It is depressing to note the abysmal ignorance of history among people who have graduated from high school since the 1980’s. Occasionally this is pointed out during street interviews with people wandering about US cities. I am always pleasantly surprised when some hapless interviewee gets World Wars I and II in the right order but that surprise morphs into chagrin when they can’t place the two wars in the proper century. So it should not come as a shock to find people, including the benighted Barrack Obama, who can find no basis for American exceptionalism.
Any defense of the proposition that America is now, and has been for 200 years, the most exceptional country in world, is rare indeed. It should be remembered that Ronald Reagan described America as the “shining city upon a hill whose beacon light guides freedom-loving people everywhere”. Sadly today many people want to dredge up every blemish in our 400 year history. Slavery is described as our “original sin”. This leads the uninformed and ill-educated to believe that slavery was invented and patented in America. In point of fact, slavery has been with the human race since time immemorial and exists today in some parts of the world. Slavery is indefensible, especially in a nation that was founded on the principles of the Declaration of Independence. And of course we are endlessly reminded that for the longest time women were denied the right to vote, that schools were segregated and the Native Americans were ill-treated. All true but today slavery is a dead letter except as a crutch for Democrat voters and woman have the franchise. In fact, if I recall correctly, we elected a Black President and a woman was recently a candidate for that office. Our schools are fully integrated despite which they routinely fail to deliver a quality product. And it must be acknowledged that there is work to do to integrate the Native Americans and their casinos into the American mainstream.
The US Constitution is the greatest governmental document in world history. Our Founding Fathers (sorry ladies but they were all men) should be celebrated for their genius. Yet recent generations are mostly unable to show even a rudimentary understanding of our governing document. That there is a provision in the First Amendment for religious freedom is a mystery. They believe that the Constitution requires equality, not equality of opportunity but rather equality of outcome.
In order to better understand our history we should become acquainted with the people who shaped America’s destiny. The Douglas Southall Freeman wrote what I believe to be the best biography of George Washington. Washington was an amazing man. Disregard the drone from the left about Washington being a slave owner. That was true but when he died he freed his slaves. Washington was largely responsible for our upset victory over the British in our Revolution. He presided over the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia and reluctantly assumed the office of President. There were many who wanted him made king but he ignored all such efforts. He formed his first cabinet and included those who held opposing political positions. He was responsible for the first true “team of rivals”. King George suggested that if Washington willingly walked away from the high office he held he would the greatest man in the world. But in 1797 Washington left office and happily returned to Mount Vernon to “finally” retire. In his brilliant Farewell Address our greatest President said: “Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, Religion and morality are indispensable supports.” Where are rulers like that today?
Forget the Hamilton that is portrayed on Broadway. Hamilton is the father of our capitalist economy. I recommend “Hamilton’s Blessing” by John Steele Gordon to provide a proper perspective of our first Secretary of the Treasury. Hamilton and Jefferson hated each other. Hamilton was a Federalist who supported a strong central government. Jefferson, our first Secretary of State, wanted an impotent federal government. Washington asked for their opposing perspectives on every major issue. Most Presidents do not brook dissent, Washington required it.
Andrew Jackson was the first Democrat President. Appropriately he was a slave owner, racist and author of the Trail of Tears, the forced exodus of the Cherokees from the East. He set the precedent for the movement of Native Americans from their original homeland to reservations. The progressives have realized that he was not one of their kind and have decided to remove him from the $20 bill. Arthur Schlesinger wrote “The Age of Jackson” which celebrated Jackson as a man of (some) people and it was required reading in history classes in the 1960’s. It is an instructive volume.
Manifest Destiny was a term coined by John O’Sullivan in 1845. It was a vision of an America that stretched from the Atlantic to the Pacific. President James K. Polk was man who began the implementation of O’Sullivan’s vision. Please read “A Country of Vast Designs” by Robert Merry which covers Polk and his single term in the White House. Polk announced before taking office that he would not serve a second term. He literally worked himself to death and he died six weeks after leaving office. One of our most effective presidents.
Abraham Lincoln was the second great president. There are many wonderful biographies of the self-educated man. David Donald is one of his many biographers and his is one of the best. It is simply entitled “Lincoln”. But you can save some time by simply reading the two best speeches in our short history: The Gettysburg and Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address. Edward Everett spoke before Lincoln at Gettysburg and his oration lasted more than two hours. Lincoln spoke 270 words and it required only several minutes. Everett told Lincoln: “”I should be glad, if I could flatter myself that I came as near to the central idea of the occasion, in two hours, as you did in two minutes.” He was engaged in understatement. But you will find the Second Inaugural even more impressive. It should be read by every American once a year.
Most of the Presidents between Lincoln and Reagan were quite forgettable except for the damage they inflicted on America.
