I have watched all of the GOP debates. Not once but at least twice due to re-broadcasts and availability to review them on FoxNews and YouTube. Frequently, a comment similar to, America was built by hard-working Americans, has been voiced by a candidate. In fact, Newt Gingrich, at the Iowa debate, stated, “We are a nation that was built on a moral enterprise.”
As a political historian, Newt’s grasp of history, especially economic and business history of the United States, is surprisingly weak.
My goal is not to undermine any particular message. My comments below will unavoidably undermine all comments that characterize the United States as being built on strong moral foundations. Candidates argue fervently about the religious faith of leaders, and religious faith of people, and I personally see little of this put into actual practice. Hypocrisy reigns. My goal is merely to remind people that much of what our country was built upon was not faith-based nor religion-based, but based on the opposite, the quest for profit, and individual wealth.
I listen to the GOP and wonder what country they are talking about, sometimes. Why can’t candidates simply speak openly and truthfully about our country’s history? OK – the simple answer is Americans, upon hearing the truth, would refuse to acknowledge the truth and boo the candidate from the stage. Candidates, in other words, re-frame history to match their expectations of what he/she thinks Americans want to hear.
To jump right to my punch line: I cannot get behind any candidate who speaks of the United States as being founded upon a “moral enterprise.” That is not to say the likes of Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, John Jay, et. al., were immoral men. That is not to say, either, the guiding principles of our Constitution or the Bill of Rights are wrong. In fact, those principles are as correct today as they were nearly 250 years ago, a fantastic testament to the wisdom of our Founding Fathers.
The problem I have is the ideals of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights have not directly translated into encouraging people to act in moral and ethical ways.
I automatically think of slavery. In no way could slavery be construed as either moral or ethical. Yet slavery was certainly a part of the developing economic strength of the United States. As slavery did not end with Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, one cannot argue slavery had a small influence in the early economic days of the United States. Sharecropping and Indentured Servitude, both forms of economic slavery, would persist into the 20th century. Blacks would continue to only have a subset of rights afforded to them, as seen in the Sundown Laws implemented by many states. Nothing moral or ethical about treating someone poorly based on skin color.
I invite anyone to pick up a textbook published at the beginning of the 20th century. In a consignment store, I found an old geography book for primary school. Fascinating what was revealed, the description of “yellow” people, “red” people, and “brown” people, all of which considered to be “savages” by inspired Christian whites.
Am I failing to see the ethics and morals of our ancestors? I don’t think so. No secret Christian Whites felt themselves superior to all other races of Man.
When the Irish came to the United States, they found themselves more hated than even the Negroes. Can you imagine coming to live in the United States, and not wanting to? The Irish called their immigration to the United States the “American Wake.” The Irish saw their migration here as the death of their Irish life, the death of their Irish culture, as they witnessed the devastating effects of the Irish Potato Famine. Then, arriving in eastern cities, and moving westward, the chagrin, anger, and frustration they must have felt seeing signs, “No Irish need apply.” Or, after moving into a city or town, having to witness the burning of Catholic churches as arsonists communicated how welcome the Catholic Irish were. In the South, the Irish were often given jobs worse than African slaves, or Negro Americans. Foremen knew the economics; a slave was worth more than an Irishman because slaves were bought. Irishmen simply showed for work. If an Irishman died, another Irishman would replace him. If a slave died, the owner was out of his investment. While many Africans died in transport to the states, once here and bought, slave-owners now had an investment to manage.
Later, in the early days of the 20th century, when the United States experienced the largest influx of immigrants, the hatred of the Irish would be directed to new ethnic groups. Jews, Germans, Italians, Eastern Europeans, and Turks would be the new targets for racial hatred, bigotry, and discrimination.
In the American West, the Irish and the Chinese would not only bear the brunt of America’s desire for gold and silver, but also be responsible for laying the rails for America’s greatest asset: the railroad. I say “America’s Greatest Asset,” simply because the railroad network allowed companies to move greater amounts of people and products further, faster, and cheaper than any other transportation means. Even, in the West, Irish had to work to find a job. Many a railroad foreman would not hire Irishmen, as they were known for drinking and fighting.
Eventually, our Federal government was forced to address racial hatred, bigotry, and discrimination. Equal Opportunity laws would be passed denying businesses from discriminating based on race, creed, sex, or age. Laws needed to be created because in spite of our U.S. Constitution and our U.S. Bill of Rights people continued to act immorally and unethically.
Good, reliable information about all of these topics I address can be found on the Internet, of course. I do recommend a book by Douglas A. Blackmon’s, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author, “Slavery By Another Name.” Books providing details, examples, and facts I prefer, and Mr. Blackmon’s book is well-researched.
Many of American industries gained not by acting morally or ethically, but simply by using their workers, exploiting them, using them, and then turning them loose when those workers became unproductive. To further this notion, all one must do is research the role of the American Unions in the early 20th century.
For Newt Gingrich, et. al. to state our nation was founded upon “morals” and “ethics” is disingenuous, dishonest, and wrong, simple political grandstanding, and the deliberate obfuscation of real events. These statements diminish the rough and cruel experiences of the Chinese, Irish, Blacks, Jews, and others who gave their lives so the Steel Industry or the Railroads might live.
I might also argue the pattern of behavior expressed by early industrial enterprises is now being used by financial institutions in the U.S. Investment products, investment analysis, mutual fund management strategies now seem to include very dubious accounting methods. Enron, Arthur Anderson, WorldComm, AIG, and other financial players act in ways appear to most to be unethical, immoral, and borderline illegal, and also seem to encourage individuals to act in morally ambiguous ways.
Again, how can candidates declare Moral and Ethical Certainty with regards to our nation, especially economic expansion and development, when so much evidence points to the contrary?