A swift tour across the entirety of recorded world history reveals that no country, nation, kingdom or empire sustained dominance over its neighbors indefinitely.
The stories most familiar to Americans are those that depict the rise and fall of competing entities among European, Mideast and African societies. A sample chronology of such shifting power bases could include: The Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, the Golden Age of Greece, the long reach of Alexander the Great, and the Roman, Ottoman or British Empires.
The United States of America, the third most populous country in the world and comprising 5% of total global population, is economically, militarily, technologically, politically and culturally the current dominant world power. At what point on its historical timeline do we now find our 244-year-old nation?
Eighty years after Thomas Jefferson's Declaration, George Washington's frigid winter at Valley Forge and Gen. Charles Cornwallis' surrender at Yorktown, our then-adolescent nation teetered on dissolution. The victory scored by the Union in the 1860s Civil War was the Emancipation Proclamation plus three resultant amendments to the Constitution. The price paid was more than 700,000 deaths and the assassination of Abraham Lincoln.
We have endured multiple crises since, but perhaps it is worthwhile for us at this time to ask ourselves: Will American exceptionalism sustain the great experiment for another 244 years? The physical landscape will of course change over that length of time, but will the body politic persist as the shining city on the hill – the bastion of freedom, justice, liberty and democracy? Is the curve of our trajectory upward, downward or on a plateau?
Several weeks ago there appeared in The Journal Gazette an oped piece authored by a former three-term northeast Indiana representative to Congress. She presented a compelling argument for the premise that leadership lacking just and ethical substance is incapable of sustaining a democratic society. So what might just and ethical leadership look like and who decides?
Leaders are afforded powers that influence the welfare of each of us in our daily lives. In return, we expect competence, honesty and accountability. Leaders are not simply given respect and trust; they must earn it each new day.
Especially significant is that leaders in the work of governing can choose to promote a standard of civility and caring that all citizens irrespective of their political views can embrace for the common good.
So much for the “what”; how about the “who”? In addition to separation of powers and a system of checks and balances, the founders crafted a Constitution that included a provision for regularly recurring elections – the ultimate check and balance.
It was at Gettysburg that President Lincoln eloquently reaffirmed the answer to the question of “who” in the concluding few words of his address: “... that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth.”
So long as the integrity of the system by which we select our leaders is preserved, it is through an informed electorate that reason and mutual respect can triumph over passion and blind partisanship.
The two of us will not be voting in 2264, but expect to do so this 2020. Having rejected the more convenient (but given current circumstances possibly less reliable even if safer) option of voting from home, we will as in previous presidential election years show up in person. The alarm clock will be set at an early hour, breakfast in the dark will be foregone, and with photo IDs in hand, we'll be among the earliest of voters at the polling site. Perhaps you will be there with us.
We will be the elderly, huddled-together, gray-haired couple each wearing a mask – our presence on a cold November morn not frivolously quixotic, just old-fashioned patriotic.
Bill and Jan Clark are Fort Wayne residents.