Monday, September 03, 2018

John McCain, Thomas Jefferson, and Richard Rumbold: The Liberal Rhetoric of Dying Speeches

The burial of John McCain on Sunday at the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, brings to a close five days of memorials and services that were planned out months ago by McCain himself as his dying message to his country and the world.  His message employs the liberal rhetoric of equal human dignity and aristocratic honor expressed in the Declaration of Independence and rooted in evolved human nature.  This is the same liberal rhetoric expressed in the dying speeches of Thomas Jefferson in 1826 and Richard Rumbold in 1685.  In McCain's dying speech, this liberal rhetoric of human dignity and honor is directed against the illiberal tribalism of Donald Trump.  Without ever mentioning the name of Trump, the audience is invited to see the subtle disdain for Trump's narcissistic vulgarity and his denial of equal human dignity.

This falls into the predominant category of social commentary today--"we're not talking about Trump, but we really are."

In McCain's Farewell Statement and in the eulogies at Washington National Cathedral by Meghan McCain, Joe Lieberman, Henry Kissinger, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama, one can see five themes in McCain's liberal rhetoric as opposed to the tribalistic rhetoric of Trump.  (All of these statements can be found at the John McCain website.)

The first theme is that human beings achieve honor by serving good causes that are greater than themselves.  McCain says: "Our identities and sense of worth are not circumscribed but enlarged by serving good causes bigger than ourselves."  Lieberman says: "I heard John say those words hundreds of times, particularly to young people."  There is a clear contrast to Trump's narcissistic presumption that there is no cause bigger than himself.

The second theme is that those good causes bigger than ourselves can be found in what McCain calls "America's causes--liberty, equal justice, respect for the dignity of all people."  The equal dignity of all human beings is affirmed by all of the speakers, and often it is identified with the Declaration of Independence.  The America of John McCain, Meghan McCain says, is "the America of Abraham Lincoln--fulfilling the promise of the Declaration of Independence that all men are created equal."  Obama points to "a common creed that all of us are created equal, endowed by our Creator with certain inalienable rights."

Notice the combination of aristocratic honor and egalitarian dignity, which denies the common claim that the modern liberal concept of dignity rejects the ancient aristocratic concept of honor.  The signers of the Declaration of Independence affirmed the equality of rights of all men while also pledging to one another "our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor."

McCain was born into an elite family of military honor--one of the most renown military families of American history going back to the American Revolution.  Both his grandfather and his father were distinguished admirals in the Navy.  One of his early relatives was on General George Washington's staff, and even Washington himself was a distant cousin.  When his North Vietnamese captors discovered that his father was the Supreme Commander of the Pacific Fleet, they offered to release him early.  He refused, because he did not want to be given special treatment over the other prisoners of war.  Later, when Kissinger was negotiating the end of the Vietnam War, the North Vietnamese again offered to release McCain early.  Kissinger refused, and in his eulogy he tells the story of meeting McCain for the first time; and McCain told him: "Thank you for saving my honor."

The third theme is that to affirm the good cause of equal human dignity as a universal truth is to deny tribalism.  McCain warns: "We weaken our greatness when we confuse our nationalism with tribal rivalries that have sown resentment and hatred and violence in all the corners of the globe. We weaken it when we hide behind walls, rather than tear them down, when we doubt the power of our ideals, rather than trust them to be the great force for change that they have always been."  Lieberman says that the greater cause to which McCain devoted his life was "America, not so much the country defined by its borders, but the America of our founding values, freedom, human rights, opportunity, democracy and equal justice under law."  Kissinger observes that McCain thus combined realism and idealism in his foreign policy by arguing that the security of the United States required that America be respected both for its power and for its ideals, which required promoting respect for human rights around the world.  McCain's warning against illiberal tribalism is obviously a warning against Trump and those like him "who confuse our nationalism with tribal rivalries."

The fourth theme was best stated by George Bush: "At various points throughout his long career, John confronted policies and practices that he believed were unworthy of his country. To the face of those in authority, John McCain would insist: We are better than this. America is better than this."

Without Bush explicitly mentioning it, the audience could easily infer that Bush was remembering how vehement McCain had been in denouncing the torturing of prisoners under Bush as a violation of American moral principles and international law--a policy that Trump has said he would like to continue.

