By Martin Dyckman • Guest columnist
In July of 1861, Major Sullivan Ballou of Rhode Island composed a letter to comfort his wife in the event of his death, which came soon after at the first Battle of Bull Run. What he wrote stirred millions of modern American hearts when its reading concluded the first episode of the Ken Burns PBS series The Civil War.
Most may recall it for how beautifully he expressed his profound love for his wife, Sarah. But it also bears remembering now — particularly now — for how he stated his devotion to the Union cause.
“I know,” he wrote, “how American civilization now leans on the triumph of the government and how great a debt we owe to those who went before us through the blood and suffering of the Revolution. And I am willing, perfectly willing, to lay down all my joys in this life to help maintain this government and to pay that debt.”
Not “this country.” Not “this nation.” Rather, “this government ...”
Ballou understood the government, as established by the Constitution, to be the proudest accomplishment and the living embodiment of the people of the United States. He did not regard the government and the people, in the way some people do now, as antagonists. To Ballou, the nation and the government were inseparable.
That government – our nation – owed its existence and its survival to the principle of compromise, beginning with the Constitution itself. But the time came when some preferred to destroy the government and the nation rather than compromise to any extent over slavery. The Civil War was the result.
Even as we mark the 150th anniversaries of those events, we’re in deep danger again. As before, the crisis is the stubborn refusal of a radical faction to compromise over anything. They may not be threatening to dismember the government this time, but they would reach the same effect by crippling it in two ways: financially, by “starving the beast,” as they say; and morally, by destroying what’s left of the people’s trust in their government.
They’re well on their way to achieving both goals.
Their latest success was Sen. Richard Lugar’s defeat in the Indiana Republican primary. The Pollyannaish explanation is that the voters saw him as no longer a Hoosier but as a Washingtonian. Whatever the truth in that, the larger reality is that it was the radical faction that exploited it. They include the fanatically anti-tax Club for Growth, the National Rifle Association, and the shadowy ultra-right financiers who nourished the Tea Party. A nonentity like his opponent, Richard Mourdock, could never have won on his own.
It had been quite a while since Lugar had voted with Democrats on anything, but he might do so again one day, as he had when he voted to confirm Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan. So he had to go, even if it meant purging the last Republican in Congress who deserved to be called a statesman.
In defeat, Lugar lamented the “unrelenting partisanship” of Mourdock, who happily confirmed it by declaring, “I have a mind-set that says bipartisanship ought to consist of Democrats coming to the Republican point of view.”
If that’s the future of this country, we have no future.
There are only two ways to destroy the United States. One is by invasion, which hasn’t been a credible threat for 200 years. The other is by subversion – by insidiously, persistently undermining our respect for the government that represents us. No foreign foe has ever succeeded at that, either.
Writing in the time of Joseph McCarthy, the cartoonist Walt Kelly, creator of Pogo, said it best: “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”