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Remarks by Dr. Bernard Bailyn

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Millennium Council

Remarks by Dr. Bernard Bailyn

Mrs. Clinton, Mr. President, Ladies and Gentlemen:

It is a great honor and privilege to inaugurate this series of Millennium Lectures, part of the broad and extraordinarily imaginative program of millennium events that has been planned. But I have to say, inaugurating a lecture series can be a risky business. I recall the miserable fate of one of your predecessors, Mr. President, John Quincy Adams, who while Senator from Massachusetts inaugurated Harvard's Boylston Lectures on Rhetoric and Oratory a series, I should say, that despite Adams has survived and continues to this day. The future President feared that when published, his effort would be "handled without mercy by critics on both sides of the [Atlantic]." He need not have worried about the British critics: they ignored his performance completely. But he was right about critics on this side, one of whom said that what Adams wrote was no doubt admirable, but that unfortunately it lacked a few particulars namely "truth and precision of expression," and it also lacked "grace and propriety in the use of words." Nor did Adams' production improve with age. Seventy five years later, the literary critic Thomas Wentworth Higginson wrote that anyone who managed to read the thing through would find "a record of repetition, of verbiage, surprising you by the number of words that it takes him to say a simple thing."

Now, one must learn from history, and so, avoiding your predecessor's blunders, Mr. President, I will be brief and go straight to the point. Which is: that in our public life we Americans, though we are often described as a young nation, with a shallow history, in fact live remarkably close to our past, and I mean the deeper past, reaching back 400 years to the first settlements of Europeans on mainland North America and 200 years to the founding of the nation.

Two hundred years ago John Adams was President. He was the first to live in this house, and the events of his lifetime have, I believe, an extraordinary relevance to our lives as we approach the 21st century.

But it is remarkable that this should be so. When Adams was President, transportation and communication were essentially the same as they had been at the time of the first millennium. Washington D.C. was a rustic wasteland: a muddy, disease ridden collection of rubbish heaps, tree stumps, bogs, marshes, and rows of bleak wooden houses hastily thrown together. Hogs rooted in the refuse and wandered around the one unfinished hotel. The carriages of diplomats in full regalia got stuck axle-deep in mud; and the secretary of state recorded success in trapping a 2-foot snake at the foot of his staircase.

Of course there were plans for splendid urban vistas and monumental buildings, but of the latter the only two in evidence when Adams was President were the half built Capitol and the White House. All there was of the Capitol were the flimsily built Senate and House buildings, with nothing in between except a boardwalk. The House chamber had a glass-domed ceiling that leaked, but this was better than the Senate chamber's ceiling which collapsed in a heap, just missing the vice-president's chair.

As for the White House when the Adamses moved in (Abigail Adams got lost in the Maryland woods trying to find the place) only 5 of the 30 rooms had plastered walls, there were no stairs to the second floor, and the only place she could find to hang out the family washing was what she called "the great unfinished audience room" - which is, I believe, the room we are now in. What has this sad clutter of workmen's shanties, tree stumps, privies, stagnant pools, and muddy cow paths to do with us? More important, how can we possibly relate to a pre-industrial world whose social and economic problems were utterly different from ours and whose social policies, insofar as they had any, if implemented now would create chaos. They knew about special interests and about social and political fanaticisms - their politics was as fiercely partisan as ours, at times even more vicious and remorseless - but they had no idea how powerfully public opinion in a modern democracy can be manipulated, especially by instruments of communication they could not have conceived of. Much of their thinking about politics in large republics was based on assumptions about geographical distance and its calming and dissipating effect on political passions, but we live at a time when distance is obliterated and scattered forces can coalesce by instantaneous communication with intensifying effect. The instruments of coercive force that they knew, that is the machinery of physical and legal intimidation, were far weaker than ours, and the ways of escaping from the agencies of public power more numerous.

Yet, despite all these differences, and more, that separate us from our past, we remain remarkably close to it. We constantly invoke the views of historical figures Jefferson, Madison, Lincoln and not just ritualistically. They seem to be part of our present political discourse, as, say, the views of Pitt or Burke are not for the British, or Robespierre or Condorcet are not for the French. Our entire public life centers on an 18th-century constitution, and while it has been amended repeatedly, and expanded and revised by judicial interpretation, it remains structurally what it was when it was written over 200 years ago: an artful complex of bounded powers. Even the commentaries on the Constitution that were written in the far distant days of its controversial adoption, seem to lie at the heart of our own current thought.

