Unitarian minister, abolitionist, and Transcendentalist Theodore Parker has gotten some press lately. A quote from Martin Luther King was included on a rug that now sits on the floor of the Oval Office. That quote is one of many where King paraphrased Parker. In its original form from “Of Justice and the Conscience” (1853), the lengthy quote reads “I do not pretend to understand the moral universe; the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways; I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice.”
Parker has a very good point. It can be quite easy to lose track of the big picture. We have so many backward slides into selfishness and bigotry over the centuries. The fact is that things have, in the long run, always gotten better. Even here in the US of A, we’ve been on the long, messy road to Justice and Equality. We’ve been literally at each others’ throats over the superiority of an idea, a race, or a religion. Even the “Pilgrims” who fled to our shores to escape religious persecution exiled people like Roger Williams and Anne Hutchinson for their religious and political beliefs. Rhode Island, by way of the Providence Plantations, was the first “State” founded in notion of Religious Freedom.
It is also worth noting that Williams’ political dissent was based on his realization that King James (yes, that King James) didn’t actually have the right to grant land charters in the inhabited New World. His new settlement not only pioneered the separation of Church from State, but also asserted the rights of the native population.
Of course, as more people settled in the area, those values waxed and waned, as is always the case in population growth. Still, we moved on. We fought for representation. We published the Bill of Rights as national law. We nearly tore the country apart, largely, over the issue of slavery.
We’ve heard a lot in politics lately about “Big Government”. Lately, in this context, being my life-time. Taxes are always too high, and the government is already doing too much. I call shenanigans.
We’ve slipped backwards. We had the Wild West, where libertarian ideals and “second amendment solutions” ran rampant. It didn’t work. Chinese immigrants were bound into forced labor, even after slavery was outlawed, and land disputes were settled in shoot outs, mob violence or simple acts of terrorism. The only people who were better off were the thieves and the “business men”, often separated by a thin social agreement. It is a widely known secret that some of the first gun control laws were made by sheriffs in the Old West trying to keep firearms out of their towns to stop shoot outs and duels.
At the turn of the last century, we validated the American woman, telling her that she was finally a citizen worthy of being listened to in government. We passed suffrage, and allowed them a voice separate from their fathers and husbands.
In 1920, we tried to tell people, for the first time, that they could no longer do something to themselves that they had been allowed to do previously. We passed the prohibition of alcohol, which was so absurd that it had to be done by constitutional amendment, lest every court throw it out. It lasted 13 years, and all we have to show for the effort were the rise of organized crime in the big cities, and NASCAR in rural areas.
In the 1930s we had a problem with regulation. The problem was that there was none, and it was much needed. The whole reason for the founding of the FDA was the fact that the industrial food production system was disgusting. It was making people sick to eat packaged food purchased in stores. We needed regulations, and they didn’t kill the industry. Birds Eye Foods was founded on the ideas of the inventor of the frozen veggie. That was 1929, and they are still around. Sure, they could be making more money, but I’d rather their customers live.
Moving on to the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 60s, we see that even when the US constitution mandates the citizenship of Americans of non-European decent, and even though we had specifically rewritten the constitution to give women a voice, we still had people being oppressed by their local governments. The states were asserting their “right” to dictate separate policies for who could vote, what kind of person deserved what level of services and which races were acceptable for certain government work. The big, nasty, Federal Government had to step in and remind them that Federal Law supersedes state and local, and that the protections of the Constitution trump all politics.
The main point I hope you take away from this is that we’ve seen a very long arc of American History, one that has been inconsistent, to say the least. We’ve stumbled and tripped up on our pettiness and selfish attitudes. Helping others isn’t fun when it means giving up something of your own, even i it just a feeling of superiority. It is still right to sacrifice what is yours for what is right. Reach out, grab hold of history, and find out what you can do to help ensure that it bends towards Justice.