By Alan W. Dowd, ASCF Senior Fellow
JANUARY 2021—A public school committee in San Francisco is calling for Abraham Lincoln High School to be renamed. According to the chairman of the committee, “Lincoln, like the presidents before him and most after, did not show through policy or rhetoric that black lives ever mattered.” In addition to Lincoln High, the “renaming committee” wants George Washington High School, Theodore Roosevelt Middle School, Thomas Jefferson Elementary School and 40 other schools renamed.
These proposals are just the latest phase in an ongoing assault on American institutions waged by radical organizations and abetted by well-intentioned but poorly informed bystanders. This phase follows a violent summer phase—left largely unanswered, unchecked and unpunished—that targeted memorials to U.S. Grant, Lincoln, Jefferson, Washington, World War I veterans, World War II veterans and other pieces of American history. This assault must be answered across multiple fronts.
First, we must promote, preserve, and defend law and order.
There can be no cities, no society, no civilization without a foundation of law and order. Sadly, several elected officials ignored this truth last summer. Instead, mayors and city councils in Seattle, Minneapolis, Portland, Louisville and elsewhere prevented police from enforcing the law, protecting life and property, and defending public facilities and memorials. The resulting chaos served as a grim reminder that too little government is as destructive as too much.
If the law is the first line of defense for our freedoms, America’s 800,000 law-enforcement officers represent the last line of defense here at home. That “thin blue line,” as it has been called, is what stands between order and chaos. But when politicians—whether craven or calculating—prevent police from doing their job, the rule of law is replaced by survival of the most violent and most brutal, as we saw during the summer of 2020.
Since this is partly a political problem, Americans who believe in the rule of law must demand that elected officials enforce and respect the law. To do otherwise is to take part in a kind of slow-motion suicide. And while it shouldn’t have to be said, it pays to recall in the wake of the January 6 assault on the Capitol that right-wing mobs are equally lawless, equally destructive, equally corrosive to America’s institutions.
Associations should be created to educate citizens about policymakers and policies at odds with the primary function of government in a free society: protecting life, liberty and property, maintaining public order, and, in President Ronald Reagan’s timeless words, ensuring “the ultimate in individual freedom consistent with law and order.”
Beyond that, when cities and/or states fail to enforce the law and fail to punish the lawless, it may be necessary for the federal government to intervene. What was true in 1794, 1861, 1957 and 1962 is just as true today: The protections of the Constitution and laws of the United States do not stop at the outskirts of a lawless city or state.
Second, all Americans must learn to make distinctions.
For example, there’s a vast difference between peaceful protestors and violent mobs. We know and appreciate the motives of the peaceful protestors—to shine a light on injustice and to pursue justice. But what exactly are the motives of the mobs that spent the summer months looting, stealing, and defacing statues of Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, Grant and memorials honoring America’s war dead? And what exactly did the January 6 mob expect to accomplish by breaching the walls and security cordons of the Capitol?
Whatever their motives, neither group was helping build “a more perfect union.” Instead, these mobs were seeking to tear down and destroy—subscribing to the unattainable purity of Robespierre or the Taliban.
Before balking at such comparisons, consider the assault on Lincoln. Do the mobs not know that Lincoln was murdered because he showed, by word and deed, that “black lives mattered” to him? He literally gave up his life for the cause of liberty and equality. Or consider the toppling of Grant’s statue. Do the mobs not know that Grant liberated hundreds of thousands from slavery and vanquished a racialist regime? Or consider the January 6 assault on the Capitol. Do those mobs not recognize that their self-styled “defense” of the Constitution prevented constitutional officials from performing their constitutional duty—and endangered four people in the constitutional presidential line of succession? Or consider the defacing of war memorials. Do the mobs not know what these memorials represent? In 1917-18, 116,000 Americans died defending democracy from authoritarian regimes. In 1941-45, 405,399 Americans—black and white, red, yellow and brown—died liberating Europe and Asia from racialist-eugenicist empires. From 1948 to 1991, America sacrificed 100,000 lives to protect the frontiers of freedom from Soviet totalitarianism—the freedom to speak or remain silent, to peacefully assemble, to worship any god or no god at all.
Doubtless, the mobs will retort that America is no better than the Soviet Union or other tyrannies. But then they must explain why Moscow had to build walls to keep people in, why countless millions flee other lands to come to America, why people in Hong Kong, Poland, Georgia, Libya, Kosovo, Taiwan, Colombia, Kurdistan, Tanzania wave the American flag and sing the “Star Spangled Banner.”
The answer is found in the millions of Americans who have journeyed to other lands to liberate the oppressed; in America’s rescue of Yazidis from ISIS, Somalis from famine, Indonesians from natural disaster, Haitians from anarchy; in America’s protection of Koreans and Kuwaitis, Kurds and Kosovars.
The answer is found in ASCF’s Step up America program, the American Story podcast, the Woodson Center’s 1776 Unites, the National Association of Scholars’ 1620 Project, Sagamore Institute’s Liberty Tracks, Hillsdale College’s Imprimis, the American Legion’s youth and patriotism programs, and countless other initiatives that promote America’s founding principles, defend the institutions that make America exceptional, and use reason rather than violence to address social challenges.
The answer is found in the life and words of men like Lincoln and Jefferson, which brings us to another distinction we must learn to make: the distinction between good and perfect. Because it is comprised of imperfect people, America has never been perfect—and never will be perfect. Even so, America is good. But don’t take my word for it. Rather than inciting violence, or assaulting the Capitol, or calling for statues of Lincoln and Jefferson to be torn down, Martin Luther King called Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence “majestic” and “a great dream.”
Unlike the mobs, King was able to look beyond the problems of the moment and the flaws of the founders—and see what they envisioned, what they dreamed, what they began building. King saw that Jefferson’s masterpiece reflects “an amazing universalism.” The Declaration of Independence, King explained, “doesn’t say ‘some men,’ it says ‘all men.’ It doesn’t say ‘all white men,’ it says ‘all men,’ which includes black men.” And King understood that this document makes America exceptional. “That dream goes on to say another thing that ultimately distinguishes our nation and our form of government from any totalitarian system in the world. It says that each of us has certain basic rights that are neither derived from or conferred by the state…They are God-given, gifts from His hands. Never before in the history of the world has a sociopolitical document expressed in such profound, eloquent and unequivocal language the dignity and the worth of human personality.”
Like Lincoln, who described America as “the last best hope of earth,” King believed that “God somehow called America to do a special job for mankind and the world.” King recognized that for nations, as for individuals, the measure of goodness is direction, not perfection—and that America was born headed in the right direction.