I was part of a recent panel discussion of democracy at Lincoln Land Community College, sponsored by the Academy of Lifelong Learning. Our discussion celebrated the beginning of self-government, of “democracy” in the New World, in the Virginia colony on Aug. 30, 1619.
We did begin a form of self-government in August 1619, and we should celebrate this. But it was only for white men, and at the same time we also diminished the rights of others. Ten days before the beginning of self-government, a Portugese trading ship, the Golden Lion, brought enslaved people from Africa and traded these people for supplies. Therefore, August 1619 was the beginning of two important developments in the New World: (1) self-government and individual self-determination, perhaps the most important idea that we ever developed and brought forward to the world, and (2) enslavement and exploitation of others, perhaps the worst idea that we ever pursued.
As time went on, we pursued both ideas. The idea of self-government led us to the Declaration of Independence, expressing the principle that each person is entitled to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Our desire for self-government led us through the American Revolution and to the United States Constitution. These are beacons of enlightenment for the world. However, our initial compromise with enslavement and exploitation led to years of terrible oppression, to disunion, to a bloody Civil War and to decades of segregation and further oppression after the Civil War.
We needed to challenge and improve our Constitution. In the early years, we added a Bill of Rights, with protection for individual liberty, speech, assembly, religion and the press, and with guarantees toward fair trials. Our Constitution was silent about women, and women had to struggle from 1848 (the Seneca Falls Convention) until 1920, to ensure their right to vote. Our Constitution accepted the terrible injustice of slavery, until the Civil War and the three post-Civil War Amendments. After the Civil War, our Constitution was still interpreted to allow segregation, disenfranchisement and continued oppression.
When we challenge our Constitution, we improve our Constitution. When we included women, we improved our basic self-government, our democracy and our Constitution. When we included African-Americans, as in Brown v. Board of Education (finally deciding that segregation in public life is unconstitutional) and as in the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, we improved our basic Constitution, our self-government and our democracy.
Our values trace back to August 1619, and our problems and struggles also trace back to August 1619. Our history has been difficult. Our self-government, our democracy, has required constant struggle and constant effort.
Are we, and our children and their children, assured of the benefits of self-government and democracy? I’d like to quote two generals: The first general reminded us that representative democracy required “consistent and wholesome plans digested by common counsels, and modified by mutual interests.” This general warned against “ill-concerted…projects of faction [and against] cunning, ambitious and unprincipled men [who] will be enabled to subvert the power of the people to usurp for themselves the reins of government.” The second general reminded us that “all Americans need to recognize that our democracy is an experiment – and one that can be reversed. We all know that we’re better than our current politics. Tribalism must not be allowed to destroy our experiment” with democracy.
The first general? George Washington, in his Farewell Address in 1796. The second general? Jim Mattis, in 2019.
Jim Lewis of Springfield served as U.S. attorney here from 2010 through 2016. He is a former civil rights worker, civil rights attorney, law school teacher and United States Department of Justice employee.