Columnist Don Robinson: Hope must be rooted in stamina of the American soul

  • President Donald Trump reacts to a song as he arrives at a rally at the Phoenix Convention Center on Tuesday.  AP PHOTO

Published: 8/23/2017 8:49:06 PM

As the summer of 2017 draws to a close, we feel tossed about in a whirlwind of impressions.

In the Hilltowns, it has been a beautiful summer, wetter and cooler than usual, very green. Farmers tell us it will be a good harvest, especially of peaches, berries, corn.

Earlier this week we joined millions who celebrated a total solar eclipse. What a glorious spectacle it was! Best of all was the guidance of leading scientists, like Williams College astronomy professor Jay Pasachoff, a veteran of 63 solar eclipses. He explained how total eclipses provide a unique if fleeting opportunity to study the surface of the sun and to deepen our understanding of the plasma that makes the sun’s surface so much hotter than its core and throws off electrical charges that can create havoc on earth.

Not everything this month has been propitious. We have also experienced a grotesque display of human arrogance. Our country has not been so deeply divided since the Civil War. Once again the original sin of racial bias haunts us.

According to studies cited by Henry Louis Gates, between 1525 and 1866 — that is, during the entire history of the slave trade — 12.5 million Africans were shipped to the New World. Of these, 10.7 million survived the Middle Passage and disembarked in North America, the Caribbean and South America. Of these 10.7 million Africans, only about 388,000 came directly to North America.

Most were concentrated in the Southern colonies.

As we try to come to grips with the legacy of the Civil War, we need to face what started it. It started because the South understood what Lincoln’s election meant. Lincoln got less than 40 percent of the total vote nationally, but over 60 percent of the vote in the North vote. The Republican Party won three-fourths of the northern congressional delegations. Lincoln’s platform made the meaning of this vote clear: slavery would not be tolerated to expand beyond the South. And that, the South knew, meant that its social system was doomed in the American union.

So what was the South fighting for? Historian Drew Gilpin Faust has written that “leaders of the secession movement … cited slavery as the most compelling reason for southern independence.”

Alexander Stephens, the vice president of the Confederacy, put it this way: the “cornerstone” of the Confederate government rested upon the “great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery – subordination to the superior race – is his natural and normal condition. Our new government is the first in the history of the world based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.”

As recent events in Charlottesville, Virginia, have shown, the specter of slavery continues to haunt us. President Donald Trump stumbled over it badly. At first he attributed the conflict there to “many sides.” Belatedly he acknowledged that there was no room in America for the Nazi ideology and anti-Semitism. Soon he was back to false equivalency. The nation, irritated by these uncertain responses, insisted on a clarion call.

It seemed to come in some passages of the president’s speech on Afghanistan Monday in Arlington, Virginia. Speaking to an audience of military men and women, he said, “The soldier understands what we as a nation too often forget…. Loyalty to our nation demands loyalty to one another. Love for America requires love for all of its people. The young men and women we send to fight our wars abroad deserve to return to a country that is not at war with itself at home.”

But when he turned to the task immediately at hand, the high moral tone vanished. The certainty of victory under his leadership became the principal theme of this speech.

“My administration (with or without Congress?) will ensure that the military will have the necessary tools and rules of engagement to make my strategy work, and work effectively, and work quickly.

“In every generation,” he continued, “we have faced down evil, and we have always prevailed.” John McCain could remind him how the war in Vietnam ended.

Trump concluded his speech with a burst of Nixonian grandiloquence. “We must unite to defend America from its enemies abroad. We must restore the bonds of loyalty among our citizens at home. And we must achieve an honorable and enduring outcome worthy of the enormous price that so many have paid.”

As this lovely summer draws to a close, our hope must be rooted in the stamina of the American soul. To be sure, our history is full of outrages, toward native Americans, black lives, immigrants from Ireland, southern and Eastern Europe, China, Japan, and more recently from Latin America and Muslim countries who have suffered pain and harassment from people who look like me.

But we, all of us, are fortunate to live in a nation whose deepest and most celebrated values are on the side of our better angels. Jefferson owned slaves, but he also helped to draft our Declaration of Independence, which declares, in unforgettable words, the conviction that all persons are equal in their right and ability to pass judgment on their government.

Despite attempts then and now to obscure this fact, Lincoln dedicated the Civil War to the theory of government enshrined in this document. And so it goes …

It is too soon to give up on this nation.

Don Robinson, a retired professor of government at Smith College in Northampton, writes a regular column published the fourth Thursday of the month. He can be reached at

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