Obama — Good on History; Ellis — Less so

This new president not only went to good schools, he seems to have remembered some of what he was taught, and has kept on learning.  His Inaugural Address had some admirable historical touches.  Indeed, the new guy showed a better grasp of history than marquee historian Joseph Ellis, who did not meet his usual standards for insight and judgment.

obama_inauguration451x500.jpgI liked the Inaugural speech.  It wasn’t spectacular.  I didn’t hear any lines that will live in the American memory forever.  But it was a bracing call to responsibility and maturity for the entire nation, delivered with force and determination.

And, oh, the history.  Concord, Gettysburg, Normandy, and Khe Sanh!  (Extra credit for citing the Vietnam vets.)  And, properly for a second-generation American, the paean to the immigrant experience was powerful.

He got me, though, with the quote from George

Washington at Valley Forge:  “Let it be told to the future world . . . that in the depth of winter, when nothing but hope and virtue could survive. . . that the city and country, alarmed at one common danger, came forth to meet [it].”


We forget how good that George guy was.

But I was a bit disappointed with a piece in the Sunday Washington Post book section by Joseph Ellis. I admire Ellis’ books, and have paid to own quite a few.  American Sphinx, his Jefferson biography, is really interesting, eschewing the usual trudge through the man’s entire life to tell his story in five (maybe six) pivotal episodes.  And Founding Brothers, of course, is just fun.  Well, my kind of fun, anyway.

But on Sunday Prof. Ellis intoned, “As I see it, when Barack Obama takes the oath of office, he will be collecting on a promissory note that Thomas jefferson wrote in 1776 with the words ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.'” 

Whoa, big fella.  A LOT of people have been collecting on that promissory note for a long time.  Let’s not forget all those who fought for equality between 1776 and 2009 — William Lloyd Garrison, John Quincy Adams, the Grimke sisters, Frederick Douglas, Harriett Tubman, Thaddeus Stevens, Booker T. Washington, Dubois, Roy Wilkins, Edward Brooke, Martin Luther King, Jr., Lyndon Johnson, and on and on and on.

I think I know what Ellis was trying to say.  There is something special about a black person being president. It hit me when I saw the scene after  the speech, when Obama went back into the Capitol to sign a few executive orders.  All the big shots stood on either sign of him while Obama, our African-American chief executive, signed.  He was The Man. 

But Jefferson’s promissory note is not the standard by which we need to judge ourselves, anyway.. Jefferson wrote that all “men” are created equal.  We still need to fix that part.


  1. Nate Levin on January 23, 2009 at 10:53 am

    It was a main point of the Seneca Falls “Declaration of Sentiments” that women as well as men were endowed with inalienable rights. So if I may, I’d like to add Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony to the pantheon of fighters for equality.

  2. DevinWeiss on March 20, 2010 at 11:49 am

    Barack Obama’s book, “The Audacity of Hope,” provides a appealing title. It has a taste of bravery mixed with full confidence. There is nothing Pollyanna about it. I might not exactly support everything he tells, but he’s our president, and then for me, he inspires belief. That will do more for any nation than any volume of backroom deals. Hope gives us energy, and energy sustains us through trying times. Boy, we’ve had them. I’m from West Texas, and I did not vote for Bush. When McCain ran against Obama, I was a citizen of Arizona, but I gave audacious hope a chance. The fight for progress and laying the foundations of prosperity will not be over. I have come across the quips of those that don’t think Obama is capable of doing it. But step back a moment. Would anyone have most of us fail only to tarnish the star of an incumbent for whom they did not vote? Trying to keep our priorities straight, let’s work together with this president and build our future.

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