Over four years at Harvard, I have found the transept of Memorial Hall to be one of the most profound spaces on campus. As many readers know, the transept contains 28 white marble tablets with the names of the 136 men affiliated with Harvard who died as a result of their service for the Union during the American Civil War. To me, the space has always encapsulated the immensity of the cause for which they died.
I thought of Memorial Hall last week when President Trump made his now-infamous comments about the Civil War. “People don't realize,” he began, “you know, the Civil War, if you think about it, why? People don’t ask the question, but why was there a Civil War? Why could that one not have been worked out?”
April can often feel like a rerun of key moments from America’s first 90 years. April 9 is the anniversary of Robert E. Lee’s 1865 surrender at Appomattox, which preceded John Wilkes Booth’s assassination of Abraham Lincoln by just five days. Last week, Massachusetts celebrated Patriots’ Day—commemorating the Battles of Lexington and Concord in 1775—on April 17, which this year fell a day after Washington, D.C.’s Emancipation Day, a remembrance of the District of Columbia Compensated Emancipation Act of 1862.
In a fun coincidence for those of us who are New England sports fans, the actual anniversary of the Battles of Lexington and Concord, April 19, was also the day on which the Super Bowl-champion New England Patriots visited the White House. Under any other President, this event would have been simply another fun reminder of a miracle comeback. Instead, under current circumstances, it was a moment of cognitive dissonance.
The history of American democracy is a history of imperfection. From the moment the Declaration of Independence declared universal equality to be a self-evident truth, American ideals have existed in tension with the realities of power. American victory in the Revolution meant disaster for slaves who had responded to British promises of freedom. The North’s failure to pursue Reconstruction after 1877 allowed Jim Crow to entrench itself for generations. Woodrow Wilson advocated for self-determination while segregating the federal government. Franklin D. Roosevelt, Class of 1901 and former Crimson President, interned Japanese-Americans even as they fought with their fellow citizens for the Four Freedoms in Europe and Asia. And Lyndon B. Johnson expanded access to voting rights, healthcare, and education while condemning tens of thousands of Americans and many more Vietnamese to violent deaths.
Nevertheless, the American system—domestically and globally—has, for all its manifest flaws, been a great engine of progress. At home, a federal court system that once declared white supremacy to be a cornerstone of American nationhood this month extended the Civil Rights Act to forbid discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. Abroad, a world order of empires that fell apart twice in the space of twenty-five years has transformed itself into a collection of independent nations bound by international norms. These characterizations by no means imply that the world is without problems; rather, they suggest that the world of today is one that would arouse the envy of past generations.
First, the good news. The Groton-Dunstable Regional High School Chamber Chorus, a highly regarded Massachusetts high school group, will have the honor of singing at St. Anthony’s Basilica in Padua, Italy on Easter Sunday next month.
The bad news? The chorus almost lost this opportunity due to overzealous First Amendment lawyers who seem to have lost track of their priorities in the age of Trump.
In his Q&A at the Conservative Political Action Conference on February 24, Stephen K. Bannon—former Breitbart editor and now President Donald J. Trump’s chief strategist—said that one of the chief goals of the new administration is the “deconstruction of the administrative state.” Continuing on this line of argument, he said that “if you look at [Trump’s] cabinet appointees, they were selected for a reason and that is deconstruction.”
In essence, Bannon revealed at CPAC that the Trump administration views itself to be at war with a great boogeyman of the conservative movement, a specter signified by the term “administrative state.” Google the term, and you will find a collection of articles by conservative scholars arguing that this entity is the enemy of American liberty and constitutional government. Nothing could be further from the truth.