Exploring Human Potential

Doris Kearns Goodwin and Jon Meacham Reflections on Jan. 6th.

Posted on | January 10, 2022 | 5 Comments

Mike Magee

On the one year anniversary of the June 6th Insurrection, historians were well represented by two of their own – Jon Meacham and Doris Kearns Goodwin – who were invited to address members of Congress in a session moderated by Carla D. Hayden, Librarian of Congress. Here is a review for your reflection and consideration.

Ms. Hayden welcomed members to “a solemn occasion, a patriotic occasion, and a prayerful one for our country.” She also quoted words from the show Hamilton, “If we lay a strong enough foundation, we will pass it on to you.” She then turned to the two historians, and asked them, speaking of the Founders, “Were they sure (they had a strong enough foundation back then)? Did they know?”

Over the next hour, Meacham and Goodwin, traded and shared historical narratives, chosen to illustrate both America’s vulnerability and resilience.

Meacham led initially with these remarks, “I think they (the Founders) would be surprised that we have come this far. They were aware of the fallibility of humankind. They were incredibly aware of the fragility of humankind. They had a keen awareness of imperfection and appetite and ambition. They knew that the struggle in everyone’s soul, which would find full expression in a popular government, was (a struggle) between generosity and greed, and between kindness and cruelty….It was about curbing our worst instincts, to give our better angels a chance to take flight.”

In a moment of self-reflection, he said, “If I get things right 51% of the time, that is a good day. Why would a popular government be anything different? A Democracy is the manifestation of all of us. So our habits of heart and mind matter enormously. What you saw a year ago today was the worst instincts of both human nature and American politics – the will to power over the idea of equality and the rule of law taking precedence. And without recognition that the experiment is worth defending…Without the defense…then we slip into a state of chaos.”

Goodwin then affirmed that knowledge and truth are prerequisites for preservation of the American experiment. She said, “I keep thinking as a historian that the interesting thing is we know what the people living at the time did not know. We know the Revolution was won. We know George Washington became the President, not a military (dictator). We know the Civil War ended with the Union restored. We know the Allies won WW II. But the people living (at the beginning of our nation) did not know that. They were living with the same anxiety we are living with today. How will this resolve itself? The hope (is that)…we have come through these times before…We are going to write the chapter of our story just like our ancestors wrote the chapters of their stories and they did pretty well. They failed at times. But as you say, even though there are bad angels, we got extraordinary good angels, even on January 6th.”

Both historians were drawn to comparisons with the 1850’s. Meacham went first. “Mark Twain once said, ‘history may not repeat itself but it does rhyme.’ The issue I think about the 1850’s…is that we did not have a common story. There was not a sense we were all devoted to what became the most important sentence ever originally rendered in English, which is ‘All men are created equal, with inalienable rights, among them, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.’ An amazing sentence that has changed more lives around the world than any other single sentence. It was written, not in a vacuum, but as part of this remarkable experiment that we were part of and are part of. It is a reorientation of reality, when you think about it, from popes and princes and prelates and kings who are given authority over all of us…who were organized (vertically), to reorganize (horizontally)…and the American (vision), for all its faults, was the fullest political manifestation of that shift in reality…There was an idea worth defending. If enough of us do not assent to that idea, then madness comes.”

Goodwin picked up, telling the story of Preston Brooks, a violently racist congressman from South Carolina, who in the 1850’s nearly beat to death with his cane the leading abolitionist in the Senate, Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner, on the Senate floor. Rather than unify the elected politicians of the day, it further galvanized their disagreement over slavery, creating what were called then “alternate realities.” In Goodwin’s words, “That is when you knew something was happening in the country. There was a sense that there was a partisan crack in the 1850’s…Obviously it ended badly with the Civil War. But out of that, what came, had to be done, which was to undue the original sin of slavery, and those people fought for that. We had a leader in Abraham Lincoln who carried us through that.”

Forty years later, Goodwin recounted, “Teddy Roosevelt warned that the real problem for Democracy, the threat would be if people began regarding each other as the other rather than as common American citizens…He saw what we are feeling today. What did he do about it? He argued there should be a fundamental fairness, ‘a square deal’ for the rich and the poor.” A bit further on, Goodwin picks up the thread, repeating parts of LBJ’s classic March 15, 1965 “We Shall Overcome” address to a joint session of Congress that Goodwin’s future husband, Richard, wrote.

She begins by setting the narrative in Selma, Alabama. “This is how change takes place. When an outside movement to create the social conscience and change public sentiment (takes flight), then the inside channels of power have to mobilize….(LBJ) understood that when John Lewis and his fellow soldiers on that bridge (endured) a brutal attack, that the consciousness of the country had been changed, and it was time to move to that.” Suggesting that this was a ‘lean in’ moment occurring just a week after Bloody Sunday, she repeated the words her late husband had crafted and LBJ had uttered that evening, “This is not a Negro movement, not a White movement, not a Northern movement, not a Southern movement…It is simply wrong to deny your fellow Americans the right to vote…There is a long way to go, but if we work together, we shall overcome.”  Summarizing, Goodwin simple states, “The outside movement met the inside power.”

Before the session ended, Meacham recommended to Congressional leaders in the solemnly silent chamber to “tap the brakes on nostalgia.” Explaining his meaning, he said, “There is a human tendency to want the past to have been simpler…But there was never a once upon a time and there is not going to be a happily ever after. This is an unfolding job….You are here to do this, to govern in an imperfect world. And you know that. This country as we know it right now is about 56 years old…The first actually integrated election occurred in 1968. 52 years ago.”

Asked to sum up, Jon Meacham said, “January 6th is not a wake-up call. That is not the right way to put it. It is, as the President says, an inflection point – either a step on the way to the abyss, or it is a call to arms, figuratively, for citizens to engage and say…the work we are about is more important than the will and whim of a single man or single party or single interest.”

In turn, Doris Kearns Goodwin closed by emphasizing that the work of the June 6th Select Committee of the House was critical. She said, “We have to retell the story of January 6th with all the gaps filled in. I have a fundamental belief that if that story is told in its fullest…we can retell it in a way that really happened and I do believe a line will be drawn. Maybe it is 50/50 now and (with an additional 5% convinced) becomes 55/45.” The goal she says is for transformation of our leaders so that “the ambition for self, (now) becomes something larger”, allowing our representatives to stand up for what is right.

In closing, the words of Winston Churchill were invoked: “The future is unknowable, but the past gives us hope. It is the present we have to get through.”

You may view the full session in its entirety HERE.


5 Responses to “Doris Kearns Goodwin and Jon Meacham Reflections on Jan. 6th.”

  1. Larry McGovern
    January 11th, 2022 @ 10:18 am

    This is just wonderful, Mike. Thanks so much for bringing to our attention. Should be spread far and wide.

  2. Mike Magee
    January 11th, 2022 @ 10:32 am

    Thanks, Larry! Please do share far and wide with those who might benefit. Best, Mike

  3. Denise G. Link
    January 11th, 2022 @ 12:59 pm

    Thank you for this post Dr. Magee. We all need a good dose of hope these days. I will spread the word.

  4. Mike Magee
    January 11th, 2022 @ 1:24 pm

    Thanks for this encouragement,as always, Denise! We all need to chip in to move the dial on the American Experiment! Best, Mike

  5. Anan
    January 29th, 2022 @ 4:03 am

    Thanks for the encouragement.

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