Allan C. Brownfeld
Allan C. Brownfeld is the author of five books, the latest of which is The Revolution Lobby (Council for Inter-American Security). He has been a staff aide to a U.S. Vice President, members of Congress, and the U.S. Senate Internal Security Subcommittee. He is associate editor of The Lincoln Review and a contributing editor to Human Events, The St. Croix Review, and The Washington Report on Middle East Affairs.
Rediscovering American Uniqueness at Thanksgiving: Celebrating the 400th Anniversary of the Mayflower Compact
We celebrate Thanksgiving this year at a time of continuing political division and a coronavirus pandemic. It is good that we take this moment to consider America’s genuine uniqueness, which some seem to have forgotten, and to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the Mayflower Compact, which set us on the path of democratic self-government. Today, ours is the oldest existing form of government in the world.
America began with a covenant, the Mayflower Compact, adopted in 1620. It was a voluntary and binding covenant recognizing the principle of self-government under God with far-reaching economic, religious, and legal implications for all society. Beginning in Provincetown Harbor in Massachusetts, it would establish the American precedent of free men covenanting to maintain a “civil body politic of self-government under God.” It would culminate in the halls of Philadelphia in the 1780s with the formulation of the U.S. Constitution.
One hundred years ago, during the 300th anniversary both of the Mayflower landing and the adoption of the Mayflower Compact, Massachusetts Governor Calvin Coolidge, who became president a few years later, declared:
“The Compact they signed was an event of the greatest importance. It was the foundation of liberty based on law and order, and that tradition has been steadily upheld. They drew up a form of government which has been designated as the first real constitution of modern times. It was democratic and an acknowledgment of liberty under law and order and the giving to each person the right to participate in the government. . . . But the really wonderful thing was that they had the power and strength of character to abide by it and live by it from that day to this.”
All of us are immigrants or the descendants of immigrants, beginning with those arrivals on the Mayflower and excluding only Native Americans. What we share is more important than common ancestry. It is a commitment to an idea of individual liberty and self-government, something which has thrived in America since the Mayflower arrived.
There are some who envision a homogeneous American society and therefore lament our increasingly diverse population. In fact, America has always been diverse. Between 1815 and 1914, more than 30 million people left their homelands to settle in the U.S. This was the greatest mass movement in human history. By the mid-18th century, Welsh and Germans had settled in Pennsylvania and the Carolinas, which also had a large population of Scotch-Irish. South Carolina and the major towns in New England were home to many French Huguenots. Delaware had a significant population of Swedes and Finns. Sephardic Jews from Holland and Portugal lived in Rhode Island.
Visiting New Amsterdam in 1643, the French Jesuit missionary Isaac Jogues was surprised to discover that in this town of 8,000 people, 18 languages were spoken. In his Letters from an American Farmer, J. Hector St. John Crevecoeur wrote in 1782: “Here individuals of all nations are melted into a new race of men, whose labors and posterity will one day cause great changes in the world.”
America was the place where the hatreds and passions of the Old World could finally be abandoned and in which, as Thomas Wolfe wrote, each man could become whatever his manhood would permit. Liberty for the individual, the Founding Fathers believed, would change the very face of the world.
Mario Puzo, author of “The Godfather” and the son of Italian immigrants growing up in New York, wrote of America:
“What a miracle it was! What has happened here has never happened in any other country or in any other time. The poor who had been poor for centuries — hell, since the beginning of Christ — whose children had inherited their poverty, their illiteracy, their hopelessness, achieved some economic dignity and freedom. You didn’t get it for nothing, you had to pay a price in tears, and suffering, why not? And some even became artists.”
As a young man growing up in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, Puzo was asked by his mother what he wanted to be when he grew up. When he said he wanted to be a writer, she responded, “For a thousand years in Italy no one in our family was even able to read.” But in America everything was possible — in a single generation.
Puzo writes that:
“It was hard for my mother to believe that her son could become an artist. After all, her one dream in coming to America had been to earn her daily bread, a wild dream in itself. And looking back, she was dead right. Her son an artist? To this day she shakes her head. I shake mine with her.”
