The foundational passages highlighted in last week’s column [A new birth, Viewpoints, Dec. 5], have long stirred something deep in me, so I wanted to see if they subjected you to the same enchantment.
But readers didn’t react much. Several complained I italicized too many words, or the wrong words, or both. I took too many liberties. Which is ironic since liberty is at the heart of most of the passages included.
Several readers were perplexed that I chose to italicize seemingly unimportant words, like “that,” “this,” “then,” and “here.” But those were the words that stood out for me. In my deeper dive, they sounded like a drumbeat. The underlying rhetorical rhythm felt significant. Like an early version of bullet points.
That all human beings 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 that derive their just powers from the consent of the governed.
Too many italics? How about among these (not limited to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness) and just powers and consent of the governed? So many of these words warrant emphasis, including We, the first word of our founding document. We the people … all of us. Our consent, and only our consent, gives government its just powers. That’s especially pertinent when two out of three presidential administrations in this century thus far derived their powers elsewhere — two out of three lost the popular vote. The governed did not give their consent. Powers were derived from the Supreme Court (2000) and the Electoral College (2016). The governed never directly gave their consent to the Electoral College.
For a slave owner, Jefferson was quite eloquent about liberty and equality in his introduction to the Declaration of Independence, which is mostly a laundry list of grievances, surrounded by poetry. The conclusion is also moving in its own right. “We mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor.” A sacred compact, the beloved community. Do we still pledge this to each other? You wouldn’t know it if you attended a Trump rally.
These are powerful words. They are, as one reader commented, not only foundational but aspirational. All are created equal. Just government secures our unalienable rights. We may believe that, but we don’t live it. Lincoln, in his Gettysburg Address, tried to lead the living to dedicate themselves to finishing the work of the recently fallen, and to devote themselves to the cause for which they gave their last full measure of devotion, to highly resolve that the fallen did not die in vain, leading to a new birth of freedom so that government of, by and for the people will never perish because at that point it was very much in doubt.
Lincoln used the word “here” so often, I think, because he was trying to wake people up to the historic moment, a way to anchor them in the present. It was an important term for him. He also used it in his 1862 address to Congress, quoted in Aaron Copland’s “Lincoln Portrait”:
“The fiery trial through which we pass will light us down in honor or dishonor to the latest generation. We, even we here, hold the power and bear the responsibility …”
Here … this … now, as one modern practitioner of mindfulness put it. Lincoln was simply ahead of his time.
The first three passages featured last week echo the drumbeat of our bedrock belief — that all are created equal. King — 101 years after Lincoln, who spoke 87 years after Jefferson, who coined the phrase in 1776 — called upon the nation to “live out the true meaning of our creed.”
Fifty-five years later, we haven’t done so. I wanted to see if these passages still have the power to stir, inspire, ennoble. Not many responded. Is it because what those words stir is discomfort? Do they ask too much of us? Are they no longer “foundational” and “inspirational,” merely “aspirational”?
Here’s what a few readers said (I’m most appreciative):
Ever since Trump was elected, the spirit, if not these very words, courses through my mind and body. This administration does not represent America. It only occupies its offices and has temporary license of its powers. It does not represent the people of America except as a mirror and megaphone to the fears and prejudices that plague us — nor do our political parties, who look for the votes of 50%+1 instead of the care and protection of all. I pray that the words of our founders and other great American leaders will ultimately open the eyes of our citizens and create a different, better election outcome in 2020, else I fear for our country’s future.
These words, sentiments, aspirations, and — most of all — truths speak to me more wholly, more loudly, more urgently today than ever before.
The words — all poetry — made me proud that our country produced these authors. Sad also at the unfulfilled promises. And King made me cry. Nicely put before us. Thanks.
The passages I included are, for me, foundational, inspirational and aspirational. I, too, feel great pride that we produced leaders who could articulate such ennobling truths, but I also wonder, as King prophetically said, whether we will ever live out the true meaning our creed. If, as Susan B. Anthony said, men and women will ever be equal and unleash our tremendous human potential. If we will ever, as James Madison wrote in the Constitution’s preamble, establish justice, ensure domestic tranquility, and secure the blessings of liberty for all — in other words, become a more perfect union when we have never even lived up to our own name: United States of America.
If I used too many italics for emphasis, it’s because when I read these words, I get carried away. If we replaced the national anthem with the Gettysburg Address or “I Have a Dream” before athletic events, mine would be the loudest voice in the crowd — my hand proudly poised over my heart.
Too many italics? Don’t get me started.