his hands! Jackson actually killed a man in a duel and survived two assassination attempts.
People today look to the 2020 election (and 2016 before that) as evidence of corruption in the election process. You want corruption? How about the campaign of 1824? Jackson won the popular vote but not the Electoral College. It became a three-way competition to be settled by the House of Representatives. Henry Clay, one of those candidates, was accused of having arranged for his supporters in the House to vote for John Quincy Adams, securing the election for Adams. Adams then named Clay his secretary of state. Jackson’s supporters immediately cried foul, and the supposed arrangement has gone down in history as “the corrupt bargain.”
In the next campaign, 1828, Adams faced Jackson again. Jackson’s supporters accused Adams of literally pimping for the czar of Russia, while Adams’ supporters accused Jackson of military atrocities for having executed six men for desertion and accused his wife of being an adulterer. Jackson’s wife died just after the election, and Jackson attributed her death to the stress of those accusations. Jackson himself is regarded as one of our country’s greatest presidents and greatest criminals. He certainly changed the presidency, making it a far more powerful institution than it had been in previous administrations. He also forced the Cherokee and other native peoples off their homelands and onto reservations in the West. The polarization we deplore today was nothing compared to that of Jackson’s day, when Southern states, and even his own vice president, John C. Calhoun, advocated a policy called “nullification,” claiming that the individual states had the authority to “nullify” federal laws with which they disagreed. It was a precursor to the Civil War.
What’s the point of all of this? The point is that thing I mentioned earlier that is so often missing from contemporary conversations: perspective.
We don’t celebrate the independence of the United States of America each year because the United States is some beacon of perfection among nations. We celebrate it because the ideals propagated in the Declaration of Independence, ideals lived out imperfectly even by the men who exalted them, represent the best humanity has to offer, politically, this side of the kingdom. No nation, empire, or people in the history of the world, before 1776, attempted to form a government “of the people, by the people, for the people.” We take it for granted, but we shouldn’t. We too often take our freedoms for granted, but we shouldn’t. Certainly, even today, we must fight to maintain those freedoms. But that is as it always has been in the United States, every generation fighting anew to preserve the freedoms promised by our founders, some of whom were quick to forget the promises they made (take a minute and read about the Alien and Sedition Acts).
Even still, I believe the United States represents what Abraham Lincoln said it did in an 1863 letter to Congress just before he signed the Emancipation Proclamation: “In giving freedom to the slave, we assure freedom to the free—honorable alike in what we give and in what we preserve. We shall nobly save, or meanly lose, the last best hope of earth.”
To nobly save or meanly lose the last best hope of earth remains our challenge today. Let’s commit ourselves to pray for our country and to work that the ideals of the Declaration be lived more truly with each passing generation.
Be Christ for all. Bring Christ to all. See Christ in all.
Deacon Bob Hunt is a husband, father, grandfather, and parishioner at All Saints Church in Knoxville.