The ‘Soul of America’ is alive and well

By February 25, 2011

Robert C. Baron's two-volume "Soul of America" charts where we've been over the past 500 years. Courtesy photos

Robert C. Baron's two-volume "Soul of America" charts where we've been over the past 500 years. Courtesy photos

Editor’s note: This the last of four book reviews to be published in honor of Black History Month.

Listening to a recent discussion about a topic of current controversy, it became clear that America is an ongoing, unfolding, unfinished project: a project grounded in notions of freedom, equality and the practice of democracy. And thus, ultimately it comes down to the question of human rights and mutual obligations whether we are talking about the rights of  the young, the elderly, people of non European-American heritage, or people of varied sexual orientations. What rights do they have in law, and what are the obligations of the rest of society toward them?

If we situate all the great struggles and movements for equality and freedom within the context of an ongoing, unfolding, unfinished project to make the “American Dream” a more complete reality, we would more clearly see that, despite differences in gender, color, ethnicity, age or other indications of social and economic status, we are all engaged in the same gargantuan, often tumultuous struggle to, as has been said, “create a more perfect union.”

Freedom and democracy are not finite goods: The success of one group of individuals in gaining access to freedom and democracy does not thereby automatically diminish what is available to the rest of the society. In fact, the American story is that as one group after another has achieved greater measures of freedom and equality, it has served to enrich, not diminish, the larger community.

The human mind, however, has limited capacity, under ordinary circumstances, to process a lot of information. So we tend to see reality whether over a long span of time or at any given moment in time, in specific, discrete terms. We are usually unable to see the forest for the trees.

Thus, we often resort to other media as aids to capture and distill larger amounts of information and to provide a bigger, broader context. Such a medium is Robert Baron’s “Soul of America: Documenting Our Past 1492 to 1974.” A historian and prolific author, Baron undertook this project to collect in one place the important documents, speeches, legal charters, constitutional amendments and the like, that chart the course of the United States over the past 500 years.

Using the wide-angle lens of history, we can see what this American project has been, and we can see that we are all on the same side even though as humans we display the human trait to argue and fight from time to time, even to see each other as enemies.

In the introduction, Baron says: “America is a country born of an ideal, an idea of freedom, the freedom to speak and think as one wishes and the opportunity to grow and change and to provide a better world for their families and for their descendants.

“Change has come slowly at times, but it has come. It was more than a century between the time when Roger Williams and William Penn demanded freedom of religion and the time that the Bill of Rights was ratified …. It has taken often far too much time, for woman suffrage and black equality to be achieved, and economic rights to be extended to all citizens.”

“Soul of America” begins with Christopher Columbus’s mission statement given him by the king and queen of Spain in 1492. It ends 412 pages later with President Nixon’s resignation speech. In between are precious nuggets of information.

William Penn’s “Case of Liberty of Conscience” is included. Given a grant of land by King Charles to repay a debt to the Penn family, Penn established one of the most liberal colonies, with a Quaker emphasis on religious and civil liberty. And it is from Pennsylvania that one of the earliest protests against slavery and the slave trade was launched by the Germantown Mennonite Community on Feb. 18, 1688.

“These are the reasons why we are against the traffic of men-body. … Is there any that would be done or handled at this manner? viz., to be sold or made a slave for all the time of his life. … Pray what a thing in the world can be done worse towards us, than if men should rob or steal us away, and sell us for slaves to strange countries, separating husbands from wives and children.”

In their Declaration of Sentiments and Resolutions on July 19, 1848, Elizabeth Stanton and Lucretia Mott argue that “The history of mankind is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations on the part of man toward woman, having in direct object the establishment of an absolute tyranny over her. … He has never permitted her to exercise her inalienable right to the elective franchise. He has compelled her to submit to laws, in the formation of which she has no voice. … He has endeavored in every way that he could, to destroy her confidence in her own powers, to lessen her self respect and to make her willing to lead a dependent and abject life.”

In the struggle for woman suffrage, women agitated in concert with African-American leaders such as Frederick William Douglas and W.E.B. Dubois and in 1920, the 19th amendment to the Constitution was ratified, awarding the right to vote to women. Today, the two California senators are women and several women, including several African-Americans, serve in California’s congressional delegation.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “Four Freedoms” speech in January 1941 and Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower’s farewell speech on leaving the presidency are noteworthy regarding how they speak to the evolving conceptualization of democracy and the threat to democracy posed by an increasing concentration of power, wealth and influence.

“Soul of America” shows how far we have traveled in 500 years, but the project is far from finished. Nonetheless, from seeing what has been done, we can see what is still possible.

— Desmond Jolly, a longtime Davis resident, is an agricultural economics professor emeritus and served as director of the University of California Statewide Small Farm Program from 1995 to 2006.

Desmond Jolly

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