James H. Nichols, Jr. is Professor of Government and Dr. Jules L. Whitehill Professor of Humanism and Ethics at Claremont McKenna College.
The tearing down of statues, the renaming of buildings and schools, the discrediting of formerly admired founders, presidents, and other leaders—these events underline the weighty issue of how we tell our history and how we relate to it. A narration of only good things about a country’s history may be suitable to some celebratory occasion, but is unlikely to provide any real direction for progress. A historical narrative proceeding from the assertion of fundamental evil in a country’s vision and deeds can hardly find broad acceptance or suggest practical ways in which to do better. A different approach to the telling of a country’s history has a better chance of persuading people and motivating them to make changes for the better: to highlight what is best in a country’s principles and practice in such a way as to suggest how to reform whatever falls most drastically short of that country’s vision and self-understanding. Daniel Webster took such an approach in his first famous speech.
On December 22 in the year 1820, Daniel Webster delivered an oration “On the First Settlement of New England” before an audience gathered at Plymouth, Massachusetts, to commemorate the landing of the Pilgrims two hundred years earlier. After the passage of two more centuries, his words, his intentions, and his arguments are well worth revisiting.
It is a near-universal practice for countries to celebrate the anniversaries of events of crucial importance to their history. In the first part of his speech, Webster presents, with high-toned eloquence, a philosophical statement of the deepest reason for such commemorations. “It is a noble faculty of our nature,” he proclaims, “which enables us to connect our thoughts, our sympathies, and our happiness with what is distant in place or time; and, looking before and after, to hold communion at once with our ancestors and our posterity.” Our lives are limited to a short time, but we can take inspiration and seek guidance from the greatness of our ancestors, and we may aspire to leave behind us evidence that we have not depleted or ruined but passed on our community’s inheritance intact and even enhanced by our own efforts to contribute to the happiness of future generations. In this way, we can view ourselves not only as creatures of a day but “links in the great chain of being…”
Webster’s speech does what one would expect at such a commemoration. He vividly depicts the Pilgrims’ landing at Plymouth, evokes their purpose of seeking religious and civil liberty in a new land, and compares this kind of new colony with those of antiquity and of other modern European colonial enterprises to bring to light this one’s specific character and promise of growth and flourishing. He reviews the progress that took place during the next two centuries in political, economic, and cultural development: the security of liberties, expansion of commerce, the provision of public education, and the achievement of higher education as exemplified by the university. He places great emphasis on “the principles upon which society and government are established in this country.”
The speech is not only one of celebration, however. Like many a statesman speaking on such ceremonial occasions—think, for example, of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address— Webster speaks not only to recall the past but to urge a course of action for the future. In this instance, it is uncompromising opposition to the evil of the African slave trade. Congress had, at the earliest opportunity permitted by the Constitution, 1808, outlawed the slave trade, but enforcement had been inadequate and the trade continued. Webster denounces it in the strongest possible language. In the speech as a whole, Webster’s two most vivid depictions are, first, of the Pilgrims’ landing at Plymouth Rock; and then near the speech’s end, of the inhuman misery that confronts a slave about to be taken aboard a ship, where he is afforded “a wide-spread prospect of suffering, anguish, and death.” He calls upon enforcers of the law to execute the law’s “wholesome and necessary severity”; he urges ministers of religion to denounce these crimes; he urges fair merchants to lend every possible cooperation to rigorous and just enforcement of the law.
No state of political society at any given time is perfect. Imperfections, defects, shortcomings, crimes abound. Webster’s speech exemplifies an approach to political improvement which has met with success: to seek out in the past the origin, the foundations, the principles, of what is most admirable in our present way of living; to draw a stark contrast between them and a present evil; and in the light of what is best in our history to urge the actions needed to palliate, remedy, or remove that evil. Webster focused attention on a great evil which could at that time be abolished, and he rallied support for the task by evoking the principles of liberty, self-government, and progress first exemplified by the Pilgrims being commemorated on that occasion.
The slave trade, to be sure, was part of a much greater evil—slavery itself, which at that time could be abolished in a state such as Massachusetts, but not yet in the country as a whole. Successful opposition to the evil of slavery itself followed a similar pattern: Lincoln’s opposition to the expansion of slavery in the territories, for example, relied on the founding principle of the Declaration of Independence, in the light of which slavery is an injustice (with which the framers of the Constitution felt compelled to compromise); while limited by the Constitution, Lincoln held it to be essential to the preservation of liberty and self-government to acknowledge the evil of slavery and to seek to use all means permitted by the Constitution to prevent its spread, with a view to the ultimate possibility of abolition in the fullness of time. In like manner Martin Luther King invoked that same Declaration of Independence as the source of this country’s founding principles in order to urge the repeal of racially discriminatory laws as necessary to fulfilling the promise of that Declaration, after nearly a century of violation. This kind of approach, resting on the persuasive evocation of what is most admirable and aspirational in our past to inspire effective effort to overcome present evils, did actually bring about the abolition of the slave trade, the abolition of slavery, and the enactment of civil rights laws. It is hard to see how a historical narrative chiefly about original defects, sins, and evils could lead people to seek effective remedies for present ills.