There's a lot to think about today. There is the revolutionary birth of our country. There is the apex of a a second revolution which birthed us anew. And in the world around us, there are still more revolutions in the offing. At such a time, it really is a pleasure for me to bring you this short essay by historian W. Caleb McDaniel, derived from his book -- The Problem of Democracy in the Age of Slavery. I think we are all familiar with Lincoln's words at Gettysburg. But McDaniel reminds us that there was a time in America when the possibility that democracy would "perish from the earth" was very real. This is the strength of the McDaniel piece -- the Confederate rebellion was not incidentally pro-slavery and anti-democratic (it was both), but anti-democratic because it was pro-slavery.
On July 4, 1854, at a grove in Framingham, Massachusetts, William Lloyd Garrison held up a copy of the Constitution, labeled it a compromise with tyranny, and burned it to ash. He then invited the abolitionist audience to join him by shouting "Amen."
Ever since that Fourth of July, Garrison has been remembered primarily for his rejection of the Constitution, a document he once said was dripping with human blood. Look more closely however, and you'll find more complicated, even patriotic, Garrison.
In fact, before he started setting paper on fire, Garrison delivered a less well-known speech that praised the Declaration of Independence and the American Revolution as models for the world. He even began the day by declaring that the first Fourth of July was "the greatest political event in the annals of time." It had created a charter of inalienable rights that, if enforced, would mean the "eternal dethronement" of all tyrants everywhere and the "redemption of the world."
In an 1824 speech he described the American Revolution as "the splendid, immaculate guide,---to all other nations, in their career after freedom." Around the same time, Garrison advised recent revolutionaries in South America to use the United States as their "model."
Garrison never really stopped believing that the United States should be a "guide" to other nations--but a proslavery Constitution compromised such guidance. As Garrison said at Framingham in 1854, "we have proved recreant to our own faith, false to our own standard, treacherous to the trust committed to our hands." The result was that "instead of helping to extend the blessings of freedom" abroad, Americans had hindered the spread of their democratic ideals.
Abraham Lincoln would not have applauded Garrison's actions, but he often echoed him. Because of slavery, Lincoln said, "our republican robe is soiled, and trailed in the dust," leaving the world without an untarnished example of "spirit of '76." To prove the danger, Lincoln quoted from a recent London newspaper which expressed "apprehension" that slavery was "fatally violating the noblest political system the world ever saw" and thus undermining "the liberal party throughout the world."
The idea that American slavery was a threat to American democracy, and thus democracy the world-over, was not an exaggeration in 1854. The future of political liberalism was far from clear, and many in the "liberal party throughout the world" looked to the United States, flawed though it was, as one of the only bastions of democratic politics.
Nothing made democratization in the early America inevitable. It proceeded slowly, with great struggle, at different paces in different states. But by 1855, most states had either minimized or eliminated the property qualifications that previously kept even white adult men from voting. Universal white manhood suffrage had become the reality.
Pure democracy, this was not. Women, slaves, and most free blacks remained disfranchised. Immigrants and industrial wage-workers faced renewed challenges to their voting rights even as universal white manhood suffrage took hold. In particular locales and states, even legally enfranchised voters grew accustomed to serious attacks on their rights. But the extent of voting rights in the United States made the nation seem like a radical democratic experiment, especially in comparison to the political arrangements that prevailed elsewhere in the nineteenth century.
In South America and Haiti, for example, early nineteenth-century revolutions had created undemocratic governments that managed to beat back any calls for the radical expansion of the right to vote. Parts of Europe had inched towards more popular rule, but a few telling numbers show how little progress had been made. In the United Kingdom, which reformed its Parliament in 1832, only around twenty percent of the adult male population could vote. In 1830, the French elevated a new monarch to the throne who promised to be the "People's King." But even then, as historian Mike Rapport notes, "the electorate swelled to include only 170,000 of France's richest men: this was a mere 0.5 per cent of the French population, a sixth of those who enjoyed the vote in Britain after 1832." And even such small electorates did not yet exist to check the rule of monarchs in Europe's other great powers---Prussia, Austria, and Russia.