In Redburn, written in 1849, Herman Melville declares:
“There is something in the contemplation of the mode in which America has been settled that, in a noble breast, should forever extinguish the prejudices of national dislikes. “Settled by the peoples of all nations, all nations may claim her for their own. You cannot spill a drop of American blood without spilling the blood of the whole world. . . . Our blood is the flood of the Amazon, made up of a thousand noble currents all pouring into one. We are not a nation, so much as a world.”
F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote that:
“France was a land. England was a people, but America, having about it still the quality of the idea was harder to utter — it was the graves at Shiloh, and the tired, drawn, nervous faces of its great men, and the country boys dying in the Argonne for a phrase that was empty before their bodies withered. It was a willingness of the heart.”
At a celebration in New York City of the 150th anniversary of Norwegian immigration, news commentator Eric Sevareid, whose grandfather emigrated from Norway, addressed the group in the form of a letter to his grandfather. He said:
“You know that freedom and equality are not found but created. . . . This grandson believes this is what you did. I have seen much of the world. Were I now asked to name some region on Earth where men and women lived in a surer climate of freedom and equality than that northwest region where you settled — were I so asked, I could not answer. I know of none.”
Now in the face of the coronavirus pandemic, it is immigrants who have created the vaccines that will, hopefully, bring this disease under control. One of these is Mikael Dolsten, the Jewish immigrant from Sweden who is leading Pfizer’s efforts. He hopes that America remains the melting pot that welcomed him and is concerned with the anti-immigrant rhetoric to which we have been subjected in recent days. He notes that, “A lot of great breakthroughs have come from people who emigrated,” Albert Einstein among them. The CEO of Pfizer is a Jewish immigrant from Greece, and the chief medical officer for Moderna, a competing drug maker that announced that its vaccine is 95 percent effective, is an Israeli immigrant.
Mikael Dolsten is concerned about the hostility to immigrants shown by some political leaders in recent days. He says:
“I do hope we can heal as a nation and again be a shining sun and bring people together rather than move back from the world. I do hear a lot from Europeans who miss seeing the U.S. as the image of the future and now see the U.S. as isolated.”
Thanksgiving should cause us to reflect upon the uniqueness of the American society and to resist all those who would turn their backs on our history. In 1866, Lord Acton, the British Liberal leader, said that America was becoming “the distant magnet.” Apart from “the millions who have crossed the ocean, who shall reckon the millions whose hearts and hopes are in the United States, to whom the rising sun is in the West. . . ?”
Our changing demographics and the new immigrants who are arriving from around the world keep America an increasingly dynamic society. Many of them seem to understand the genuine uniqueness of the American society, which some others appear to have forgotten.
America has been much loved and has been a new thing in the world, something we should reflect upon this Thanksgiving.
Democratic Societies Are Fragile — They Can Break
For many years, I was a frequent lecturer at Freedoms Foundation in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania. High school students from around the country came to receive an introduction to American history. My subject was whether or not a free and democratic society such as ours could survive into the future. I pointed out that such societies have been rare in history, and generally ended badly.
At that time our political life seemed stable. Democrats and Republicans competed with each other, but did not view the other side as “enemies.” After hard-fought elections, the loser had no difficulty in conceding. Incumbents who were defeated left office quietly and accompanied the victor to his inauguration.
We tend to forget how rare freedom has been in human history. In On Power, the French political philosopher Bertrand de Jouvenel points out that we frequently say, “Liberty is the most precious of all goods” without noticing what this concept implies. He writes:
“A good thing which is of great price is not one of the primary necessities. Water costs nothing at all, and bread very little. What costs much is something like a Rembrandt which, though its price is above rubies, is wanted by very few people, and by none who have not, as it happens, a sufficiency of bread and water. Precious things, therefore, are really desired by but few human beings and not even by them until their primary needs have been amply provided. It is from this point of view that liberty needs to be looked at — the will to be free is in time of danger extinguished and revives again when once the need of security has received satisfaction. Liberty is in fact only a secondary need; the primary need is security.”
From the beginning of history, the great philosophers predicted that democratic governments would produce this result. Plato, Aristotle, and, more recently, De Tocqueville, Lord Bryce, and Macaulay, predicted that men would give away their freedom voluntarily for what they perceived as greater security. De Jouvenel concludes: “The State, when it is made the giver of protection and security, has but to urge the necessities of its protectorate and overlordship to justify its encroachments.”
