That’s right, Harvard. Phi Beta Kappa.
How George William Curtis’ “Doctrine of Liberty” eventually was dumped by the side of the road by the American academy is a tale I’ll try to briefly relate here.
But more importantly, the real story is how it survived outside the academy and remained in the popular culture nearly half a century afterwards, thus, saving America.
You see, after about nearly fifty years the Doctrine of Liberty is back, shaken from atop a spice cabinet, where it had been buried away in an old coffee tin, shaken by the same thing that prompted its drafting in the first place; the specter of tyranny in the face of liberty. Someone, maybe Coolidge, maybe a high school history teacher named Morgan, I can’t say, safely stowed it away there, so that it could be resurrected at a later date. I suspect many hands over many years.
But for almost a century the Doctrine of Liberty protected American civilization despite the best efforts of the academy and the political class to bury it. And arise it has, just as the Founders willed it, to finally finish a job on their behalf Curtis insisted had to be done in order for the American dream and the Constitutional blueprint to come to full bloom.
Yes, they say the Constitution is old and stale, and that whole Yankee Doodle thing really tiresome. Even embarrassing to hear, some modern Yankees say. That was so yesterday, and we’re so much more hip now. Actually that was also said in 1913, again in 1932, and again in ’39, then in ’48, and ’60 and ’69, then ’76, again in ’92 and of late, Ought Nine. It seems that all that has been repackaged in the last 100 years have been the Constitution’s nay-sayers, not the Constitution. Nor its centerpiece, the ideal of liberty.
America as envisioned by the Constitution hasn’t even begun to stretch its wings, and with the rise of the modern Tea Party movement, we can see its true destiny being unfurled.
So just pause here and reacquaint yourself with where it all began, and thank this one unheralded man for causing this thing, that was supposed to have died 125 years ago, to live a hundred years past its expected shelf-life, just so we could bring it back to life today.
In doing background on George William Curtis I found it interesting that he’s had no biographer. Yet, in a forty-minute address to Phi Betta Kappa at Harvard in 1862, to stir up support for President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, he would lay the foundation for what the common American man and woman for a century would be taught in school about what distinguishes this republic from all the rest of the world. Curtis laid out the ideal for the perfect (my words) pursuit of liberty, little knowing that in thirty years the academy he was speaking to would cast it aside for foreign doctrines, or that the common soil of America would gather it in, make it their own, water and nourish it for three generations.
Perhaps borrowing from de Toqueville, it was George William Curtis who hinted that there is such a thing as American Exceptionalism, and although he never used the term, he defined it just as Ronald Reagan described it 125 years later, as that “shining city on the hill,” a light to all the world, for all people of all colors and creeds.
So stopping to think about it, I can understand why no modern academician would undertake to do a biography on this man who believed Negroes to be full-fledged members of the human community, even while they were still slaves. No Democrats believes that today, and scarcely only a few academicians, outside the occasional vagrant philosopher.
I’ll bet you didn’t know that George William Curtis was a co-founder of the Republican Party. He was heavily involved in its first run at the presidency under the Great Pathfinder, John C Fremont. In politics he would be called a bit player, say, like Peggy Noonan, only instead of writing speeches he gave them.
Curtis was most admired for his unbending convictions. He was, as they say, above politics. Ending slavery was not an end to Curtis, but a necessary step toward an even higher moral end, one which he considered to be entangled with the destiny of the United States; to become that perfect beacon of hope for the common man and woman everywhere. He never minced words on what he considered the end game.
He even recognized the natural enemies of this new human destiny, liberty. Only in his time he painted them in the political demagoguery of the slavery question, paying little attention to the newer enemies of liberty just rising across the Atlantic, or even the ancient enemy of free men everywhere, the divine right of kings.
After the war, high-mindedness in America hit an all-time high. After all, the government had sent over half a million men to their deaths to rescue an enslaved people almost none of them had ever seen.
At the same time, waves of “new people of color” began piling ashore from the Mediterranean, eastern Europe and Asia. Olive skinned and garlic smelling, with strange sounding names in curious garb, carrying a motley of religions, and a valise full of woes. None of them were particularly tasteful to the protestant Anglo-Saxon sensibilities that had been on these shores, oh, one-two generations longer.
These immigrants’ long process of assimilation to become American began totally immersed in a culture of suspicion. They were not liked and encouraged to live off by themselves, thus the Irish slums of New York, the Polish slums of Chicago, the Italian slums of Passaic and the Slovak slums of Toledo, all creating the first fields to be harvested by what would become the modern Democratic Party, the party of the oppressed laborer.
