In reaffirming the greatness of our nation, we understand that greatness is never a given. It must be earned. Our journey has never been one of shortcuts or settling for less. It has not been the path for the faint-hearted—for those who prefer leisure over work, or seek only the pleasures of riches and fame. Rather, it has been the risk-takers, the doers, the makers of things—some celebrated but more often men and women obscure in their labor, who have carried us up the long, rugged path towards prosperity and freedom.
For us, they packed up their few worldly possessions and traveled across oceans in search of a new life.
For us, they toiled in sweatshops and settled the West; endured the lash of the whip and plowed the hard earth.
For us, they fought and died, in places like Concord and Gettysburg; Normandy and Khe Sanh.
Time and again these men and women struggled and sacrificed and worked till their hands were raw so that we might live a better life. They saw America as bigger than the sum of our individual ambitions; greater than all the differences of birth or wealth or faction.
President Barack Obama, Inauguration Speech
Doghouse asks whether Obama with his Ivy League education could possibly miss the problematic nature of these comments.
Perhaps I should discuss how this version of American history manifests itself in Howard Zinn, who sides with the Indians displaced by these settlers and their plows, but also sides with those toiling in sweatshops, and sides with the African slaves that endured the lash of the whip. Zinn's alliances in A People's History of the United States offer one benchmark for comparison. Doghouse is also pressing me to ask how the story in the ultra-conservative A Patriot's History of the United States supports or contests Obama's appeal to our national character.
Obama is a slick politician, and that almost assures us that he will take liberties with the history he should know. Does his account reveal that he is banking on our collective ignorance? Useful history comforts the afflicted, but it also afflicts the comforted.
In Obama's defense, I might point out the rhetorical pattern of his repetition of the "for us" and its long tradition. Its roots are found at least in part in the soil of African American forms of religious expression. In his effort to yoke together the "pioneers" with factory workers and slaves, he may be deviating from the pattern of his predecessors in the White House. His effort to put these disparate groups in front of the same cart goes against another pattern of historical memory.
I'm thinking, for example, of the anti-union statement from 1888 of Arthur Denny, one of the founders of Seattle:
The object of all who came to Oregon in early times was to avail themselves of the privilege of a donation claim, and my opinion to-day is that every man and woman fully earned and merited all they got, but we have a small class of very small people here now who have no good word for the old settler that so bravely met every danger and privation, and by hard toil acquired, and careful economy, saved the means to make them comfortable during the decline of life. These, however, are degenerate scrubs, too cowardly to face the same dangers that our pioneer men and women did, and too lazy to perform an honest day’s work if it would procure them a homestead in paradise. They would want the day reduced to eight hours and board thrown in.For Denny and his peers, there is a clear and unmistakable difference in character between the conservative pioneers that built Seattle and the laborers they now employ, especially when they manifest tendencies towards Socialism.
Arthur A. Denny, Pioneer Days on Puget Sound ( 1965), 13.
The Laws of Western Settlement
The Donation Land Claim Act of 1850 was designed by Congress to encourage farmers to settle in Oregon--at that time all the lands now included in Oregon, Washington, Idaho, and part of western Montana. The Act
... granted to every white settler or occupant of the public lands, American half-breed Indians included, above the age of eighteen years, being a citizen of the United States, ... and who shall have resided upon and cultivated the same for four consecutive years, ... one half section, or three hundred and twenty acres of land, if a single man, and if a married man, ... one section, or six hundred and forty acres, one half to himself and the other half to his wife, ...The major form of cultivation practiced by the first settlers on that portion of Puget Sound that became Seattle was the nurturing of further immigration so the value of their lands would rise, and rise they did. These hardy pioneers knew how to practice land speculation within the letter of the law, and they grew rich as a consequence.
Donation Land Claim Act
The Donation Land Claim Act made federal law provisions (modified slightly) of the Organic Act drafted at Champoeg (now under the waters of the Willamette River) in 1843. This Organic Act was the beginnings of regional self-government. Among the flurry of legislation passed by the Republican Congress in the early years of the Civil War, the Homestead Act of 1862 extended this scheme to the Great Plains, and also applied to the Pacific Northwest. The Homestead Act went hand in glove with the Pacific Railway Act and the Morrill Act (authorizing land grant universities in western states) to enable yeoman farmers spreading across the continent. In 1887, Congress extended this yeoman farmer idea to the original inhabitants of western states in General Allotment Act, also known as the Dawes Severalty Act. It was a Homestead Act for Indians that had among its chief effects the reduction of American Indian land holdings on reservations from 150 million acres to 47 million acres.