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Thomas Jefferson turned 77 in 1820 as North and South argued about slavery and put off armed struggle through the Missouri Compromise. He wrote about slavery, “This momentous question, like a fire bell in the night, awakened and filled me with terror. I considered it at once as the knell of the Union. It is hushed indeed for the moment, but this is a reprieve only.”
Yesterday Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan wrote, “On the rioters: Find them, drag them out of their basements, and bring them to justice. Use all resources, whatever it takes, with focus and speed. We have pictures of half of them; they like to pose. They larked about taking selfies and smiling unashamed smiles as one strolled out with a House podium. They were so arrogant they were quoted by name in news reports. It is our good luck they are idiots. Capitalize on that luck.”
True. Then comes the question Abraham Lincoln asked during the Civil War: “Must I shoot a simple-minded soldier boy who deserts, while I must not touch a hair of a wily agitator who induces him to desert?”
Donald Trump is not all that wily but he definitely agitated, and we’re now seeing where his rhetoric leads. He has only 12 days left in office, so whether he is banished from the White House now is less important than whether Americans—and particularly his supporters among evangelicals—banish him from public life.
Last week pundits were still discussing whether he’d run again in 2024. The mob action that he inspired will be beneficial if that possibility disappears.
But the questions raised by Wednesday’s disaster go deeper than which individuals to blame. In 1970 I was in Washington for anti-war demonstrations followed by a day of visiting members of Congress. At 5:30, on a lark, we stopped at the office of Speaker of the House John McCormack, whose district in Massachusetts was next to mine.
I told McCormack's secretary that I was Olasky from Boston (not mentioning that my name has no apostrophe) and wanted to discuss the relation of the Irish revolution against the British to the Vietnamese revolution against the French and the Americans. She told him that and, astoundingly, returned to show us into his inner office.
McCormack—tall, rail-thin, silver-haired, 68—looked like a cadaver to 20-year-old me, but he had a twinkle in his eye as he listened to my spouting. He then explained to us the big difference between the Irish desire for freedom and Communist totalitarianism.
We didn't buy it, of course, but he was courteous and it was hard for us not to be. After half an hour he said he had enjoyed the conversation but it was time for him to have dinner with his wife, which he said he never missed doing.
Before he left, he said he wanted to show us something special. He took us into the House chamber, pointed to his large speaker's chair, and said each of us could sit in it. We did, swiveling around: revolutionaries enjoying being grandchildren. McCormack smiled and waved goodbye. We spun around a few more times under the eyes of an aide, then walked out and laughed about what a reactionary fellow McCormack was. But, although we wouldn't tell each other this, I think we were all wistful.
I later found out McCormack was telling the truth about dinners with his wife, Harriet: They had been married for 50 years and reportedly never spent a night apart. She became ill later in 1970 and had a lengthy hospital stay. He spent every night in an adjacent room until she died in 1971. McCormack retired the following month and went home to Boston. He died in 1980. By then I was sorry to hear of it.
Are my memories from 51 years ago those of an old guy reminiscing about the good old days? Maybe, except I don’t remember my days on the left being good. I and my comrades were certainly arrogant. A few of them made bombs. But with half a million protesters in Washington, the Capitol was still safe. We came to Washington, visited the Jefferson and Lincoln Memorials, and still had respect for and awe about the buildings and the people they were named after.
That respect is now gone among many both on the right and the left. Slavery is no longer the fire bell in the night, although big racial tensions obviously remain. Nothing like the Vietnam War is agitating us. So why does our republic seem much more fragile than it did a half-century ago?
My guess: miseducation via schools and media cynicism. Children growing up without dads. More belief only in whatever god we make up. A lack of belief in objective truth. One recent poll showed 77 percent of respondents 65-or-older saying the founders of the United States were heroes and only 6 percent saying they were villains. Among those under 30, though, three out of five said “villains” (31 percent), “it depends” (20 percent), or “don’t know” (10 percent).
If we don’t respect those who created today’s institutions, why not trash them? It doesn’t take long to throw away a legacy. Even Jefferson in 1820 sunk into pessimism: “I regret that I am now to die in the belief that the useless sacrifice of themselves, by the generation of ’76, to acquire self-government and happiness to their country, is to be thrown away by the unwise and unworthy passions of their sons.”
Jefferson hoped younger Americans “would pause before they would perpetrate this act of suicide on themselves and of treason against the hopes of the world.” As it turned out, 41 more years went by before at least 600,000 died as North and South battled.
The United States, I hope and pray, has many more years ahead of it. Wednesday had its own casualty count: Five dead, the Capitol overrun, our debacle supplying propaganda points for the latest Chinese Communist crackdown on Hong Kong (Look where democracy leads). But the fire next time could be far worse, unless Wednesday pushes us to reflect and pray.
Christians have a special opportunity to oppose those “unwise and unworthy passions” of which Jefferson spoke. Christians, especially when reacting to ridicule, can be swept up in the passions of others. But we belong to a faithful Savior who instructed us to turn the other cheek. We know that politics are not ultimate. If Wednesday’s events remind us of the need to cool and not inflame, maybe they’re what we needed.