Whatever his other considerable achievements, our president-elect is not known for his broad reading in American history. But Donald Trump is about to enter that history. And in the spirit of new beginnings, he might view this as an opportunity to accumulate some inspiration, both for his inaugural address and his manner of governing.
So here is an exercise: If you were to recommend three American texts for our president-elect to read and ponder before taking the oath of office, what would they be?
The smartasses in the back of the room have already said “the Constitution,” so let’s exclude that one. There are, of course, so many possibilities that any proposed list is almost entirely subjective. In a casual survey of friends, I got strong options by Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and Ronald Reagan.
But because (in my entirely artificial construct) I have to choose, here are my selections:
First, Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” Written in 1963 from solitary confinement, it was a response to local white clergymen who had condemned protests and accused King of being an outside agitator.
For King, no one is an outsider when it comes to confronting injustice because “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” King based a vision of human dignity on moral law, which takes precedence over unjust human laws. And King urges — actually demands — that white America see events from a different perspective. “When you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will . . . when you have seen hate-filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and sisters . . . then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait.”
The lessons here? The limits of “law and order,” set at the boundaries of conscience; the importance of protest in a free society; the need for empathy as the basis for justice.
Second, I’d propose Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “Four Freedoms” speech to Congress in 1941. The United States had not yet been attacked at Pearl Harbor. But Roosevelt knew that the country would eventually be engulfed by the disorders of the world. So he set out to overcome isolationist sentiment and build public support for military aid to a beleaguered Britain.
In his view, America opposes “any attempt to lock us in behind an ancient Chinese wall.” Instead, “the future and the safety of our country and of our democracy are overwhelmingly involved in events far beyond our borders.” The engagement and sacrifice of Americans, he realized, had to be rooted in an “unshakable belief in the manner of life which they are defending.” And so he set out the goals of “freedom of speech and expression — everywhere in the world . . . freedom of every person to worship God in his own way — everywhere in the world . . . freedom from want . . . freedom from fear.”
That theory of America’s global role has been embraced by Democratic and Republican presidents since World War II, helping defend the American people from grave dangers and stabilizing large portions of the world.
It is the great power of historical texts that they speak to us differently, in different times. We read certain speeches and documents again and again. But then, in a new light, they speak across the years, as close as a voice over your shoulder.
This is true of my third choice: George Washington’s “Letter to the Hebrew Congregation of Newport, Rhode Island.” Washington was responding to a letter of thanks from representatives of the largest Jewish community in post-revolution America.
“It is now no more that toleration is spoken of,” replied Washington, “as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people, that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights. For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens.” Washington continued: “May the Children of the Stock of Abraham, who dwell in this land, continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other Inhabitants; while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and figtree, and there shall be none to make him afraid.”
This is the proper response to anger and division. We are not a nation that grants tolerance; we are a nation that recognizes inherent rights, held equally by all the Children of Abraham, and everyone else. And when we come back to our deepest values, as we always do, there shall be none to make them afraid.