After Lincoln there was a string of inconsequential chief executives. Basically we were ruled by Ohio until the turn of the century. But they were not all inconsequential men. That is demonstrated in U.S. Grant’s autobiography. Grant was a failed president but a fascinating man. He was the right man at the right time when the nation hung in the balance during the Civil War. He wrote his biography by hand while he was dying of throat cancer. It was, however, a good thing that we had a string of leaders who had no grand designs on federal hegemony. It allowed for the first time in history an unbridled capitalism and all of the benefits that flowed therefrom. Our incredible economic growth did not suffer from an intrusive bureaucracy with the attendant regulations that would have stunted that growth.
It was with Theodore Roosevelt that the Progressive era began and he began the process that would jeopardize the government that was envisioned in the Constitution. The Constitution, as originally drafted, was intended to minimize the possibility of what was the Founding Father’s greatest concern: the potential movement of power from local rule to the powerful central government. Edmund Morris authored an excellent biography of Roosevelt entitled “Theodore Rex”. It captures his incredible ego and his embrasure of the progressive belief that we would all be better off if we left the hard work of running the country to a small cadre of self-identified intellectual elites, a ruling class. Roosevelt makes Trump look like a shrinking violet. Taft did not follow his lead so TR ran again in 1916 to ensure that the like-minded Woodrow Wilson would get elected. Wilson proved to be a disaster.
FDR was the logical extension of what his cousin began. He did not recognize any Constitutional limit to his power. When the Supreme Court vetoed his pet projects he threatened to stack the Court. His policies demonstrated that he had no understanding of economics and his stream of consciousness policies had no effect on the ravages of the Great Depression. Burton Folsom captured Roosevelt’s ineptitude in his book “New Deal or Raw Deal”. A short but sweet catalogue of FDR’s economic failures.
There have been a number of military men who have risen to the presidency. William Henry Harrison, Zachary Taylor and Ulysses S. Grant were failures and their military leadership did not translate well to the Oval Office. Dwight Eisenhower was the best of the military presidents. He presided over a relatively peaceful period and avoided any foreign entanglements perhaps because he understood the horrors of war. Bret Baier’s recently published “Three Days in January” is an excellent history of what Baier calls his “final mission”.
If you have the stamina and intestinal fortitude there is a four volume biography of Lyndon Johnson that is worth the read. The author Robert Caro is thorough and unafraid to show the scars and blemishes of a flawed man. The damage LBJ inflicted in a mere five years is very much with us today. He is the father of the welfare state and our culture of dependence. What you learn from Caro is the Johnson was an amoral, vile human being. But for the assassination of Kennedy he would never have been elected president.
The first speed bump in the forced march forced march of progressivism was the Presidency of Ronald Reagan. Reagan may surpass Lincoln, if he has not done so already, as the president most written about. Reagan was the “amiable dunce”, the B actor, a man in over his head. The great thing is that Reagan didn’t care what was said about him and that made him a great President because the insults and negative press did not change the trajectory of his administration. It is best to start with a couple of his speeches to get the measure of the man. His speech at the 40th anniversary of D-Day entitled “The Boys of Pointe du Hoc” is masterful and he managed it all with minimal use of the words “I” and “me”. Compare that to the typical effort of Obama and Clinton. His speech at Brandenburg Gate was the signature of his term. Everyone remembers “Mr. Gorbachev tear down this wall”. The State Department tried three times to remove that “provocative” language but Reagan stuck to his instincts and it resulted, two years later with the removal of the wall. The Berlin Wall was the greatest symbol of tyranny and “repression in the lives of most baby boomers. I recommend three wonderful books about Reagan: “Reagan at Reykjavik” by Ken Adelman, “Reagan in His Own Hand” (he wrote much of his own stuff) edited by Martin Anderson and “The Last Act” by Craig Shirley.
Obama endeavored for eight long years to resurrect the progressive agenda and force it down our collective (pun intended) throats. Happily he stimulated the largest movement of elective offices in the direction of the Republicans in US history. Happily still he was oblivious to the damage he was doing to the Democrats. He was the strongest argument Republicans could make for the repeal of the 22nd Amendment. Two more terms and there would three Democrat elected officials outside California.
The jury is out of Trump but he has excellent instincts and he does not follow the progressive vision. Most importantly he fully embraces American Exceptionalism!
Remember when the pundit class was so concerned about the “coarsening of political dialogue” which they attributed to Trump with his name calling and offensive tweets. Compare anything he has said or done to Samantha Bee calling Ivanka Trump a “feckless c**t” and Robert De Niro serenading the entertainment sophisticates with “f**k Trump” at the Tony Awards. The pundits were right the dialogue has coarsened but Trump has nothing to do with it!