Becoming What We Should Be


Friends of Padre Steve’s World,
Having completed, with the exception of editing and circulating some hard copies of the first volume of my Civil War text A Great War in a Revolutionary Age of Change, I have gone back to work on the second volume of my Civil War text “Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory” Religious Ideology, Race, and Politics in the Civil War Era. Beginning yesterday I began to go through the approximately 160 pages of text, which had been the second chapter of my Gettysburg Staff Ride text, but like A Great War really needed to be split off and turned into its own separate book. 

Yesterday I went back to figure the natural chapter breaks and to begin some minor editing and creating a bibliography and working table of contents as I prepare to really dig in on it. The good thing is that I have continued to research this section even as I concentrated on work on A Great War and major chapter revisions to the book dealing with the campaign of 1863 and the Battle of Gettysburg. 

As I have done this I become more and more convinced that what I am writing about needs to be told. As I look at responses to the Black Lives Matter movement I am appalled by the willing historical ignorance of much of the country, including white America, which has erased from its collective memory the terrible injustices of slavery, the black codes, Jim Crow, segregation, and violence directed at African Americans over nearly three hundred year period before the Supreme Court stuck down the Jim Crow era segregation laws, and the Congress passed the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and 1965 Voting Rights Act, and less than three years later Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the champion of peace protest and civil rights was gunned down and assassinated. 

But it is easy for some people to condemn the Black Rights Movement, it is called racist by some, and it is blamed for a host of issues that it is simply exposing and demanding action to solve. Some people respond to criticism of police with the saying that Blue Lives Matter, and I agree that they do, police officers do dangerous work, and with the proliferation of high powered weaponry in the hands of irresponsible and angry people, their lives are always in danger. But that is no reason not to say that Black Lives Matter is wrong in its intent. Some say that All Lives Matter, and I agree with that in principle, but I would challenge the people that flippantly say that in order to dismiss the validity of Black Lives Matter, while doing nothing to work for the rights of people different than themselves, that they need to put their money where their mouth is. 

In the 1850s and 1860s Abraham Lincoln struggled with this in a country that was becoming increasingly diverse due to massive immigration from Ireland and Germany, and in which Congress and the Courts were making decisions which would allow for the expansion of slavery and the definition of African Americans as a subordinate race without any citizenship rights. Lincoln was worried that America was becoming like a plow horse with blinders fastened to the sides of its eyes, capable of seeing only in one direction: ahead of it. He saw Americans as people increasingly interested only with their present and their future, the things still before them, but disinterested with their own historical past, the things already behind them. A condition that is not much different that what we see today. Maybe because I am a historian I am more sensitive to this, but it is concerning. 

Lincoln realized that people had forgotten the heart and soul of America, the secular scripture found in the preamble of the Declaration of Independence. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness,—That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men…” He realized that for most people of his era the proposition that all men are created equal was in the process of dying. He knew that freedom without equality was no freedom at all, and beginning with the Emancipation Proclamation he began the first step to universalize that proposition. Les than a year later he gave a short speech of under three hundred words at Gettysburg in which he went back to the Declaration noting “Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal,” and he called on Americans to renew themselves to that proposition: “It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

In a book that I just finished on the Gettysburg Address the author noted something that I find quite true. He said: “We should read the Preamble to the Declaration of Independence, and then, the Gettysburg Address. They are, together, our American scriptures. And we should read them aloud, the way they were meant to be. They are words which are most powerful when they are spoken. Their words remain fresh and alive, no matter how many times they are read. All we need to know about what American democracy should be, is found there, among the words of these two ancient manuscripts.”

Now I do not arrogantly claim that we as Americans exemplify those words, or that we even live up to them, but they are something that we need to keep in the forefront of our minds, and strive to achieve if we are to become a better nation. 

I was talking with one of our international officers at the staff college today who has been studying at the Naval War College for the past year before he came to us, and as we talke we agreed that what makes America great is not our military might, nor our economic power, but that proposition of Liberty, the proposition that is so radical that few countries include it in any of their political documents, that proposition, that all men are created equal. It was something that a number of my Korean officers noted at Gettysburg back in May. They all understood something that so many Americans have forgotten. 

So I will continue to read, research, and write, and I am excited about it, especially during this critical time in our nation’s history. I’m sure that in the coming month or two that you will see some of that work appear on this site as I work on Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory. 

Until tomorrow I wish you peace,

Padre Steve+

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Filed under civil rights, civil war, Gettysburg, History, News and current events, Political Commentary

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