There is no more remarkable telescoping of past and present than the continuing relevance of the Federalist papers. These 85 essays were thrown together in great haste in the fierce struggle over ratification of the Constitution in New York. At the feverish height of the debate, when it seemed certain that New York would refuse to ratify the Constitution, the Federalist authors were frantically writing and publishing 1,000 words a day, copying helterskelter from what they had written before, chopping up longer essays into smaller bits to meet newspaper publication deadlines, which came up, at first twice a week, then four times a week.

That desperate struggle took place 210 years ago. Yet we study every phrase of these essays for meanings relevant to our present public life. The Supreme Court refers to their authority repeatedly 34 times between 1981 and 1985 in decisions that affect the lives of every American in the late 20th century. There is now a concordance of the Federalist papers - something one associates with the Bible and the works of Shakespeare - in which every use of every word in the papers is listed out to enable readers to grasp every verbal nuance in what these 18th-century politicians wrote in haste and desperation.

But it is not only the political and constitutional past that is close to us. We struggle with the residue of slavery and racism that appeared at the dawn of our history as a people. And the force of Puritanism and evangelical Protestantism, which appeared here 350 years ago, is still with us, despite the religious complexity of our world.

We are not merely products of our history - every nation is that - we are steeped in it, consciously or unconsciously, remarkably close to it in everyday life, and draw from our history some understanding of the essentials - the essences - of our public life as a nation, and of what we carry forward into the future.

We have had, from the beginning, and have now - it is a profound legacy of our deeper past - a strange combination of a belief, a faith, in government, and a fear of power. Both, in the earliest years, were woven together - entwined - in the fabric of our public life, and they have remained there ever since, a source of strength, protection, and political controversy.

The combination seems almost immemorial. Jefferson despite his deep involvements in farming, technology, science, scholarship, architecture, and trade served in state and national governments for 33 years; he wrote a constitution for his own state of Virginia and a manual of parliamentary practice; he worried over every word of the federal Constitution when it appeared; and he advised the French revolutionaries on the exact terms of governmental reform that would serve that nation best. In his tour of Europe he wrote vividly of what a difference government makes in people's lives. What lay at the heart of Europe's miseries, he wrote, are "vices in the form of government."

It is difficult to conceive [he wrote of the French] how so good a people, with so good a king, so well disposed rulers in general, so genial a climate, so fertile a soil, should be rendered so ineffectual for producing human happiness by one single curse, that of a bad form of government. But it is a fact.

He and his leading contemporaries struggled to find the right form of government and devoted their lives to serving in government, convinced that government is a powerful force for good, a creative force that would provide for justice, secure peace and good order, stimulate the society's enterprise in agriculture, commerce, and industry, and encourage learning, technology, and the arts. People in every city, town, and hamlet pitched into the great controversy over ratifying the federal Constitution - 1500 served in the 12 conventions. The constitution that John Adams wrote for Massachusetts was submitted to all of the state's small towns and villages for ratification. Two thirds of them 181 communities, some mere hamlets responded with comments. Small groups of farmers, meeting in churches, parlors, barns, and backwoods crossroads, argued about technical clauses of the constitution and sent on their conclusions to Boston, convinced that their welfare depended on the precise terms of the government they were adopting, and that it was their duty to participate.

And yet at the same time they were convinced that power - which is the essence of government - could destroy them.

For while they thought of government - self-government in proper form - as a necessary, benevolent, and creative force, and knew perfectly well that government means power, they feared the uses and misuses of power. They wrote of their fear of power continuously, eloquently, elaborately. They believed that the dangers of embedded power in anyone's hands heroes' or villains' were the same, and they struggled to express their fears. The writings of Adams' generation are crowded with metaphors, similes, and tropes of every kind to express their fear of the corruptions of established power.

