Tuesday, December 07, 2004

His Excellency, Samuel Betances, and the Promise of America

Recently, at a leadership conference, I heard Dr. Samuel Betances speak. I'd never heard of him before and so, had no notion of what to expect. His was one of the most extraoridinary presentations I've ever heard.

Betances had a number of strikes against him as a child. A mixed-race youngster of Hispanic and African-American heritage, he grew up poor in Harlem. Written off as troubled and intellectually-deficient, he dropped out of high school.

Because an elderly woman believed in and refused to give up on Betances, he was inspired to complete his high school education. Ultimately, he received a doctorate and became a college professor.

Today, he is a partner in a major leadership consulting firm. He's counseled with several US Presidents and provides all the diversity training for every new class of general officers in the United States Air Force.

He's also a man of deep faith who counsels his fellow Christians to witness for their faith, but not to force their beliefs down others' throats. He's my kind of Christian, in other words.

Readers of this blog know that I'm an inveterate dot-connector, striving to see the relationships between different ideas or events that come my way or happen in the world.

As I've continued to read Joseph J. Ellis' His Excellency: George Washington, I find myself thinking of something Samuel Betances said at that leadership conference.

Just last night, I read a section of the Ellis book called, "This Species of Property." It's in the chapter about that period of time between Washington's resignation of his Revolutionary War commission and his selection as President. "This Species of Property" deals with the subject of George Washington, his slaves, and the more global issue of slavery in America.

According to Ellis, as early as 1785, Washington was being lobbied by friends and strangers to make a statement to the nation against slavery by freeing his own slaves. "Despite the code of silence [on the subject of slavery] and circumspection, there is considerable evidence that slavery was very much on Washington's mind during his [first] retirement," writes Ellis. Washington was prompted by his friend, the Marquis de Lafayette, says Ellis, with the argument that:
ending slavery was a logical outcome of the American Revolution.
Based on the evidence of correspondence, Ellis says that Washington's feelings about slavery developed in two ways during this period of his life.

First, through a series of events, Washington came to see slavery as "a massive American anomaly," inconsistent with one of the defining principles of the Declaration of Independence, that "all men [sic] are created equal." Among those formative events was the presence of many Blacks in the Revolutionary army. Owing to the desperate situation confronting America during the Revolution, slaves were given their freedom and served alongside white soldiers. Washington commanded the most racially integrated American military force prior to the Korean War.

Second and, according to Ellis, more important to the ever-practical Washington, he understood that slavery was an economically inefficient system doomed, in the end, to bankrupt plantation-owners like himself. Ultimately, this fact lay behind Washington's decision to free his slaves upon his death.

Washington then, was perhaps slightly more enlightened than the overtly racist and grossly hypocritical Thomas Jefferson. But none of the Founders were devoid of racism. All were willing to compromise with the institution of slavery, forestalling a day of reckoning that came with the Civil War.

Because of this deficiency in the Founders, it has become fashionable in some circles to completely dismiss them and the system of government they created. Because they didn't live up to the ideals they promoted and for which they fought a war, or because they they didn't see or refused to see the intrinsic inconsistency of fighting for equality before the law and in the eyes of God, while upholding slavery, it's suggested that all of America is a lie.

Indeed, among some political elites in America today, there is a condemnation of America, a loathing of America, that dismisses the entire American experiment as failed and flawed, as worthless and insusceptible to reform.

Samuel Betances doesn't agree with this view. He points out that when Martin Luther King, Jr. made his I Have a Dream speech, he didn't dismiss the promise of America, embodied in the Declaration, the Constitution as originally crafted, or the Bill of Rights. He appealed to those documents as guarantors of the birthright of every American to have equal access to opportunities in our country.

Those wealthy, white, Anglo-Saxon Protestant founders who didn't live up to their own ideals established the framework that made it possible for King to press his case for equality for all. So before we dismiss America and its promises, Betances suggests, we should remember and be thankful that the promises of equality--the promises of America--came from flawed white men who didn't fully understand the implications of their own philosopy and cause.

One thing that constantly impresses me when I read about George Washington is how he was always rising above himself. He had less formal education even than the storied Abraham Lincoln and yet, Washington's correspondence reveals an intelligent and insightful, if less than eloquent, person. Angry and impetuous as a young man, nearly getting himself court-martialed as a colonial officer, he overcame both his anger and his impetuosity, showing resolve, patience, and self-control as General and President.

From Washington, maybe, we need to see our charge as being the same as his. We need to rise above ourselves, overcoming our own shortcomings and deficiencies, and use the framework left behind by previous generations of Americans to keep uncovering more implications of the promise of this country.

1 comment:

Mark Sides said...

Pastor Daniels,

Great post. Here's my call out and link:

Pastor Mark Daniels posts on the connections between Samuel Betances, George Washington, Martin Luther King, and the Promise of America. Read the post to see how he connects the dots.
http://sidesspot.blogspot.com/2004/12/promise-of-america.html

God Bless,
Mark