Given the state of American politics and public life, we need to embrace our radical past and start putting it to good use. I refer here not -- or at least not simply -- to the great tradition of American radicals that has included such figures as revolutionary patriot Thomas Paine, feminist Fannie Wright, abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, suffragist Elizabeth Cady Stanton, socialist Eugene Debs, anarchist Emma Goldman, and civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. Just as much, I have in mind those figures whom both historians and the American people at large consider our greatest presidents: George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Rarely thought of as radicals, they definitely do stand as radicals in the American grain.
Ask most people why Washington, Lincoln, and FDR are so revered and you will get various answers… Ask them what they share as historical heroes and you will likely hear it had to do with the fact they led America through its most challenging wars to final victories. Allowing the fact that Washington was not yet President when he led the Continental Army – remember, there was no national executive at the time – the answer is clearly correct and will work on a short answer test in any classroom. But as essential as military action has been and remains to the defense of the nation and American democratic life, the answer is inadequate and potentially debilitating of patriotism and good citizenship.
What we need to appreciate – and I think most Americans will readily understand – is that Washington, Lincoln, and Roosevelt led us through our greatest national crises and not only prevailed, but made America freer, more equal, and more democratic in the process.
Washington led the American army against the British Empire to secure the nation’s independence. He led a force and a citizenry-in-the-making to create a nation committed to the 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.” And he presided over a constitutional convention that endorsed the proposition that in this country, “we the people…” govern. Washington himself may not have recognized just how radical those lines of 1776 and 1789 would prove to be, but he was the man who helped guarantee that they survived to inspire generations of radicals to come.
Lincoln confronted the breakup of the United States over the question of slavery, a vile institution that denied the very principles upon which the country was founded. And he led the nation -- at least the northern and western sections of it -- in a brutal war to sustain the Union. But hating slavery, and coming to see how important it was to liberate black Americans and remake America without the chains that shackled them, he issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863. Whatever tragic and ironic turns U.S. and Southern history took thereafter, it did so without the “peculiar institution” holding it back. As he said at Gettysburg: “that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain, that this nation under God shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth."
Franklin Roosevelt led the United States through two terrible crises, each of which placed the very survival of the nation in jeopardy. In the 1930s, the Great Depression threatened to destroy the country economically and socially and, quite possibly, politically. But FDR harnessed American energies to carry out not only vast programs of relief, recovery, and reconstruction, but also struggles to institute major programs of reform -- from Social Security to the National Labor Relations Act -- which together revolutionized American government and public life. And if that were not enough, in the 1940s, Nazism, Fascism, and Japanese Imperialism threatened to destroy the United States militarily and politically. Yet articulating Americans’ finest ideals in the words “Freedom of speech and expression, Freedom of worship, Freedom from want, Freedom from fear,” he once again inspired and encouraged his fellow citizens not only to defend those ideals, but also to progressively advance them.
Each of those men accomplished more than they ever promised or possibly, imagined. They did so not because God led them to it or each found it in himself to go beyond himself – though both may have played a fundamental role in making it happen. Even more critically, they all had faith and confidence in their fellow Americans, who not only responded to the challenge, but also propelled Washington, Lincoln, and Roosevelt, respectively, to transcend themselves and join in making great democratic history.
So, it is time to embrace our radical history – progressive history, if you prefer – and to push, inspire, and encourage our current president to transcend his own limitations. Given the crises we face, we need to get Obama to embrace the tradition of Washington, Lincoln, and Roosevelt and start harnessing Americans’ persistent democratic aspirations and energies to do something about them. Better said, if we want to save the nation, we need to do what our greatest generations and their greatest leaders did – make America freer, more equal, and more democratic.
Reflecting on the achievements of the FDR years and the political debacles of the immediate postwar years, progressive Max Lerner wrote in the summer of 1948: "What we did once we can resume. The tragedy lies in the waste of our experience, in the waiting while all the old blunders are committed over again.”
Harvey J. Kaye is the Ben & Joyce Rosenberg Professor of Democracy and Justice Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay and the author of Thomas Paine and the Promise of America. He is soon to finish the writing of The Four Freedoms and the Promise of America: FDR, the Greatest Generation, and Us. Follow him on Twitter: www.twitter.com/HarveyJKaye