Even in 1896 it was understood you could not be both an American first and a Democrat, you had to choose, and the politics of anti-capitalist opportunism did its dead level best to steal these people away from the American dream, and lock them into a cradle-to-grave patronage system, which we call the “plantation” today. While secure, its always seemed to be only half as nice as what the fellow who took his chances with this new world was making for himself. (At this point listen to Antonin Dvorak’s 1893 New World Symphony, to understand how a visiting central European saw America in this period.)
Early on (within two generations), the new immigrant to America had to choose if he would send his kids to college, or build a business, or pass his secure job at the factory, or down at the fire house, onto his sons.
For half a century most of the immigrants stayed in that factory for a generation only, then opted out and became Americans anyway.
But in the most curious of ways.
The Uneven Coming and Going of the Doctrine of Liberty
Everyone knows the Law of Generations, that it requires three generations for the family getting off the boat “to be American” (ser americano). The saying goes that if the Democrats can get you and keep you in generation one, and ensure that your circumstances will never change, they can keep you forever. And you will have a friend, and an enemy, for life.
What saved America and all those people whose names ended in -ski, ‘ini,–loff, -stein, or –chez, from this dreaded fate was Curtis’ Doctrine of Liberty. Because of it, just too many people were able to escape the seine net waiting for them at the docks.
That same same fate confronts America today, only now it has the active participation of government.
While Marxism and a type of capitalism America never quite fully knew, dueled against one another in Europe, for almost a generation in American academe (roughly 1867-1890) the Doctrine of Liberty held sway in those same hallowed Ivy League halls where Curtis first made his persuasive argument in 1862, the seat of highest learning in America. It was de rigueur everywhere to uphold the honor of that crusade against slavery. No one dared tear that down so long as there was a recent memory of so many men having died to achieve it.
But memories fade. That law of generations, you know.
As we know, the wealthiest of post-war Americans, many who profited from the war, began sending their sons to Europe to study, only to find there, while roaming the coffee houses of Vienna, Heidelberg and London that none of the rubes back home in Gary or Pittsburgh or even Manhattan had really ever delved into the deeper intricacies of the human condition as had a whole bevy of German intellectuals, including Hegel and Marx.
To them, it all made sense to view humanity from the backdrop of a thousand years of history instead a hundred. Besides, it was nouveau, camp, it set them apart. And they brought it home, much like a young girl might bring a new dance back home to Laramie after a year of finishing school in New York.
To them the plain talk of the Founder’s day, even as they spoke amongst themselves (The Federalist), was almost childlike in its reasoning, but even more so in its diction. There were no hard words to look up. No ideas to diagram. No list of begats to cite; Wittgensteins corollary to Malek’s postulate to Hegel’s first law. Everyone, yes everyone, even common yeomen, could understand what came out of the Founder’s mouths. Where’s the profit in that?
What they were initiated into in Europe was a secret code, a language all their own, and with it their own unique place in the sun, just like their dads back home, who were that very night donning belts, miters and purple gowns, swapping secret handshakes and codes in the Mystic Order of the Grand Crusaders or somesuch.
Only not quite like pop. This secret language they brought home enabled them to establish themselves at several universities, to teach this new arabesque to young minds also wistful for a secret language and handshake who could then take it forward to yet further frontiers, breaking down the bastions of ignorance, and simple language, and all the commons; common purpose, common weal, common sense, common law, even common good.
Being a Christian, I never cease to marvel at how a theologian can torture with mysticisms such a profound and simple invocation “Love thy neighbor as thyself” (Matt: 22:39) while other philosophers will just wet themselves with the dialectic diagrammatics of the Greek aphorism “Know thyself.” What we know, in hindsight, is that German philosophy considered itself the natural heir to Greek philosophy, and then went about taking the simplest concepts and turning them into several millions (mostly secret) words just to prove than the BMW is the best engineered car in the world, but only available to less than one half of one percent of the world’s population.
Connect the dots. The German approach to philosophy (and intellectualism) mucked the world up in such a wondrous way through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries that a hundred million souls, give or take, would die simply because they couldn’t tell their left from their right, as assigned by their newly self-appointed intelligentsia.
And as a side note, John Robert’s swing vote in the Affordable Care Act decision did nothing to impede this slide into dialectic chaos.
So, by the Wilson Administration, 1913, “progressive” education had taken over higher education in most of America. The Doctrine of Liberty literally, as already mentioned, was assigned to an old coffee can atop the American curio cabinet.
