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.
I 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.