As the events of Wednesday the 6th of January unfolded, I bet some of us thought back to 9-11 (2001). Unsure of what was going to happen. . . Unsure of if our nation would remain the beacon of hope for so many nations looking how to run a democracy. Thankfully, last Wednesday evening the nation watched as our senators and representatives returned to finish their constitutional duties - standing true to the oaths that they had sworn to "uphold and defend the constitution". As the nation watched, we heard Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey mention the only other time in history when the capital had been breached - the War of 1812. After a battle known as the "Bladensburg Races", the British marched unimpeded into Washington DC.
"Around 8 p.m., on the evening of August 24, 1814, British troops under the command of Vice Admiral Sir Alexander Cockburn and Major General Robert Ross marched into Washington, D.C., after a victory over American forces at Bladensburg, Maryland, earlier in the day.
The nation was in the midst of war. Word of the approaching forces sent most of the population fleeing, leaving the capital vulnerable. Meeting little to no resistance, British troops set fire to much of the city, in retaliation for the Americans' burning of the Canadian capital at York on April 27, 1813. Those who remained on the evening of August 24, 1814, were witness to a horrifying spectacle. The British torched major rooms in the Capitol, which then housed the Library of Congress, as well as the House, Senate and Supreme Court. The White House, the navy yard and several American warships were also burned; however, most private property was spared."(1)
Yet a few weeks later (September 13-14, 1814), the American soldiers at Fort McHenry (in Baltimore MD) would go on to defeat those same British forces during the 25 hour bombardment (known as the Battle of Baltimore) that would inspire our national anthem.
The other two important times in American history that were mentioned by members of Congress where those of the Civil War and the election of 1876. However as Sen. Lindsey Graham mentioned (in his speech against the Arizona objection), that the election of 1876 was not the wisest election to seek guidance from on how to deal with fraud in an election. That complicated election would lead to many of the problems that have been faced by America since then, most notably Jim Crow.
Yet 1876 was not the only election of a president that this country has seen. In its 240 plus years this country has seen 45 presidents and 48 vice-presidents most have exchanged power peacefully.
Sen. Ben Sasse in his speech, spoke of the Election of 1801 and the peaceful transfer of power between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. He further emphasized that it was important to talk about beauty and let the country know that the best days of this country are not behind us. Sen. Sasse went on to explain:
"That's not who we are. America isn't Hatfield’s and McCoy’s blood feud forever. America is a union. There's a lot that's broken in this country but not anything that's so big that the American people can't rebuild it. That freedom and community and entrepreneurial effort and that neighborhoods can't rebuild. Nothing that's broken is so big that we can't fix it.
Generations of our forefathers and our foremothers - probably not a word - our ancestors have spilled blood to defend the glories of this republic. Why would they do that?
Because America is the most exceptional nation in the history of the world, and because the Constitution is the greatest political document that's ever been written. Most governments in the past have said, "might makes right," and we saw some of that fooligan nuttery today. "Might makes right!" No, it doesn't. God gives us rights by nature, and government is just our shared project to secure those rights.
America has always been about what we choose to do together, the way we reaffirm our constitutional system where we've got some governmental tasks, and we all in this body could do better at those governmental tasks, but the heart of America is not government.
The center of America is not Washington, DC. The center of America is the neighborhoods where 330 million Americans are raising their kids and trying to put food on the table and trying to love their neighbor. That's the center of America. We're not supposed to be the most important people in America, we're supposed to be servant leaders who try to maintain a framework for ordered liberty so that there's a structure that back home where they live, they can get from the silver frame of structure and order to the golden apple at the center, as Washington would have said it, which is the things that they build together. The places where they coach little league, the places where they invite people to synagogue or church. Sometimes the big things we do together are governmental, like kicking Hitler's ass or like going to the moon. Sometimes there is governmental stuff, but the heart of America is about places where moms and dads are raising kids, and we're supposed to serve them by maintaining order and by rejecting violence.
You can't do big things like that if you hate your neighbors. You can't do big things together as Americans if you think other Americans are the enemy.
. . .
The heart of life is about community and neighborhood, and we're supposed to be servant leaders. The constitutional system is still the greatest order for any government ever, and it's our job to steward it and protect it." (2)
On this blog you will read about people in the past, but the reason I want to share about the little known stories of American history is to share the lessons of courage, kindness, caring, and serving that citizens of this great country have left us with. Hearing these stories and learning from those who went before us allows us to better appreciate the wonderful country that we live in.
Several years ago I had the privilege of visiting Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty National Monument. In wandering those halls it made me wonder about all the stories that those walls could tell of people who came searching for a better life. In college, I took classes on genealogy, those along with some history classes that I took allowed me to delve into my ancestry. Some of the stories in my heritage include a great-great-grandfather who came to this country from Finland to escape conscription into the Russian Army. He arrived in this country through Ellis Island and went on to be a shipbuilder on the west coast. The stories also include a Oregonian meat packer/butcher during World War Two, a sorghum mill and general store owner in Wisconsin, and a preacher who cut the trail from northern to southern Georgia. All these are stories of people who have worked to make America the great country that she is.
Thinking about these stories of my heritage reminds me of one of my favorite stories, which is When Jessie Came Across the Sea by Amy Hest (again illustrated by P. J. Lynch). The story tells of a young Jewish orphan and her journey to the new world. She comes through Ellis Island and then once she has saved enough money sends for her Grandmother, who had taken care of her before she came to the U.S.
Jessie's story is one that many of those in America can relate to in one way or another. I want to end this weeks post with a poem by a young Jewish American poet named Emma Lazarus. Her most well known poem The New Colossus was written about the immigrants plight and later engraved on the base of the Statue of Liberty. I feel this poem brings to mind one of the most unique things about America which is its melting pot, where people come together to become American and to seek freedom.
The New Colossus
Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame, With conquering limbs astride from land to land; Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame. “Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!” (3)
Wikipedia - List of the Vice Presidents of the United States