The American Street
They say the greatest compliment that can ever be paid to a composer is to hear his song hummed or whistled on the street by ordinary men. Of all the great composers, probably Mozart enjoyed that compliment most. And what New York cabbie couldn’t rip off a few notes of Verdi or Rossini?
The tune George William Curtis composed for the delicate edification of the Phi Beta Kappa Society in 1862, and summarily dumped from the national playbill around 1888, was hummed, whistled, and sung by American school kids for almost a century, in some places, into the 1960s. K thru 12. I know, I was there.
Curtis, himself an intellectual, was speaking past Phi Beta Kappa to generations of school teachers and students, immigrants, workers and ordinary people. After all, they were the ones who were supposed to make it all work. Not Harvard. And he was saying a thing that is as deeply philosophical as Aquinas’ Summa, yet so easy to contemplate that even the Chink, the Gook, the Slope, the Dago, the Wop, the Mick, the Hunkie, the Raghead, the Polack, the Kike, Hymie, Hebe, and the N****r, could understand.
The great loss is that today, almost no one in academia can.
American public education never had a Woody Allen moment when suddenly American educators stood up and said the official language of America is Albanian, but in the 1930s, they tried.
Their war on the institution was more insidious, measured by the generation not the year, and the starkness of the contrasts can only be told when one looks at an American textbook for children in 1900 and one today…especially in the absence of words containing more than three syllables. (This is not because children can’t understand them, or even spell them, mind you, but because teachers often cannot pronounce them.)
It takes time to trickle these ideas down, and broadcast them far and wide.
So, as the academy flipped, the grass roots American public school system resisted. This was in large part because they were locally run, the PTA wielding great power over administrators, teachers, even text and content. And through the PTA, local churches held great power, (which I largely consider a good thing).
From 1870 thru the 1930s students were largely taught the three R’s through textbooks, often shared by row, purchased by the board according to how much they could afford. History, especially American History, was taught from the few library books on the subject, but from 4th grade on, and depending almost entirely by the wit and enthusiasm of the teacher, herself monitored and supervised by the local parents. Teaching history was intuitive, and that’s what was sought most in teachers, for back then they knew words with four syllables.
I still remember the story of Earl Hunnicut, a coal miner in my town, so famous for his loud cursings the mine company had to change its shift hours just so kids leaving school would not cross paths with him as he squatted, chewed, spit and cussed down by the company store every 3 PM, Monday through Friday. His son, Gary, was my classmate, and it was on his account one night he stormed the PTA meeting, still in his work duds, the gymnasium filled with parents, the school officials up on the stage. Earl barged in, stomping down one aisle, wanting to know why in the goddam hell his effing kid couldn’t be taught not to say “ain’t”…goddam it!
My mother fell away in a dead faint, according to my dad. Blasphemous heathens always did her in that way.
But Earl’s mission was plain…he didn’t want Gary Wayne to have to go into that mine, and these people held the only road out.
State-approved standardized textbook didn’t really appear until after the Second World War, but even then, many school districts in many states had reading committees to put their own seal of approval on textbooks by letting teachers know what they did and did not approve.
I can’t mark the date, since I was in college in 1964, but somewhere in that time frame Curtis’ Doctrine of Liberty finally succame (Isaiah Thomas) to the march of progressive public school education. All the barricades had been brought down, local control, the many churches, even Earl Hunnicut.
But what remained was not inconsequential, although not a one of us ever heard the name of George William Curtis. I knew his Doctrine of Liberty sixty years before I ever knew his name, and when I stumbled across his Orations and thumbed through them, I stopped at this one only because of the audacity of this title. I read it, and recognized his words immediately, as old friends, from the 4th Grade, then the 6th, then the 11th, and even vacation Bible school.
The modern movement called the Tea Party is made up, in great part, of people of that generation, many having had the wisdom to augment what the state taught their children with their own remembrances of a time when not just language, but ideals, were simple, so simple a child could understand them…
…and many others with the regret they hadn’t.
As they read and learn anew what has been around for so long, we all owe a great debt to George William Curtis, who probably summarized it all as well as anyone can, and kept the flame alive as the seeds of statism were broadcast, top-down, over the land.
Note: For those of you strong enough to actually read this all the way through, if you’d like a PDF copy of Curtis’ Doctrine, just contact me at email@example.com. It will be available at Amazon.com in Kindle format, and it would help if you would tweet that out as well.