The House that Lincoln Built
REFLECTIONS ON AN AMERICAN LANDSCAPE
by Paul VanDevelder
A week has passed since the U.S. Supreme Court issued
its decision naming president-select Bush as our nation’s
43rd chief executive. It doesn’t seem like a week. Out here
in America, among the arboreal cathedrals and wind-swept mesas,
gathered as we are behind brightly lit kitchen windows in small
but well built homes that rise beside frozen stubble fields, silent
whirly-gigs and idle eight-bottom plows, the past ten days have
felt more like a ride down a thousand mile gravel road with a bad
tooth in a pick-up truck with no springs. Not much fun. There are
undoubtedly curses greater than this one, but I am a stranger to
If we could make two snapshots of holiday shopper’s
on Main Street, America, one taken on November 15, say, and another
yesterday afternoon, we would probably be hard pressed to find
traces of national angst in the faces captured in either image.
Do not be misled by this. If you are journalist or a politician
whose immediate reality is shaped by the fun-house mirror of Washington
D.C. , do not be seduced by the apparent equanimity in the visages
of strangers you meet at the bank or greet on the sidewalk.
Let me frame this another way. On a cold rainy day
last February, we buried a friend named Jason after a vicious little
tumor chewed its way through the vital wiring in his head and put
his lights out for good. A week before Jason died he looked, and
acted, absolutely normal. Sometimes you can’t see the thing
that is killing you.
Yesterday afternoon I stepped up to the counter
at our local library and offered the middle aged woman behind the
desk my dog eared library card. She wore her hair in a bun and
regarded me distantly through wire rimmed glasses as she scanned
my bar code.
“How are you today,” she finally inquired,
forcing a smile.
I must have heaved a heavy sigh. “I’ve
That’s all I had to say. Her eyes froze in
their sockets. Her chin rose slowly to level a gaze livid with
“If you mention the election,” she whispered
hoarsely, “I’ll start screaming.”
In half a breath she had spoken for millions.
As I watched events of the past five weeks unfold
between waves of euphoria and rage, surrender and hubris, it occurred
to me that the ‘little people’ of this land, people
like my grand parents and neighbors and aunts and uncles, were
once again being asked to pay an inflated price for the privilege
of citizenship. Too often in our nation’s history we have
asked the ‘little people’ to do the heavy lifting.
They usually bend to the task without complaint. They usually come
through in the end.
I’m not so sure they’re eager to ante
up this time. I’m not convinced that they’re all that
anxious to forgive and forget, to surrender to tired platitudes
about ‘national unity’ and ‘healing.’ Sure,
they’ll move on in some metaphorical sense because that’s
what our mythology of origin has taught them to do, to put one
foot in front of the other. But the footsteps will be heavier,
more wearisome, and there will be little joy in the lifting. Their
eyes and their voices tell me that something has shifted in the
soul of this nation. Bones are knocking together that had never
before touched. Kind, gentle people want to scream. There is a
sense in the land that something is killing us from the inside
(Hatfield) Republicans (genus: democraticus) and
Democrats alike have told me in recent days that they sense a foundational
principle, one paid for in advance by their ancestors at Bunker
Hill and Gettysburg and Omaha Beach, came into play in this post
election battle. It didn’t start out that way. It commenced
as a contest over who would live in the White House. Sometime during
the second week the battle over ballots became a war for the soul
of the nation. We mostly agree that no one won that battle. We
mostly agree with Justice Stevens that we all lost. Along our tortured
path to ‘conclusivity’, five U.S. Supreme Court justices
managed to accomplish the unmanageable by disenfranchising the
voices of tens of millions of citizens.
I am not bitter about the outcome of the election.
The bloody particulars will sort themselves out soon enough. They
always do (in this case, aided by Florida’s Sunshine Law).
On the up side, it was a remarkable exercise in neo-democracy in
a constitutional republic. On the downside the sanctity of the
right to have one’s vote counted, the only act that secures
an American identity for millions of little people, was severely
damaged. Mr. Rehnquist, Ms. O’Connor, Mr. Scalia, Mr. Kennedy,
and Mr. Thomas, saw fit to suspended my not-so-inalienable right
to loose. In the same stroke they denied Texas Gov. George W. Bush
the privilege to win. It was a double whammy that provoked a deeply
felt, confusing, and complex anger. If my vote did not count, in
the end, neither did anyone else's.