The most serious challenge to Europe's crowned heads and landed classes came in a series of revolutions that swept the continent in 1848. Democratic European revolutionaries like Mazzini in Italy and Lamartine in France capitalized on the unrest of that year by establishing new republics in Rome and Paris. The tide seemed, for a moment, to be turning towards popular government. But by 1854 Europe's conservative forces had regained their balance, and republican experiments in Italy and France had ended. By the time Garrison rose at Framingham and Lincoln stood at Peoria, the fate of democracy worldwide seemed more fragile than ever, and even more dependent on the survival of the "spirit of '76."
But after 1848 American slavery also seemed---more than ever---like a hindrance to the further spread of that spirit. Revolution and reform in Europe had not brought radical democracy to the continent, but they had, by 1848, abolished colonial slavery in the British and French Caribbean empires. Meanwhile, as the electorate grew in the United States, the American slave population had surged to nearly 4 million. These facts were a source of embarrassment for American abolitionists, of course, but increasingly they were embarrassments for overseas democrats as well, who often heard conservative aristocrats cite American racism and slavery as reasons enough to doubt that majority rule was a good idea.
Many transatlantic liberals expressed their apprehensions about this directly to American abolitionists. As I show in my new book, the "liberal party throughout the world" was not just an abstraction for Garrison; it was a network of antislavery sympathizers and democrats who communicated directly with abolitionists in the United States. In Illinois, Lincoln gathered his perceptions of overseas liberals from the newspapers; Garrison and his allies got theirs directly, and sometimes in person, from Europeans like Mazzini, Victor Hugo, and leading British Chartists who fought for universal manhood suffrage. By the time he burned the Constitution, many of these allies had warned Garrison explicitly that slavery in the United States was materially damaging their causes overseas.
In 1852, for example, the French abolitionist and republican Victor Schoelcher wrote in a Garrisonian publication that it was "an incalculable danger to the democratic idea, both now and hereafter, that the most democratic people existing should be holders of Slaves!" And in 1853, Garrison had shared with another abolitionist audience an address from "the Democrats of England to the Democrats of America" which declared that the abolition of slavery would give the United States "double moral power to reanimate the swooning liberties of Europe." Mazzini, the Italian revolutionary whom Garrison had met personally in 1847, also wrote to his friend that same summer that abolitionism in America and the struggle for the People in Europe were "one single cause."
A long history of such statements set the stage for Garrison's address at Framingham the following year, and before setting the Constitution ablaze, Garrison made sure his audience remembered the situation confronting their faraway friends. Garrison's speech first carefully reviewed the current, depressing state of "the freedom of continental Europe" since 1848. He noted "the perfidious and high-handed usurpation" of Louis Napoleon, who had by then dissolved the Second Republic and declared himself Emperor. And in Austria and Russia, Garrison continued, the people still suffered under "bloody despotism" and "iron autocracy." In the Europe of 1854, it seemed once again that "the reign of tyranny is as absolute as fate, and the extinction of the people complete."
Then, drawing on what he had heard from the "liberal party throughout the world," Garrison declared that Americans had contributed to this sorry situation by trumpeting their own example while brutalizing millions of human beings. The Declaration of Independence should have inspired the overthrow of tyrannies everywhere, Garrison affirmed. But "our flag is red with the blood of our slaves, and marked by their stripes," and those stains had prevented the nation's signature document from doing its work. After surveying European politics, he concluded that "this tells the story of American influence upon the liberties of the world." If Americans' democratic ideals suffered abroad, it was because of imperfections at home.