And, of course, "American is better than this" really means "America is better than Trump."  Trump has provoked his critics like McCain to appeal to those distinctively American and yet universal principles of the Declaration of Independence as a standard for condemning Trump and denying his claim to speak for "American greatness."  It is notable that Trump never mentions the principles of the Declaration, and that even one of his supporters--Senator Lindsey Graham--had to tell him "America is an idea, not a race."

Finally, the fifth theme of the McCain memorial statements is unusual for eulogies--the imperfections of the person being celebrated.  McCain himself, in his Farewell Statement, says: "I have made mistakes, but I hope my love for America will be weighed favorably against them."  Almost every speaker at McCain's memorials said something about his imperfections, while praising him for his willingness to admit his failures.  Most often they mentioned his explosive temper.

They did not mention his more morally seriously mistakes, such as his signing a public confession given to him by his captors in Vietnam, which came after some especially brutal torture.  The confession was read over speakers at his camp, and a copy reached his father.  He later admitted that this was one of his great moral failures.

Meghan McCain said: "Dad, I know you were not perfect.  We live in an era where we knock down old American heroes for all their imperfections when no leader wants to admit to fault or failure.  You were an exception and gave us an ideal to strive for."

So, in a nice rhetorical twist, McCain could exemplify a heroic ideal even with his imperfections because he admitted his faults, at a time when leaders like Trump--that "very stable genius"--deny that they have any faults.

This contrast between McCain and Trump--again without directly mentioning Trump--was made most dramatic by Meghan Trump: "The America of John McCain is generous and welcoming and bold.  She's resourceful, confident, secure.  She meets her responsibilities.  She speaks quietly because she's strong. America does not boast because she has no need to.  The America of John McCain has no need to be made great again because America was always great."

At this point, the audience in Washington National Cathedral applauded loudly, the only time any speaker elicited applause, because this was the most evident rebuke to Trump.

Since McCain carefully organized all of this while he was dying, this can all be seen as his dying speech to America and the world invoking the principle of equal human dignity as the universal moral ideal inherent in human nature that sets the alternative to the tribalism of Trump.

In this way, McCain's dying speech belongs to a liberal rhetorical tradition that includes Thomas Jefferson and Richard Rumbold.  In the spring of 1826, Jefferson was dying at Monticello.  He struggled to stay alive into the summer.  July 4th of 1826 would be the fiftieth anniversary of the Declaration of Independence.  The city of Washington, D.C. was planning a special celebration.  Roger Weightman, the Mayor of Washington, invited Jefferson to attend and give a speech.  Jefferson had to write a letter to Weightman declining the invitation because his illness made travel impossible.  Jefferson knew that his letter to Weightman on June 24th would be his last speech.  And it was a time when he worried that in America and elsewhere in the world, the principles of the Declaration were under attack from despotic movements.  And so, like McCain this past week, Jefferson pointed back to the principles of equal liberty in the Declaration:
"May it be to the world, what I believe it will be, (to some parts sooner, to others later, but finally to all,) the signal of arousing men to burst the chains under which monkish ignorance and superstition had persuaded them to bind themselves, and to assume the blessings and security of self-government.  That form which we have substituted, restores the free right to the unbounded exercise of reason and freedom of opinion.  All eyes are opened, or opening, to the rights of man.  The general spread of the light of science has already laid open to every view the palpable truth, that the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately, by the grace of God.  These are grounds of hope for others.  For ourselves, let the annual return of this day forever refresh our recollections of these rights, and an undiminished devotion to them."
Over the next few days, Jefferson faded in and out of consciousness.  Those around his bed said that when he awoke, he asked whether July 4th had arrived, as if he wanted to survive to that day.  He died on July 4th.  Amazingly, John Adams died on the same day in Braintree, Massachusetts.  The two surviving signers of the Declaration of Independence had died on the 50th anniversary of the Declaration.  As the news spread across America, there were eulogies and sermons celebrating this obvious miracle of Divine Providence to signal the sacred sanction for the principle that all men are created equal and endowed with natural rights that should be secured by governments with the consent of the governed.  Thus did the deaths of Jefferson and Adams on this day support the rhetorical elevation of the Declaration--and particularly its principle of the equal liberty of all human beings--to be the defining statement of America's moral standard as a universal standard for the world.