In a similar vein, Thomas Babington Macaulay, writing to Henry Randall in 1857, lamented:
“I have long been convinced that institutions purely democratic must, sooner or later, destroy liberty or civilization or both. In Europe, where the population is dense, the effect of such institutions would be almost instantaneous. . . . Either the poor would plunder the rich, and civilization would perish, or order and prosperity would be saved by a strong military government, and liberty would perish.”
Macaulay, looking to America, declared that:
“Either some Caesar or Napoleon will seize the reins of government with a strong hand, or your republic will be as fearfully plundered and laid waste by barbarians in the 20th century as the Roman Empire was in the 5th — with this difference, that your Huns and Vandals will have been engendered within your own country by your institutions.”
The Founding Fathers shared the concern that democracies, historically, did not last very long. John Adams observed, “Democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself. There never was a democracy that did not commit suicide.” Similarly, Professor Martin Diamond argues that:
“. . . the crucial point . . . is the priority of liberty as the end of government, the merely instrumental status of all forms of government and the peculiarly questionable status of the popular form — democracy — up to the time of the American Revolution.”
The unfortunate fact is that no “form” of government, no matter how carefully devised — and the U.S. Constitution was, in many respects, the most carefully devised — can make freedom certain and lasting. In Book XI of The Spirit of the Laws, Montesquieu said that no form of government is free “by its nature” — none has liberty built securely into its very form. Every form of government gives power to some governing authority and “eternal experience” teaches that, if the power is not restrained, it will be abused. How can it be restrained? Montesquieu believed that power could only be restrained by “another power,” hence our concept of federalism and checks and balances.
An all-powerful executive was the great fear of those who wrote the Constitution. In particular, they gave the power to declare war to the Congress. This worked for many years. But World War II was the last war declared by Congress. Since then, Congress, both Democrats and Republicans, have abdicated their constitutional responsibility. We have gone to war in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere without Congress voting to do so. The very executive power the authors of the Constitution feared has steadily grown, regardless of which party was in power.
At the time of the bicentennial of the Constitution, when I was speaking to students about the future of freedom, I did not think I would live to see the current virtual collapse of our political system. Anyone who doubts this should review the Trump-Biden debate. Never before have we seen an incumbent president refuse to say he would peacefully leave office if he loses the election.
When he left the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, Benjamin Franklin was asked what form of government had been created. His famous reply was, “A republic, if you can keep it.” We have kept it for more than 200 years. Ours is now the oldest form of government in existence. Only Americans are living under the same form of government as they did more than two hundred years ago. Let us hope that the strident partisanship of the present will recede and something resembling normality will return to our political life. Otherwise, all of us, liberals and conservatives, Republicans and Democrats, will be in more trouble than we ever imagined.
Moving Toward a Color-Blind Society
The racial tension in our society is growing, in part in response to the killing by police officers in Minneapolis of George Floyd, and a series of other killings of black men and women by police. The impact of the coronavirus pandemic upon black Americans and other minorities has been disproportionate. Clearly, our racial divisions are still with us, as continuing demonstrations across the country make clear.
It is important that we understand the complexities of race in America, which is often simplified at the expense of a real understanding of a complex and evolving reality. A reality that is often overlooked is the real progress we have made.
I remember segregation. Living in the South, I experienced a society in which black Americans could not eat in the restaurants, stay in the hotels, or use the restrooms, among other things. There were “white” and “colored” signs everywhere. It was against the law for blacks and whites to marry. In many areas, it was impossible for blacks to vote. If anyone suggested when I was in college that we would live to see a black president, it would have been considered an impossibility.
Then things began to slowly change. In 1954, the Supreme Court declared school segregation to be unconstitutional. In 1957, President Eisenhower sent troops to Little Rock to integrate the schools. Even earlier, President Truman integrated the military. In 1967, in the case of Loving v. Virginia, the Supreme Court unanimously, by a 9-0 vote, found laws against inter-racial marriage, miscegenation, unconstitutional. In 1964, Congress passed legislation forbidding discrimination in restaurants, hotels, and other areas of public accommodation.
Slowly, individuals were able to advance to the highest positions in the American society. Thurgood Marshall was named to the U.S. Supreme Court. Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice became Secretaries of State. Then Barack Obama became President — and was re-elected. Black Americans have distinguished themselves in every area of society — as CEOs of respected businesses, on Wall Street, in sports, literature, entertainment, and every aspect of American life. By any standard, this represents dramatic progress.