Here Garrison underlined that being a radical critic of the United States, even one who reproached the Constitution and the flag, did not require giving up on the hope of positive American influence on the world. Garrison did disavow the sort of exceptionalism which led many Americans to believe that the United States could never fall from grace. As early as 1829, he ridiculed the idea that "the republic is immortal; that its flight, like a strong angel's, has been perpetually upward, till it has soared above the impurities of earth ... and, having attained perfection, is forever out of the reach of circumstance and change." But Garrison did believe, like Lincoln, that this corruptible and imperfect republic could be improved and could, eventually, fulfill its high calling as an example to other nations of government of, by, and for the people.
To borrow a term used in slightly different ways by historians Timothy Mason Roberts and H. W. Brands, the views of Lincoln and Garrison represented variations on the idea of "American exemplarism," instead of the idea of "American exceptionalism." And while subtle, the difference between "exemplarism" and "exceptionalism" had significant implications. For one thing, it meant that Lincoln and Garrison refused to immunize their countrymen from critique. On the contrary, the nation's flaws as a model required thoughtful Americans to begin their improvement of the world at home, to prefer humility to hubris, to balance patriotism with cosmopolitan concern, and to focus less on making the world safe for democracy and more on making democracy safe for the world.
This was not, then or now, an easy position to maintain. Burning the Constitution without spurning the Declaration was a difficult balancing act, and it often left abolitionists struggling to make the same, complex assessments of the American experiment familiar to readers of this blog. If, as an earlier post here put it, "the challenge for someone trying to assess America, at this moment, is properly calibrating how far we've gone with how far we have to go," this was the challenge for Garrison and Lincoln in their moment, too. Peer past the fire and smoke of Garrison's most iconic gesture and it's possible to glimpse a figure whose dilemmas are still relevant today, on another sweltering and polarized Fourth of July.
Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of The Beautiful Struggle and the forthcoming Between the World and Me.
In the name of emotional well-being, college students are increasingly demanding protection from words and ideas they don’t like. Here’s why that’s disastrous for education—and mental health.
Something strange is happening at America’s colleges and universities. A movement is arising, undirected and driven largely by students, to scrub campuses clean of words, ideas, and subjects that might cause discomfort or give offense. Last December, Jeannie Suk wrote in an online article for The New Yorker about law students asking her fellow professors at Harvard not to teach rape law—or, in one case, even use the word violate (as in “that violates the law”) lest it cause students distress. In February, Laura Kipnis, a professor at Northwestern University, wrote an essay in The Chronicle of Higher Education describing a new campus politics of sexual paranoia—and was then subjected to a long investigation after students who were offended by the article and by a tweet she’d sent filed Title IX complaints against her. In June, a professor protecting himself with a pseudonym wrote an essay for Vox describing how gingerly he now has to teach. “I’m a Liberal Professor, and My Liberal Students Terrify Me,” the headline said. A number of popular comedians, including Chris Rock, have stopped performing on college campuses (see Caitlin Flanagan’s article in this month’s issue). Jerry Seinfeld and Bill Maher have publicly condemned the oversensitivity of college students, saying too many of them can’t take a joke.
When Kenneth Jarecke photographed an Iraqi man burned alive, he thought it would change the way Americans saw the Gulf War. But the media wouldn’t run the picture.
The Iraqi soldier died attempting to pull himself up over the dashboard of his truck. The flames engulfed his vehicle and incinerated his body, turning him to dusty ash and blackened bone. In a photograph taken soon afterward, the soldier’s hand reaches out of the shattered windshield, which frames his face and chest. The colors and textures of his hand and shoulders look like those of the scorched and rusted metal around him. Fire has destroyed most of his features, leaving behind a skeletal face, fixed in a final rictus. He stares without eyes.
On February 28, 1991, Kenneth Jarecke stood in front of the charred man, parked amid the carbonized bodies of his fellow soldiers, and photographed him. At one point, before he died this dramatic mid-retreat death, the soldier had had a name. He’d fought in Saddam Hussein’s army and had a rank and an assignment and a unit. He might have been devoted to the dictator who sent him to occupy Kuwait and fight the Americans. Or he might have been an unlucky young man with no prospects, recruited off the streets of Baghdad.
