“One nation Indivisible with liberty and justice for all.” Those are the words from the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag first written in 1863 and formally adopted by Congress in 1942. Twelve years later “under God” was inserted after “one nation.” The Pledge articulates the ideal of a unified society with the common belief that everyone is valued and that freedom and fairness guides our civic life. These are principles worth reflecting upon as America observes Flag Day this week.
The Pledge contains nice words for sure, but aspirational at best. Over the decades many Americans have struggled to secure their liberty and justice. Women were only granted the right to vote in the last century and black people and other minorities were suppressed or restricted and also kept from voting by discriminatory local laws.
As for a “nation indivisible”… that is a tough one. From our inception there have always been profound national schisms. At first it was the agrarian states, mostly in the south with their particular cultural orientation vying with the industrialized northern states. The southern states coveted cheap and even free labor to work their fields and desperately protected the immoral and inhumane institution of slavery. Every school child knows that the fracture between free states and slave states led to the bloody Civil War which divided regions and even families, pitting brother against brother on the battlefields of America.
Despite Lincoln’s hopes for a charitable reconciliation at the war’s end “with malice towards none,” the defeated Confederacy lived under a virtual occupation during the Reconstruction Period. Resentments festered giving rise to hate groups like the Ku Klux Klan, which sought to restore the bigotry of a white supremacist society through intimidation and violence against blacks and others. In the succeeding years America remained deeply alienated along racial, religious and geographic lines.
For some in the old confederacy, the Civil War never seemed to end. Local segregation laws were enacted to keep the races apart with the support of complicit state police and public officials.
In recent years, American presidents have worked to minimize the divisions in America and to make incremental progress towards that paradigm of one nation with equal rights and opportunity for all. A nation that treated all its citizens with equity and welcomed the immigrant.
FDR, and Eleanor Roosevelt in particular, gave voice to the struggles of minorities. President Truman integrated the armed forces. President Eisenhower confronted school segregation and bigots in Little Rock Arkansas. President Kennedy proposed sweeping voting rights and civil rights legislation that President Johnson skillfully steered into law. Most every president that followed tried in some way to bring the nation closer together or to at least speak in the language of harmony. Each has seen that objective as one of the duties of the presidency.
Our current president revels in breaking with traditions and expectations. Perhaps the saddest departure from the norm he has instigated is not even a pretense or effort to bridge the gaps in the divided America now mostly defined in colors… Red and Blue.
Americans, far from a nation indivisible, is now more at odds with each other than at any time in recent history. Compromise seems to have become a dirty word between the political left and the right where orthodoxy and absolutist views are the only ones that are condoned. With that there is much blame to go around.
The genius of our founders was that democracy was conceived as the bedrock of America. They envisioned tolerance for different points of view and a system of checks and balances in government to ensure that no one branch or no one person could silence all others. It is the notion that the legitimacy of government is based on consensus and not an edict. It is the idea that even unpopular positions are important voices to be heard. All that now seems so quaint in this era of hyper partisanship. It is compounded by a national leader who seemingly only speaks to one fawning media outlet and one set of constituents. A leader who ridicules other opinions and refers to unwelcome facts as fake news. Who labels critics in the free press as enemies of the people.
America needs integrity and bold leadership from the top to bring us closer together, or at least to try. To do so will require persons who not only can recite the pledge of allegiance but who understand its meaning.