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In the beginning the repetition of the observation and even the tone of wonderment that crept into the voices of the pundits and talk show hosts seemed quite natural. After all, the election of Senator Barack Hussein Obama as the 44th president of the United States of America breached the nation’s last remaining exclusive white male socio-political “club” – the presidency.
But by the middle of December, the commentaries had turned from mere celebration of the achievement to what I can only describe as near adulation and media-fed curiosity about every aspect of the coming transition – not just of the president-elect’s administration but of familial decisions relative to his spouse, his mother-in-law (who will move into the White House), and the two Obama daughters. Like Chelsea Clinton, the Obama children are still in elementary school, and the choice of which Washington-area school they would attend gave the media days worth of copy, as did the letter left the new first daughters by the Bush daughters (college age) and the choice of their wardrobes for inauguration day.
Perhaps the economic times called for more than the usual stylistic interest. Some recalled the interval between the election and the inauguration of John Kennedy on January 20, 1961. That too, was a significant generational change in the nation’s evolution; Kennedy, the first president born in the 20th century, brought new energy to the White House. Many have drawn the obvious comparison in terms of the youth, energy, and call to service made by Kennedy and Obama in their inaugural speeches. Both appealed to and challenged the nation’s youth to advance the ideals of the Founders to “form a more perfect Union” at home and restore America’s leadership abroad in conquering the ills of the day.
In 1960, I was finishing high school in the Midwest and so escaped direct exposure to the media frenzy that year. This year, however, found us inundated by the volumes of opinion, criticism, commentary, and analysis that consumed print inches, wore down hundreds of thousands of non-rechargeable batteries, and creating a bulge in the activity of the earth’s electromagnetic spectrum running from to the U.S. Virgin Islands in the Caribbean to Hawaii and Guam in the Pacific – much the same phenomenon that in wartime is an indicator of increased enemy activity that signals a probable attack.
With anywhere between one and five million people forecast to flood (invade might be a better term) Washington for the inauguration festivities (the final estimate came in at 1.5 million), a number of local families – including mine – took flight before the masses arrived on Sunday night and Monday morning. Where to go until the madness subsided was an easy choice, given the many “firsts” – symbolic and actual – associated with the candidacy, nomination, election, and now the inauguration of Barack Obama. We would travel south for about 150 miles to a most singular place – or really three places – that offered a set of institutional “firsts” that defined and shaped what would become the United States of America.
While the media to our north focused on the hoopla of the week’s events, the relatively sparse numbers visiting Jamestown, Colonial Williamsburg, and Yorktown offered the opportunity for quiet reflection about the “colonial” experience in Virginia as reflected down the decades to January 20, 2009.
Of the three, Jamestown, as the first permanent English settlement in North America, was most relevant. (The Spanish claimed all of the Americas, which they called Florida, based on Columbus’ voyage under the patronage of the Spanish crown.) Most Americans know that the early years were very hard and that the Europeans survived only because of the aid provided by Native Americans. In fact, the years from 1614, when John Rolfe married Pocahontas, daughter of Wahunsunacock, the supreme chief of the Native American Powhatan Confederacy, to 1618 were perhaps most crucial, for Wahunsunacock refused to war against the English despite the latter’s continued ill-treatment, including the killing of Native Americans and encroachment on the land.
Jamestown was the creation of a group of investors seeking riches in the “New World.” In 1606 they petitioned and obtained a charter as a trading company from King James I, a charter renewed in 1609. Over the first eleven years, those who came to Virginia were employees of the wealthy London “proprietors” and therefore had no real stake in the success or failure of the colony. In 1618, under what became known as the “Great Charter,” the proprietors gave those who went to the colony the right to purchase property – in effect giving them a stake in the venture’s success. The colonists also were granted the privilege of making local laws to regulate the conduct of day-to-day affairs and to have magistrates settle disputes.
Although little remarked at the time, these provisions, which went into effect in 1619, were revolutionary. Ordinary Englishmen were not represented in Parliament and would not gain this power for decades.
Ironically, another singular event occurred two months after the Great Charter went into effect: the first twelve Africans arrived in Jamestown on board a ship that was part of the growing slave triangle between England, modern Angola, and the Caribbean/American continent.
Looking back 390 years ago, it is clear that these two events – one setting down the principle of self-governance, the other permitting one human to keep in permanent bondage “others” and to regard them as less than whole human beings (the so-called “three-fifths” compromise) – set such diametrical different courses that sooner or later one would have to overthrow the other if ever a nation was to emerge.
This fundamental dichotomy was resolved formally by the U.S. Civil War. But its echoes ran through the rest of the 19th century and well into the 20th — even in the armed forces until President Truman ordered its desegregation.
Racial discrimination endures in practice if no longer in law. Other forms of discrimination occur in practice although never sanctioned by law – e.g., discrimination against women or even in some quarters against belief systems. For example, John Kennedy’s election was viewed at the time as effectively neutralizing the “religion test” for anyone seeking the presidency. But as the last two national election cycles demonstrated, Kennedy at best neutralized the religion test for Roman Catholics. “Minority” religions still raise objections that candidates feel compelled to refute – e.g., Senator Joe Lieberman in 2004 as the Democrat’s candidate for vice-president, and in 2008 former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney who failed to secure a place on last year’s national Republican ticket.
Obama’s win is different from Kennedy’s in another way. Kennedy was already a rising figure in the Democratic party by the 1956 race for the White House. Obama burst onto the national political scene in 2004 and then, a mere four years later as the junior senator from Illinois, successfully ran against the formidable Senator from New York, Hillary Rodham Clinton, to capture the Democratic party’s nomination for president. But unlike Kennedy, who barely won the popular vote over Richard Nixon in 1960, Obama’s margin over Republican John McCain – nine million votes – has to be seen as more than a victory for African Americans over racial discrimination. I suggest that this result effectively shattered all the barriers of ethnicity that have stymied the full achievement of the rights and privileges enumerated in the U.S. Constitution for all ethnic groups regardless of how they came to inhabit these shores.
I would even argue that the gender barrier has been breached because of the manner in which Obama and Clinton came together to ensure their party won the White House. Yes, we have yet to elect a woman as vice-president let alone president. But there is now a sense that all doors are open for anyone to walk through, something that few thought possible even four years ago.
So as the nation celebrates Barack Obama’s inauguration, celebrate too the triumph of the strand of representative government that began 390 years ago in a place called Jamestown, Virginia.
Col. DAN SMITH is a retired U.S. Army colonel and a senior fellow on military affairs at the Friends Committee on National Legislation. Email at firstname.lastname@example.org.