It’s probably a sign of just how suspicious I am these days of quotations on the Internet, but when I saw a post on Daily Kos that purported to be a lengthy portion of a speech by Ulysses Grant, I checked with two separate academic sites to confirm its accuracy.
It turned out it was accurate–and prescient.
Grant might have been commenting on our current national woes when he spoke in Des Moines in 1875.
I do not bring into this assemblage politics, certainly not partisan politics, but it is a fair subject for soldiers in their deliberations to consider what may be necessary to secure the prize for which they battled in a republic like ours. Where the citizen is sovereign and the official the servant, where no power is exercised except by the will of the people, it is important that the sovereign — the people — should possess intelligence.
The free school is the promoter of that intelligence which is to preserve us as a free nation. If we are to have another contest in the near future of our national existence, I predict that the dividing line will not be Mason and Dixon’s, but between patriotism and intelligence on the one side, and superstition, ambition, and ignorance on the other.
Now in this centennial year of our national existence, I believe it a good time to begin the work of strengthening the foundation of the house commenced by our patriotic forefathers one hundred years ago, at Concord and Lexington. Let us all labor to add all needful guarantees for the more perfect security of free thought, free speech, and free press, pure morals, unfettered religious sentiments, and of equal rights and privileges to all men, irrespective of nationality, color, or religion.
Encourage free schools, and resolve that not one dollar of money appropriated to their support, no matter how raised, shall be appropriated to the support of any sectarian school. Resolve that the State or Nation, or both combined, shall furnish to every child growing up in the land, the means of acquiring a good common-school education, unmixed with sectarian, pagan, or atheistic tenets. Leave the matter of religion to the family altar, the church, and the private school supported entirely by private contributions. Keep the church and state forever separate. With these safeguards, I believe the battles which created the Army of the Tennessee will not have been fought in vain.
Grant eloquently addressed what I have called “civic literacy”–the need of a “sovereign people” to be both patriotic and informed. As is clear from the context of his words, Grant’s definition of “patriotic” is very different from the jingoism displayed by today’s MAGA Republicans. True patriotism requires an allegiance to the principles of America’s Constitution and Bill of Rights, an allegiance based upon a proper understanding of those documents and the philosophy that animated them.
Grant was very clearly aware that such allegiance and understanding comes from instruction “unmixed with sectarian, pagan or atheistic tenets”–that such religious precepts must be left to the family, the church and private schools “supported entirely by private contributions.”
An eon ago–in 1980–I was a Republican candidate for Congress. I even won a Republican primary. Despite the fact that I was pro-choice and pro-gay rights, among other things, I was considered–and considered myself– to be a conservative. Then and now, I believe the proper understanding of that label includes a commitment to conserve the values that Grant enumerated in that long-ago speech.
I continue to believe that labeling today’s GOP “conservative” is a travesty that works to normalize what is a truly frightening and very unconservative approach to politics and American governance.
True conservatism requires a commitment to uphold the individual liberties protected by the Bill of Rights: freedom of speech and press, Separation of Church and State, freedom of conscience and personal autonomy, among others.
I don’t know the proper label for the MAGA fanatics who have taken over what was once my political party. Culture warriors? White Christian Nationalists? Fascists? Today’s GOP is probably a blend of all those, together with a heavy sprinkling of people who are too civically-illiterate to understand how very unconservative–and dangerous– their party has become.
Grant eloquently defended the extension of “equal rights and privileges to all men, irrespective of nationality, color, or religion.” Today’s Republicans would call him “woke,” and angrily reject him (along with Lincoln) as “anti-American.”Comments