In continuing to tinker with the universe she built eight years after it ended, J.K. Rowling might be falling into the same trap as Star Wars’s George Lucas.
September 1st, 2015 marked a curious footnote in Harry Potter marginalia: According to the series’s elaborate timeline, rarely referenced in the books themselves, it was the day James S. Potter, Harry’s eldest son, started school at Hogwarts. It’s not an event directly written about in the books, nor one of particular importance, but their creator, J.K. Rowling, dutifully took to Twitter to announce what amounts to footnote details: that James was sorted into House Gryffindor, just like his father, to the disappointment of Teddy Lupin, Harry’s godson, apparently a Hufflepuff.
It’s not earth-shattering information that Harry’s kid would end up in the same house his father was in, and the Harry Potter series’s insistence on sorting all of its characters into four broad personality quadrants largely based on their family names has always struggled to stand up to scrutiny. Still, Rowling’s tweet prompted much garment-rending among the books’ devoted fans. Can a tweet really amount to a piece of canonical information for a book? There isn’t much harm in Rowling providing these little embellishments years after her books were published, but even idle tinkering can be a dangerous path to take, with the obvious example being the insistent tweaks wrought by George Lucas on his Star Wars series.
ISIS did not merely blast apart old stones—it attacked the very foundations of pluralistic society.
If the ruined ruins of Palmyra could speak, they would marvel at our shock. After all, they have been sacked before. In their mute and shattered eloquence, they spoke for centuries not only about the cultures that built them but also about the cultures that destroyed them—about the fragility of civilization itself, even when it is incarnated in stone. No designation of sanctity, by God or by UNESCO, suffices to protect the past. The past is helpless. Instead these ruins, all ruins, have had the effect of lifting the past out of history and into time. They carry the spectator away from facts and toward reveries.
In the 18th century, after the publication in London of The Ruins of Palmyra, a pioneering volume of etchings by Robert Wood, who had traveled to the Syrian desert with the rather colorful James Dawkins, a fellow antiquarian and politician, the desolation of Palmyra became a recurring symbol for ephemerality and the vanity of all human endeavors. “It is the natural and common fate of cities,” Wood dryly remarked in one of the essays in his book, “to have their memory longer preserved than their ruins.” Wood’s beautiful and meticulous prints served as inspirations for paintings, and it was in response to one of those paintings that Diderot wrote some famous pages in his great Salons of 1767: “The ideas ruins evoke in me are grand. Everything comes to nothing, everything perishes, everything passes, only the world remains, only time endures. ... Wherever I cast my glance, the objects surrounding me announce death and compel my resignation to what awaits me. What is my ephemeral existence in comparison with that of a rock being worn down, of a valley being formed, of a forest that’s dying, of these deteriorating masses suspended above my head? I see the marble of tombs crumble into powder and I don’t want to die!”
Demonizing processed food may be dooming many to obesity and disease. Could embracing the drive-thru make us all healthier?
Late last year, in a small health-food eatery called Cafe Sprouts in Oberlin, Ohio, I had what may well have been the most wholesome beverage of my life. The friendly server patiently guided me to an apple-blueberry-kale-carrot smoothie-juice combination, which she spent the next several minutes preparing, mostly by shepherding farm-fresh produce into machinery. The result was tasty, but at 300 calories (by my rough calculation) in a 16-ounce cup, it was more than my diet could regularly absorb without consequences, nor was I about to make a habit of $9 shakes, healthy or not.
Inspired by the experience nonetheless, I tried again two months later at L.A.’s Real Food Daily, a popular vegan restaurant near Hollywood. I was initially wary of a low-calorie juice made almost entirely from green vegetables, but the server assured me it was a popular treat. I like to brag that I can eat anything, and I scarf down all sorts of raw vegetables like candy, but I could stomach only about a third of this oddly foamy, bitter concoction. It smelled like lawn clippings and tasted like liquid celery. It goes for $7.95, and I waited 10 minutes for it.