The love of power, they wrote again and again, its gleaming but corrosive satisfactions, are rooted elementally in the human heart and will eventually corrupt every public institution, unless people of good will and integrity resist and unless the forces within government are so pitched against each other, so poised to confront each other, that excesses in the use of power are challenged and contained before they become insuperable.

It was in response to their fear of power that they demanded the explicit protection of human rights, and they struggled, for the first time in recorded history, not merely to state this in general terms but to specify what these rights - all these rights - are.

There is no more important passage in American history, and in the history of the modern liberal state, than the groping, fumbling efforts of Adams' generation to make the protection of rights effective in ordinary people's lives. The issue was felt to be necessary but was found to be extremely difficult even to understand. At first, in many of the state constitutions, written immediately after Independence, they simply stated the general, abstract proposition that all inalienable rights should be preserved and protected; but when it came to particulars, to defining what these rights were, they found themselves at sea. What precisely are the human rights that must be protected? Some seemed obvious, but many were not, and turned out to be whatever happened to occur to the authors of the constitutions when they were writing. The newly written states' constitutions contain, in all, 75 inalienable rights, and some of them seem rather strange. In Pennsylvania one apparently God-given human right was the right to hunt on unclaimed land. A consensus did develop on a certain core of substantive and procedural rights, but there were no clear boundaries, and definitions differed.

When the federal Constitution was written the wisest minds in America decided that there should be no national Bill of Rights, not merely because most of the state constitutions already contained some such protections, but, as Madison (who would later write the federal Bill of Rights) said, "There is a great reason to fear that a positive declaration of some of the most essential rights could not be obtained in the requisite latitude." In other words, the enumeration of rights by the federal government, the mere listing of them and defining them, would necessarily limit their scope. "The rights of conscience in particular [he said], if submitted to public definition, would be narrowed more than they are likely ever to be by an assumed power." The right solution, he and others then felt, was what is implied in the present 9th Amendment: that, in addition to the rights specified by the states, there is a universe of rights, possessed by the people latent rights, still to be evoked and enacted into law.

But was this workable? In any given situation, someone would have to decide whether the rights that were claimed were valid, and that would leave the existence of rights to the mercy of personal and political opinion, and no one would be safe. Some rights a core body of rights protected against the powers of the federal government would have to be specified, and the residue somehow protected in general terms. This is the compromise that we have inherited from them and that we live with, and struggle with, and benefit from, every day of our lives: in the first eight amendments of the Constitution, a carefully worded list of specific rights protected from encroachment by the federal government, together with the belief that there are not only rights protected by the states but a reservoir of other, unenumerated rights that the people retain, which in time may be enacted into law.

They were not anticipating our struggles over judicial activism. They were saying that the world changes - that rights, like law itself, should never be fixed, frozen, that new dangers and new needs will emerge, and that to respond to these dangers and needs, rights must be newly specified to protect the individual's integrity and inherent dignity.

So, despite all the differences that separate our world from the 18th century, we are contemporaries of Adams in venerating government but fearing power, and in protecting rights that can never be finally defined or limited in number.

But we are contemporaries of our deeper past in an even more complex and profound way.

John Adams, after his tumultuous presidency, retired to Quincy, Massachusetts, where, amidst his books, family, and friends, he spent his last 25 years contemplating the accomplishments and failures of his own public life and the life of his remarkable generation. The town of Quincy was a tranquil, civilized, provincial community, but it was part of a larger world that was violent and half-developed, a world that had known brutality and savage inequalities from its earliest years.

The barbarousness of relations between the settling Europeans and the native peoples at the start of Euro-American life is agonizing to recall - it is hard, even for us who are familiar with genocide, to believe.

In the earliest years the English and Dutch sent over to America what contemporaries called "hammerours"- well-equipped, battle-tested shock troops from the Low Countries' wars - to deal with the Indians, who, deprived of their lands and fearful that their entire way of life would be destroyed, had attacked the European communities again and again, at times with merciless fury, hoping to obliterate the encroaching force. In fierce encounters that involved butchery of men, women, and children, incineration of entire inhabited villages, and indiscriminate destruction of crops and animals the coastal natives were defeated: killed or displaced, their culture shattered, their remnants fleeing to other, more remote groups, to form strange motley communities deeper inland.