In his dying speech, Jefferson used a metaphor--"that the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately, by the grace of God"--that he remembered from Richard Rumbold's dying speech in 1685.  Rumbold was a radical Whig who had fought in Cromwell's army during the Civil War.  Having been convicted of high treason for plotting to kill the King, the statutory punishment was to be hanged, beheaded, and quartered (cut into four pieces).  In his speech in Edinburgh before his execution, He denied the charge that he was antimonarchical:
"It was ever my Thoughts, That Kingly Government was the best of all, Justly Executed; I mean, such as by our ancient Laws; that is, a King, and a Legal Free Chosen Parliament.  The King having, as I conceive, Power enough to make him Great, the People also as much Property as to make them Happy; they being as it were contracted to one another.  And who will deny me, that this was not the Just Constituted Government of our Nation? How absurd is it then for Men of Sense to maintain, That though the one Party of the Constract breaketh all Conditions, the other should be obliged to perform their Part? No; this Error is contrary to the Law of God, the Law of Nations, and the Law of Reason."
So a monarchy could be just only if bound by a contract with the people, because a king had no natural or divine right to rule over others without their consent.  He ended by saying:
"This is a deluded Generation, vail'd with Ignorance, that though Popery and Slavery be riding in upon them, do not perceive it; and though I am sure there was no Man born marked of God above another; for none comes into the World with a Saddle on his Back, neither any Booted and Spur'd to Ride him; not but that I am well satisfied, that God hath wisely different Stations for Men in the World, as I have already said: Kings having as much Power as to make them Great, and the people as much Property as to make them Happy." 
Rumbold could have derived his claim that all men are equal in their liberty from the dominion of others and his metaphor of horses and riders from the English Levelers and from Algernon Sidney, who was executed in 1683 for the treason of writing a defense of republican government in his Discourses Concerning Government. Sidney had declared that "man in his first condition" is "naturally free" from subordination to any other man, except for the temporary authority of parents over children, and thus the liberty of the people is a gift from God and Nature.  Thus must be so unless one could see that God "caused some to be born with crowns upon their heads, and all others with saddles upon their backs" (III.33).

The reference to "man in his first condition" indicates Locke's state of nature, which can be understood as the original life of human ancestors in foraging bands in which human nature was first shaped for a natural condition of equal liberty without government, in which the disposition of some few to assert dominance over others was checked by the counterdominance by which people protected their autonomy against bullies.  The modern revolutionary resistance to tyrannical dominance without consent of the people could be seen as an expression of this evolved propensity of human nature as formed in prehistoric foraging bands.

If this is true, this would support McCain's appeal to the equal liberty and dignity of all human beings asserted in the Declaration of Independence as a universal cosmopolitan principle of human rights. This would also have supported McCain's proposals for immigration reform, allowing a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants. Trump's nativist tribalism must reject this in claiming that in fact human beings are defined by their racial or ethnic nationalism, which must be protected through strict limits on immigration from countries with different national identities.

This nativist denial of the Declaration of Independence has occurred previously in American history.  Abraham Lincoln saw this in the nativism of the No Nothing Party.  The nativists were a movement of native-born Protestants who saw immigration from countries like Ireland and Germany as a corruption of American government and culture, and thus they sought severe restrictions on immigration and the rights of foreigners.

Lincoln declared:
"I am not a Know-Nothing. That is certain. How could I be? How can any one who abhors the oppression of negroes, be in favor of degrading classes of white people?  Our progress in degeneracy appears to me to be pretty rapid.  As a nation, we began by declaring that 'all men are created equal.'  We now practically read it 'all men are created equal, except negroes.'  When the Know-Nothings get control, it will read 'all men are created equal, except negroes, and foreigners, and Catholics.'  When it comes to this I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretence of loving liberty--to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, without the base alloy of hypocrisy" (Letter to Joshua Speed, August 24, 1855).
The Republican Party has moved far away from being the Party of Abraham Lincoln to being the Party of Donald Trump.

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