Thoughts of our friend Dan McMillan from New York about American values: "July 1-4, 160th anniversary of Union victories at Gettysburg and Vicksburg“:
160 years ago this July 4th weekend, two Union victories turned the tide in the Civil War, although it took nearly two more years of hard fighting and massive bloodshed before Lee surrendered at Appomattox. Union armies defeated Lee's Army of Northern Virginia in three days of fighting, July 1-3. The next day (Independence Day), 29,000 Confederate troops in the last Confederate fortress astride the Mississippi - Vicksburg - surrendered to Grant's forces.
At this time of escalating partisan anger, it is worth reflecting on why the Civil War was fought. The Northern states' reasons for fighting go a long way to clarifying what makes us Americans, and helps us understand the distinctive hallmarks of our country's history.
Every other civil war was fought by different political factions or ethnic groups competing for control of the same territory. Not so in our Civil War - the seceding states had no wish to dominate the North or impose their institutions on Northerners. They wanted to go their their own way, be their own country, and keep their slaves. Letting them go would have been easy or at least conceivable, especially during the war's first 18 months, as losses drastically exceeded everyone's expectations, and when one Union defeat followed another.
The 360,000 Union soldiers who gave their lives (the equivalent of 5.4 million as a fraction of our country's population today) did not die to defend democracy in the North, where it was under no threat whatsoever. They died "to preserve the Union." Why did the Union need to be preserved? Because the United States was the world's first and only democratic experiment. If the Confederate states managed to destroy the Union by seceding, the democratic experiment would have failed, and "government of the people, by the people, for the people" could have "perish[ed] from the earth."
Long before Lincoln spoke these truths at Gettysburg, Union soldiers gave them voice in letters to their loved ones back home. "I do feel that the liberty of the world is placed in our hands to defend," wrote a private in the 33rd Massachusetts in 1862, "and if we are overcome then farewell to freedom." A private in the 27th Connecticut contended that if "traitors" destroyed the form of government that cost "our forefathers long years of blood" to establish, "all the hope and confidence in the capacity of men for self government will be lost."
(Ironically, Confederate troops thought they were fighting for democracy and saw themselves as the true heirs to the Founding Fathers. Their understanding of democracy was of course tragically wrong - a grotesque perversion of the ideal - because it included what they imagined to be their right to enslave other human beings. Still, in their hearts and in their own misguided way, they also fought for the ideals which make us a nation.)
On the northern side in the Civil War, and in the entire country in the two World Wars, we see a capacity for idealism, selflessness, and sacrifice for the greater good that finds no parallel - indeed barely the faintest echo - in the history of any other people.
Does this uniquely American capacity for idealism make us "better" than other peoples? I don't see that it does. We're not a race of supermen, but rather flawed human beings like the citizens of every other country. Our historic role as the birthplace of democracy and as the world's foremost champion of freedom does not spring from some inborn quality, but rather - as I see it - from the historical accident of the inevitable collision between the soaring ideals proclaimed in the Declaration of Independence and the ugly reality of slavery.
So I don't see that we are better, but we are different. Whether we like it or not, we Americans are a nation of idealists. Our ideals - individual freedom, equality of opportunity, government by the people - make us a nation. Right now few of us are feeling terribly idealistic, at least not when it comes to politics. How could it be otherwise, after 60 years of lies, broken promises, and empty slogans? Who can fault us for being pessimistic and cynical, given the moral bankruptcy of the political class, which has ceased to believe in us and in our nation's promise?
I nonetheless insist that our capacity for idealism is only submerged but not erased, latent rather than manifest. Idealism is part of our DNA and we couldn't escape it if we tried.
It is for these reasons that I have dedicated my life to the fight for voter-owned elections, a first but mighty step toward restoring government by the people to the land of its birth. And it is my understanding of our history which makes me sunnily optimistic about our chances of success. Our ideals make us Americans and fighting for these ideals is what Americans do. Sooner or later, in my opinion, we will find a way to take our country back and fulfill our ideals at a higher level than yet seen in history. We will once again stand in the vanguard of the moral progress of humankind, as we so often have done in the past.
Do my claims here constitute jingoism? I do not see that I am guilty of that. How can we look down on other peoples, when they are we? The whole world is represented within our borders, and essential to our claim to greatness - if we care to advance such a claim - is that being an American has NOTHING to do with the color of your skin, where you were born, what language you speak, or anything else beyond our defining ideals, ideals which embody the highest hopes of all humanity.