Heather Armstrong’s Dooce once drew millions of readers. Her blog’s semi-retirement speaks to the challenges of earning money as an individual blogger today.
The success story of Dooce.com was once blogger lore, told and re-told in playgroups and Meetups—anywhere hyper-verbal people with Wordpress accounts gathered. “It happened for that Dooce lady,” they would say. “It could happen for your blog, too.”
Dooce has its origin in the late 1990s, when a young lapsed Mormon named Heather Armstrong taught herself HTML code and moved to Los Angeles. She got a job in web design and began blogging about her life on her personal site, Dooce.com.
The site’s name evolved out of her friends’ AOL Instant-Messenger slang for dude, or its more incredulous cousin, "doooood!” About a year later, Armstrong was fired for writing about her co-workers on the site—an experience that, for a good portion of the ‘aughts, came known as “getting dooced.” She eloped with her now ex-husband, Jon, moved to Salt Lake City, and eventually started blogging full time again.
The Islamic State is no mere collection of psychopaths. It is a religious group with carefully considered beliefs, among them that it is a key agent of the coming apocalypse. Here’s what that means for its strategy—and for how to stop it.
What is the Islamic State?
Where did it come from, and what are its intentions? The simplicity of these questions can be deceiving, and few Western leaders seem to know the answers. In December, The New York Times published confidential comments by Major General Michael K. Nagata, the Special Operations commander for the United States in the Middle East, admitting that he had hardly begun figuring out the Islamic State’s appeal. “We have not defeated the idea,” he said. “We do not even understand the idea.” In the past year, President Obama has referred to the Islamic State, variously, as “not Islamic” and as al-Qaeda’s “jayvee team,” statements that reflected confusion about the group, and may have contributed to significant strategic errors.
After a lackluster summer, the famous neurosurgeon is finally surging—but his reliance on the conservative grassroots might be a burden as much as a boon.
The Ben Carson surge that everyone was waiting for is finally here.
The conservative neurosurgeon has been a source of fascination for both the Republican grassroots and the media ever since he critiqued President Obama, who was seated only a few feet away, at the National Prayer Breakfast in 2013. He’s been a steady, if middling, presence in GOP primary polls for most of the year—always earning at least 5 percent, but rarely more than 10. Yet over the last two weeks, Carson has secured a second-place spot after Donald Trump, both nationally and in the crucial opening battleground of Iowa, where he is a favorite of the state’s sizable evangelical community. A Monmouth University poll released this week even showed him tied with Trump for the lead in Iowa, at 23 percent.
It’s not just Trump: With Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina on the rise, Republicans are loving outsiders and shunning politicians.
For the first time in a long time, Donald Trump isn’t the most interesting story in the 2016 presidential race. That's partly because his dominance in the Republican polls, while still surprising, is no longer novel and increasingly well explored and explained, but it’s also partly because what’s going on with the rest of the GOP field is far more interesting.
Some Republican candidates are promoting a policy change that would hurt workers by disguising it with a pleasant-sounding phrase.
Americans like their Social Security benefits quite a bit: They oppose cuts to them by a margin of two to one. Even Millennials, who won’t be seeing benefits anytime soon, feel protective of Social Security, according to a poll from the Pew Research Center.
One way to effectively cut Social Security benefits is to raise the age at which they kick in. And yet, when asked specifically about raising the retirement age, Americans are mixed.
Perhaps confusion arises because “raising the age of retirement” sounds like a nice jobs program for older Americans, or an end to forced retirement. I sympathize with that position: Anyone who wants to retire later and work into old age should have a job. But that’s not what raising the retirement age would entail—the fact is, raising the Social Security retirement age represents a reduction in benefits: Because the monthly payments a person receives grow bigger the later in life he or she retires, raising the age cutoff reduces the total amount of money paid out.