The United States is unique among nations for beginning in abstraction. Other countries arose from some specific condition: tribal membership, geographic boundaries, a common language. America has its origins in nothing more (or less) than a set of principles — or as the Declaration of Independence calls them, "truths."
The United States is unique among nations for beginning in abstraction. Other countries arose from some specific condition: tribal membership, geographic boundaries, a common language. America has its origins in nothing more (or less) than a set of principles — or as the Declaration of Independence calls them, “truths.”
The Declaration holds those truths “to be self-evident.” The first of them is “that all men are created equal.” The phrases are familiar enough from civics class.
What’s less familiar is the realization that, insofar as any one thing might be said to define this country, it’s those six words. They were quite literally revolutionary in 1776. In some ways, they remain revolutionary today, so much so that we still have a hard time defining exactly what “equal” means.
Back then, the word Americans had difficulty defining, or at least defining logically, was “all.” A few years after the Declaration proclaimed the self-evidence of universal equality, the Constitution narrowed the scope of that universality and did so with preposterous precision. Someone black who was owned by another person counted as only three-fifths of a man, at least for electoral purposes.
What’s so remarkable about the inauguration of Barack Hussein Obama is how decisively it validates the most literal meaning of those six words. That the son of a black man from Kenya and a white woman from Kansas could assume the highest office in the land, an office held by a dozen men who themselves owned blacks, would flabbergast even the most enlightened of the Founders.
That it flabbergasts so few people now not only says a great deal about how far America has come, but also about how much Obama has already achieved.
Since Obama’s election, the presidents he has been most frequently compared to have been Abraham Lincoln, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and John F. Kennedy. There are obvious reasons for each comparison.
A fellow Illinoisan of unrivaled verbal gifts, Lincoln freed the slaves and confronted the centrality of race in the American experience as no president had before and only Lyndon Johnson has since. It’s become commonplace that Obama, in confronting the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, has been thrust into the position of a latter-day FDR. As for JFK, he resembles Obama in his relative youth, impressive bearing and capacity to inspire.
Also, of course, there is the fact of Kennedy’s being the first Catholic elected president. It’s easy to make too much of that fact, though, in comparing him with the first African American elected president. For all the discrimination Catholics once faced in American society, it was nothing compared with that suffered by blacks. A Catholic, Charles Carroll of Carrollton, signed the Declaration of Independence, after all. The idea of a black man being a signer was unthinkable. Many signers, however, owned black men.
There’s another chief executive who might offer an even more illuminating comparison with Obama. Andrew Jackson was the first president to be elected from a state other than the original 13, Tennessee. He was the first frontiersman president, the first from the “West.” His election marked the fulfillment of a long-standing sense of transformation in American society, a transformation as much social as geographic.
From the very beginning, the West and the frontier had been fundamental elements of America — and, what is not quite the same thing, the idea of America.
Jackson’s rise to the White House marked their full incorporation into American life at even its highest level. So, too, with equality and race: “All men are created equal” proclaimed an exalted ideal and ignored a bitter reality. In Obama’s election, the ideal has achieved an unprecedented reality.
It’s entirely possible that Obama’s will prove to be a failed presidency. We have no way of knowing. Given the economic circumstances under which he takes office, failure may even be likely. All presidencies are not created equal.
Three decades later, it’s easy to forget how transformative a figure Jimmy Carter promised to be: the farmer/nuclear engineer/Sunday school teacher who was the first president to be elected from the Deep South since before the Civil War.
Carter pledged to lead a government as good as its people. Perhaps he did, it’s all in how you define “good,” and Obama may prove to be more Carter than Jackson or Kennedy, FDR or Lincoln.
But there’s a very real sense in which the Obama presidency has already succeeded. It has managed to achieve something very few others have done. It has moved the imagination of America to a new place.
Hope isn’t the only thing that’s audacious.
Mark Feeney won the Pulitzer Prize for criticism in 2008.