Discover more from The Warning with Steve Schmidt
Freedom and liberty are a moral proposition
PLUS: Ken Burns on the importance of telling America's story on this week's The Warning podcast (full episode)
Nelson, British Columbia, is a stunning mountain town that was initially incorporated as a mining town. It is nested on the west arm of the shores of Kootenay Lake. Unlike most American mountain towns, it hasn’t yet been ravaged by Vail Inc., the North American ski industrial complex, boujee influencers and tech bros. It is authentic, cool and fun. The lake is breathtaking.
The locals call the bridge that goes over the west arm “The Big Yellow Bridge.” I like the aesthetics of bridges. This one was great.
The water on the lake was pristine. It was possible to see the bottom about 40 feet down. It’s glacier-fed and extremely refreshing. It’s ringed by the Purcell Mountains in the east, and is an epic ski area.
There are more than 350 designated heritage buildings in Nelson from the early twentieth century — more restored buildings per capita than any other Canadian city. It’s a spectacular and charming town that I recommend you try to visit.
On this day in 1963, in Washington, DC, hundreds of thousands of Americans came to the federal city on the banks of the Potomac River, and delivered a thunderous moral statement about the meaning of America. They marched to the Lincoln Memorial, which had been dedicated in 1913, 50 years on from the great sectional war that ended slavery in the United States. Above the marble statue of Lincoln are these words:
In this temple as in the hearts of the people for whom he saved the Union, the memory of Abraham Lincoln is enshrined forever.
There are two of the greatest and most important speeches in American history etched on the walls of the Memorial: the Gettysburg Address and Lincoln’s Second Inaugural. It is impossible to understand what transpired on August 28, 1963, without an appreciation for what was said by the man carved in marble, who witnessed the Baptist minister from Atlanta rise up in his presence, and deliver a moral thunderclap that would equal those of Lincoln and take their rightful place within the American canon of freedom. A nation that was birthed on the power of an idea must be nourished by ideas. When Dr. King rose to speak he reconsecrated Lincoln’s words, and thus the Declaration of Independence as a moral declaration.
The tide of war had turned inexorably through the brutal summer of 1863 towards the Union. Victories in the western theater of war, combined with the American victory at Gettysburg, had strengthened the Union hand, but the war was far from over. When it began the experts all believed that it would be over quickly with little bloodshed. By 1863, the price of war was clear. Lincoln came to Gettysburg to give meaning to so much death and sacrifice. It was a short speech, just 272 words. Read it slowly. Appreciate each phrase. Let it sink in. This is what the MAGA movement wishes to burn down.
Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this. But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate—we can not consecrate—we can not hallow—this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.
Abraham Lincoln. November 19, 1863.
Slavery ended, but the new birth of freedom didn’t materialize. It was stolen by political corruption, assassination, fatigue and racism, yet the nation that defeated the scourge of fascism was buckling under the moral weight of its injustices and hypocrisy. This was the scene when Martin Luther King stepped to the podium with Lincoln and his words at his back. In front of him were the Washington monument and US Capitol. It was time.
He had come to collect a “promissory note.”
When the speech ended, like Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, it wasn’t instantly clear that it had joined the ranks of America’s secular gospels of freedom, but it did.
Freedom and liberty are a moral proposition. The most fundamental idea of Americanism in 2023 is that, regardless of race, gender, creed, religion, ethnicity or sexual orientation, everyone is made equally and due the full protection of the law.
This is what Donald Trump and his MAGA horde are against. They are the straight line descendants of George Wallace and his followers, who pledged segregation forever. They failed, of course, but the old hatreds have bubbled back up into plain view. We are in the middle of a great White backlash to this vision, offered 60 years ago today.
Reject the backlash. Enjoy these great and majestic words from a true American patriot and martyr that were delivered 60 years ago today:
This week on The Warning podcast
This week on The Warning podcast, it was truly an honor to be joined by Ken Burns, the preeminent storyteller of the American story, and the greatest documentarian and filmmaker on American history. We discuss some of his greatest works, including the upcoming “The American Buffalo,” set to air on PBS on October 16 and 17, 2023. We also talked extensively about the lessons we can learn from history.
As part of our discussion, we talked about the upcoming 250th anniversary of the birth of the United States as an occasion for reconciliation with the grave and great injustices done to America’s Indigenous people, and so I’m re-sharing an essay with some of my suggestions on how the American government can go about doing that.
If you’d prefer to read the transcript, you can do so here.
The Warning with Steve Schmidt is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.