And at the same time the labor force was supplemented, in some places entirely supplied, by Africans, whose condition of servitude, within a single generation, reached a point of absolute debasement. When Adams assumed the Presidency the native population, which had been further brutalized in the Revolutionary war, had been driven back across the Appalachians, in places confined to reservations. And twenty percent of the entire American population was enslaved.

And Adams' world was otherwise a mixed population of differing statuses, privileges, and powers. A third of Pennsylvania's population were Germans, some naturalized with full political and legal privileges, some not; and they were of several religious confessions, some legally recognized, some not. New York's population was derived from a mixture of English, Dutch, Walloons, Germans, Scandinavians, and French - 18 languages, and religions as different as Catholicism and Anabaptism, were reported there in the early years. And there were Scots and Irish - Protestant and Catholic - of different legal statuses, scattered throughout the land.

It was this tri-racial, multi-ethnic, multi-linguistic, half-civil, half-barbarous society, whose social and political relations were dominated by severe inequalities, that encountered, in the founding years of the republic, the benign and universalist principles of the Enlightenment and of Anglo-American radical reform. The United States has lived - and we live now - with the results of that encounter.

The great goals of enlightened reform in America were set out most vividly by Jefferson. He was, let it be said, a fallible man, and he was a pragmatic, opportunistic politician, who feared power in others but used it deftly himself. But he was also the Revolution's true poet, its deepest conscience, and its most brilliant expositor. His was the most eloquent voice of America's Revolutionary ideology, as he proclaimed - in the face of these brutal realities - the principles of equality before the law, of absolute freedom of conscience, of responsible self-government, of the need for universal diffusion of knowledge and access to education, and for freedom from poverty and the fear of poverty.

It was a strange encounter. The distance between these glittering ideals and the sordid realities of Jefferson's world was vast. Slavery brutalized new thousands every year and poisoning the moral foundation of the nation as the Enlightenment ideals took root. On the frontiers the barbarous, almost genocidal race wars continued. In the new republic, religious fanaticism led to deadly riots against peaceful dissidents. Poverty increased in the cities as the first post-Revolutionary waves of immigrants appeared, creating new kinds of ethnic discrimination and a new population of illiterates. Exploited immigrant workmen became riotous - troops were assembled to subdue them. And emancipation, when it came, was followed by savage race violence, while less lethal inhumanity dominated the lives of the laboring poor.

How were these miseries to be reconciled with the Revolution's soaring aspirations? Most of the new nation's leaders were social conservatives, and realists; they had not designed a social revolution. But the nation was committed to the ideals of enlightened reform and could not escape their pressure. Gradually, ambiguously, the force of these beliefs began to impinge on the sordid reality.

In Adams' last years, slavery still existed, but the slave trade was gone, slavery was abolished in the Old Northwest and was gradually being eliminated in the northeast. Beyond that, the institution of slavery, which had rarely been seen as a problem before the Revolution, had become the overwhelming problem of American life. Illiteracy had increased, but while only 9 colleges had been chartered before the Revolution, 500 were created between then and the Civil War, and along with them innumerable academies and community schools. Religious intolerance had lost the force of law; church establishments had been abolished, and Jefferson's great Statute of Religious Freedom, which had been enacted only after a decade of bitter controversy, had become the standard by which success in establishing freedom of conscience could be measured.

When Jefferson and Adams died, both on the 4th of July fifty years after Independence, none of the goals of the American Enlightenment, of the Revolution's transforming radicalism, had been reached. But a basic force had been created in American life: the propulsion within a pluralistic, tumultuous, abrasive, and ruthlessly ambitious society to approach the fulfillment of historic ideals.

The gap between the real and the ideal remains, far narrower than in Adams' and Jefferson's time, but still achingly wide. We are still a multi-ethnic, materialistic, ambitious, impatient, and volatile people, but in our finest moments we are also, I believe, the most idealistic nation on earth. We are riven by differences, discrimination, and animosities, but, instinctively responding to ideals set out in our deeper past, we reach for reconciliation.

A spark was struck two centuries ago which lights the way for us still.

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Dr. Bernard Bailyn

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