Every new life has promise. A little child is full of promise, full of unfulfilled potential. It is a simple fact of life that not all of us achieve our potential; we do not all become what we set out to become. As John Lennon and many others have said, “Life is what happens to us while we’re making other plans.” This is as true of nations as it is of people. Not all nations become what they set out to become.
Like children, some die young, waylaid by events or pressures internal and external, their potential vanishing like a puff of smoke. The American experiment almost ended early, even before the Constitution was written. George Washington and the shivering Continentals at Valley Forge stared that bleak possibility in the face.
As Thomas Paine wrote,
“These are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of the country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman.”
America’s promise nearly vanished under a wave of apathy and incompetence during the War of 1812;. Britain could have had its colonies back for a song. The Civil War was also a tough spot, when half the country decided that the interests of the part outweighed the interests of the whole, when men like Robert E. Lee demonstrated that they were not men like George Washington. Like a child whose life is cut off too early, the United States could easily have vanished, its promise cut short, leaving later investigators to wonder what might have been.
This is perhaps why we admire the people who dare, the people who show the single-minded drive to persevere and attain their promise whatever the odds. A nation that does the same ought similarly to be admired. Abraham Lincoln admired it; he led the nation through five years of ruinous war because he felt this promise was something worth fighting and dying for. As he said in his Gettysburg address,
“[O]ur fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation or any nation so conceived and so dedicated can long endure.”
The promise of America, its potential, is found in the assertion that government of the people, by the people, for the people, is both obtainable and desirable. The easy thing for the Founding Fathers to do would have been to simply recreate the British system of government on these soils. But they dared something grander and far nobler.
The great experiment is under attack again and like Lincoln, we find ourselves “met on a great battlefield of that war” debating with words rather than guns (most of us) but dedicated still “to the unfinished work” the Union soldiers who fought at Gettysburg “have thus far so nobly advanced” – which is that very proposition, that “government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth.”
Lincoln’s party has betrayed all that he believed in, by advancing the cause of the rich over the middle class, the needs of the few over the needs of the many, the interests of corporations over the interests of the people, by advocating a government not of, by and for the people, but of, by and for the rich, the corporations, and of one religion over all others.
The Republican vision of America is not the vision of our Founders, and as we come to another Thanksgiving and ponder the things for which we should be grateful, it is difficult not to think of a new band of patriots, the #Occupy demonstrators, shivering in streets all across America facing their own Valley Forges. Paine wrote that “what we obtain to cheap, we esteem too lightly: it is dearness only that gives every thing its value.” We are finding right now that what is dear to us – our constitutional rights – should not be esteemed too lightly.
Paine believed and argued that we were fighting against Britain’s claim to have the right to “bind us in all cases whatsoever.” He argued that if being so bound was not slavery then there was no such thing as slavery. Just as both nations and children show promise, both nations and children can be bound. If the proposition is that we have certain rights, as the Declaration of Independence asserts and as the Constitution codifies, then any who attempt to take away these rights are as much an enemy today as Great Britain was yesterday.
And that is exactly what the Republican Party, at the behest of the rich, of the corporations, and of the theocrats, is attempting to do. We have much to be thankful for this Thanksgiving, but we have much to fear as well. We ought all to be thankful for those brave men and women (and children) braving the winter cold on our behalf at Valley Forges across America. We ought all to be fearful of those who would “bind us in all cases whatsoever” and make of us slaves to their interests and thus make a mockery of the proposition that lay at the very heart of the American promise.
We should give thanks, but like Lincoln, we should dedicate ourselves “to the unfinished work” that is that promise, “the proposition that all men are created equal.” The United States stands for government of the people, by the people, for the people, not by or for corporations, or God, or the wealthiest one percent of Americans, but to all, equally.
That is the fight our ancestors thought worth the last full measure of devotion, and it would be a betrayal of their memory to give any less ourselves. This is one time we cannot afford to let life happen to us. We must be heard from now, or satisfy ourselves that we shall never have an opportunity to be heard from again.