In time, this supreme intervention may be viewed
by historians as one of the greatest crimes ever committed by a
branch of government against the rights of the little people. In
his eloquent dissent, Justice Bryer warned the majority that they
had needlessly squandered the nation’s sacred trust by torturing
legal logic to achieve a transparently political end. There is
no going back, no recovering decades of mindful, painstaking work.
It is too late for that. The Rehnquist court is stuck with this
legacy. Together and apart we crossed the Rubicon.
No one has run a finger along the fault line that
divides our house of democracy more astutely than University of
Oregon law professor, Garrett Epps. In a recent essay entitled ‘A
House Divided.’ Epps gives us a brilliant metaphor for understanding
our present conundrum by observing that ‘...our Constitution
resembles an old country house that has been renovated, expanded
and redesigned’ numerous times over the past two centuries.
The house we live in looks very different from one window to the
next, depending on which wing you live in.
The main house, our original republic, was designed to sidestep the inherent
messiness of democracy by protecting the interests of elite white male
property owners, men who were notoriously contemptuous of the little
people. They commonly referred to us as ‘the mob.’
The power elite of that early day asked us to spill our blood to secure
their political and economic objectives against outside aggression, but
they never suggested that we would share their power or their wealth(any
more than women should vote or black people should be free). In the original
mansion, men of high social status selected members of the House of Representatives,
state legislators (a bone to appease the untrustworthy) selected the
senators, and disinterested electors chose the president. It was a tidy
house, with a separate entrance for the tradesmen, and guards at the
door to keep out ‘the mob’.
When the Constitutional convention adjourned in
1787, James Madison and Alexander Hamilton knew that a great crisis
loomed. The struggle for dominance, between states and a powerful
central government, would eventually lead to a bloody reckoning.
Today we know that reckoning as the Civil War. Historian Gary Wills
has observed that Abraham Lincoln, in a two and a half minute speech
delivered at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, elevated the Bill of Rights
over the Constitution as the articulation of principles that would
henceforth frame and empower the exercise of freedom in the American
democracy (the term greatness doesn’t begin to apply). In
those brief transcendent minutes, the Kentucky rail splitter built
an enormous new wing on the house of democracy, a wing that dwarfed
the original mansion. It was a wing of the little people, by the
little people, for the little people.
Lincoln’s addition to the original mansion
was erected on the foundational principle that all citizens would
exercise the right to vote, that the president would be selected
by their will, and that all of the citizens would share the power
equally. From that moment forward we have been two nations, two
peoples, struggling to accommodate the contradictions between two
constitutions that lead to two dramatically differing views of
To put these conflicts in context, consider
that the ‘conservative’ jurists on the high court
proceed on the assumption that Mr. Lincoln made an enormous mistake.
In another time, their ideological predecessors upheld the constitutional
guarantees protecting slavery, in Dred Scott. No where, argue
justices Rehnquist and Scalia, does the Constitution grant citizens
the power of the vote. On the other hand, argue ‘liberal’ justices
Bryer and Stevens, no where does the Bill of Rights give the
high court the right to preempt the lawfully expressed will of
Different wings. Different constitutions. Different nations.
As a whole we may appear to gravitate toward
some abstract political center, but I submit that our center
is split by a profound fault line. Unless we claw our way toward
some reconciliation of these conflicting constitutions, that
fault line, under pressure, will continue to spew fireworks and
boil with a rancor that in time will inevitably undermine the
foundation supporting the house we all must live in.
Just because tanks did not roll into the streets
of Tallahassee, just because we have refrained (thus far) from
spilling each other’s blood, does not mean not that ‘the
system’ worked, or that all is well. For many of us ‘the
system’ buckled under the load and failed utterly. All
is decidedly not well. Millions of Americans have been disenfranchised.
Kind, gentle people want to scream. We are embittered by daunting
divisions and stubborn contradictions. As we peer into the glass
darkly, from the canyon lands and high deserts and coastal ramparts,
ignoring as best we can the hollow words about bi-partisanship
from all the usual suspects, what we know for certain, now that
the smoke has cleared, is that God has given us torments greater
than hurricanes and plagues.
She has given us each other.
Back to top