Presidents' Day should remind us that contrary to the claims of all too many a politician, pundit, and pollster, we Americans are a politically progressive people.
Take a walk on the National Mall, the public space at the heart of the nation's capital where we celebrate who we are, the place where we proclaim what it means to be an American. Consider the history we have recorded there. It is a narrative of struggle, of courage, of sacrifice, of determination and liberation.
And whom do we honor in our grand narrative?
Revolutionaries, radicals, democrats all.
We honor George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, presidents who not only fought to found, build, and defend the United States, but did all of that -- against the ambitions and efforts of naysayers, defeatists, and reactionaries, and despite their own faults and failings -- by engaging their fellow citizens in making American life profoundly freer, more equal, and more democratic than ever before.
Take in the Washington Monument, the towering obelisk erected to celebrate a revolutionary general who led a citizens' army against a colonial empire in pursuit of independence and the creation of a democratic republic; a powerful statesman who presided over a constitutional convention which proclaimed that in this country "We the People" govern; a slave owner who provided for the freedom of his slaves in his last will and testament; a man who, for all of his aristocratic bearing and popular appeal, would not be king but, simply, presider.
Head over to the southern rim of the Tidal Basin, to the Jefferson Memorial, a monument honoring the man who authored the Declaration of Independence and its revolutionary proposition that "all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness;" a monument to the political leader who made the legacy of the American Revolution all the more revolutionary by pointing to and bolstering the fine wall the Founders had erected between Church and State to assure freedom of worship and conscience; a monument to an intellectual and designer who not only realized that democratic enterprise and virtue demanded an informed citizenry, but also founded a great public university to cultivate it.
Come back over to the Mall and walk up the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, a grand temple constructed in memory of the man who so believed in America as "the last best hope of earth" that he not only led the nation through a hellish civil war to sustain the Union. He also recognized that doing so demanded "a new birth of freedom" and called for a reinvigoration of the grand experiment in "government of the people, by the people, for the people."
Stroll through the FDR Memorial, a park within a park devoted to recounting the presidency of the polio-stricken man who in the face of the worst economic and social catastrophe in modern history not only reminded his fellow Americans that they had "nothing to fear but fear itself" and proceeded to mobilize them to undertake the grand labors of relief, recovery, reconstruction, and reform known as the New Deal, but also articulated their finest strivings and aspirations in the promise of the Four Freedoms -- Freedom of Speech and Expression, Freedom of Worship, Freedom from Want, Freedom from Fear -- and led them in a global struggle against Nazism, fascism, and imperialism to secure those freedoms.
As the late poet and former Librarian of Congress Archibald MacLeish once wrote, "The American national purpose [is] to liberate from domination; to set men free." And our newest monuments, the National World War II and the Martin Luther King, Jr. memorials, clearly testify that we not only continue to believe in that purpose and the dream it inspires, but also - despite appearances to the contrary -- that we do not want to forget them.
On this Presidents' Day, in this election year, during these anxious times, we need to remember. We need to remember what generations of Americans past and present have been trying to remember. We need to remember that we are Americans -- and that at our best, we are a decidedly progressive people.
Harvey J. Kaye is the Ben & Joyce Rosenberg Professor of Democracy and Justice Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay. He is the author of Thomas Paine and the Promise of America (FSG) and is currently completing The Four Freedoms and the Promise of America (Simon & Schuster).
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