A humble carpenter’s son warned us that “a house divided against itself cannot stand.” In an era of deep division within our country, we need some unifying perspective. Two family writings may provide this perspective.

David Acheson, a Pennsylvania merchant writing home while on a visit to his native Ireland in 1841. “I find an immense difference in society. Here aristocracy reigns and governs in all the pride and pomp of birth and wealth. To me, who has been brought up in a country where merit only entitles to favor and reward, the contrast is striking and in favor of the United States.” 

Reverend Samuel Perrine from Illinois, a missionary in India in 1898. “America’s history has been written by the struggling, her people having come from the oppressed classes of the world. Our nation has come through war, freed the slaves, and built every conceivable wreck of man into the republic. The free government of a free people was planted in weakness but has grown to power through the sacrifices of pure-souled men and women.”

Several reflections. First, Acheson’s emphasis on our meritocracy is reflected in “America” being an acronym for “American meritocracy, equal rights in competitive activities.” As children, we learn that you must “play by the rules” and “be fair to everyone.” As adults in politics and business, we sometimes seem to forget that basic “fair and square” rule, rounding off corners to suit selfish ends. The word “shame” is falling out of use.

Rev. Perrine’s emphasis on the humble origins of our population seems to clash with the wealth of many of our founding fathers, but George Washington provided a model of noblesse oblige, acting with humility and generosity to the common man. In time, the underdog climbing the ladder of success became as American as apple pie and baseball, providing a pyramid of upward mobility. And do we not still thrill to the 21-point underdog winning on the last play of the game? 

We’ve heard all the sayings about politics, that it is “a contact sport,” that you “need sharp elbows” to survive in politics, and well-placed lobbyist money and muscle drive the outcome. But let me be a voice from the past (hopefully not the wilderness), arguing for a return to kindness, respect, and, yes, fairness in all facets of our society. Yes, even politics.

Finally, if we are in a house divided against itself — and in danger of collapsing on top of us — a final quote from Rev. Perrine is instructive. He wrote that “Righteousness has exalted this nation” and that with that blessing comes a special obligation for this country to set an example for the world. We need to polish that shining city on the hill. We need an old-fashioned revival of decency and respect for others. All others.

 

James F. Burns is a retired professor at the University of Florida.

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