And yet, serious disparities exist between black and white Americans. Children who grow up poor — as 32 percent of black children do — tend to do badly by a variety of measures. They face increased risks of dropping out of school, getting pregnant while still teenagers, being incarcerated, experiencing poverty in adulthood, and dying early. There are aspects of black American private life that exacerbate these problems. Respected black academics such as Thomas Sowell, Walter Williams, and William Allen point to the role that increasingly unstable families play in passing black disadvantage down the generations. Seven in ten black babies are born out of wedlock, something which was not true in the post-World War II years.
Harvard sociologist William Julius Williams, who is black, points out that the rate of joblessness and the number of out-of-wedlock births in the black community both increased in the 1960s. The ravages urban deindustrialization and mass incarceration inflicted on black men permanently reduced the pool of eligible partners for black women, he argues. Sociologists Kathryn Edin of Princeton and Maria Kefalas of St. Joseph’s University argue that behavior, policy, present-day discrimination, and the unfair initial conditions seeded by centuries of historical discrimination are tied together in a knot of pathology. All of these things — persistent racism most important among them — leads to the current situation.
The traditional goal of black leaders from Frederick Douglass to the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. was to push American society toward their vision of equality of opportunity and equality before the law. They sought a genuinely color-blind society in which, in King’s words, men and women would be judged by “the content of their character, not the color of their skin.” More recently, in the wake of the murder of George Floyd, what The Economist calls “a rival dangerous approach” has emerged.
In The Economist’s view:
“. . . it rejects the liberal notion of progress. It defines everyone by their race, and every action is racist or anti-racist. It is not yet dominant, but it is dynamic and it is spreading out of the academy into everyday life. If it supplants liberal values, then intimidation will chill open debate and sow division to the disadvantage of all, black and white. . . . This ideology has some valid insights. Racism is sustained by unjust institutions and practices. Sometimes, as in policing, this is overt. More often, in countless put-downs and biases, it is subtle but widespread and harmful. But then the ideology takes a wrong turn by seeking to impose itself by intimidation and power. Not the power that comes from persuasion and elections, but from silencing your critics, insisting that those who are not with you are against you, and shutting out those who are deemed privileged or disloyal to their race. It is a worldview where everything and everyone is seen through the prism of ideology — who is published, who gets jobs, who can say what to whom, one in which in-groups obsess over orthodoxy in education, culture, and heritage, one that enforces absolute equality of income, policy by policy, paragraph by paragraph, if society is to count as just.”
If America were really a “racist” country, it would not have spent the years since the 1954 school segregation decision moving toward a fair and equitable society. This, sadly, has not yet been fully achieved. The mistreatment of black men and women by the police is one example. I remember when I was in law school writing an article for the William and Mary Law Review about Virginia’s law against interracial marriage. What right, I asked in this article, did the state of Virginia have to tell people whom they might marry? Shortly after this article appeared, that Virginia law, and similar laws throughout the South, was declared unconstitutional. Later, I was a member of President Ronald Reagan’s transition team at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). In the report we prepared, we called for an end to racial discrimination of any kind in employment and for the establishment of a “color-blind” society.
Some years ago, I participated in a debate with a young lady representing the NAACP. She declared that “America is a racist society.” In my response, I pointed out that she was too young to remember the years of segregation and how we had moved away from that legalized racism, but still had a long way to go. Now, we have advanced much further, having elected a black president twice. But we still have a long way to go. Our goal should be the goal of Frederick Douglass and Martin Luther King, Jr. — a genuinely color-blind society.
Genuine equality means that all Americans, regardless of race, should respect the right of free speech and should not casually use the epithet “racist” to categorize those with whom we disagree. It is healthy for us to explore the history of slavery and segregation but it is unhealthy to insist on only a single perspective. People are complicated, as are societies. That is why we are fortunate to have a Constitution which guarantees freedom of speech, which is now under attack by the so-called “cancel culture,” as a number of leading writers and intellectuals — J. K. Rowling, Noam Chomsky, and Salman Rushdie among them — recently pointed out.
Hopefully, when the passions of the moment have been exhausted — men and women of good will, of all races, will continue their efforts to move America toward a genuinely color-blind society. *