Historian Meacham: America Has Followed the ‘Devices and Desires’ of White People’s Hearts

Historian Meacham: America Has Followed the ‘Devices and Desires’ of White People’s Hearts


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Janet Ybarra
Former Washington Journalist
Contributor on The Bipartisan Press

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In the midst of the ongoing national search for racial justice, one of the most prominent American historians is offering the nation a path towards reconciliation.

The nation’s streets have been swollen with protesters seeking racial justice since the May 25 murder of George Floyd, a black man killed in the custody of Minneapolis, Minn., police officers.

“Where it begins, where the reconciliation begins in my faith tradition is with the confession of sin. You actually say that I have followed too much of the desires of my own heart. And what Americans who look like me have to do is acknowledge that for more than 250 years, we have followed the devices and desires of our own hearts at the expense of the hearts of all. All while professing, hypocritically, that we were in fact doing it for everyone,” said the Pulitzer Prize-winning Jon Meacham. “So what Dr. [Martin Luther] King called us to do is to actually bring the ideal into the realm of real. You can go back and look and watch the March on Washington speech, which in many ways is kind of the urtext of modern America, it’s the moment in which Dr. King became a modern Founding Father.

“And it was not just him, there were enormous tributaries of sacrifice and blood and toil and sacrifice that led into that moment. He talks about the words of the Declaration of Independence, he talks about ‘My country ‘tis of thee, sweet land of liberty.’ But whose country is it? ‘My country ‘tis of thee.’ What we have to do in the country is find a way to conduct ourselves one toward another so that people of all kinds, of every kind, will say this is ‘My country ‘tis of thee.’ And the best definition of a nation I’ve ever run across, and even the Princeton guys probably appreciate this, is from St. Augustine,” Meacham added. “Princeton is basically a Presbyterian institution. They don’t like to talk about it much anymore, but it is. It takes all the fun out of it. Augustine finding a nation as a multitude of rational beings united by the common objects of their love. It’s a wonderful definition. Multitude of rational beings united by the common object of their love.

“So it means that we have to be reasonable, rational, follow the data, we have to believe the evidence of our own eyes, but we have to be united what we love in common,” Meacham said. “Ideally, what we should love in common, the three of us and everybody else, should be equality of opportunity, justice before the law, supremacy of reason, the efficacy of grace. That’s what this country should be about. It’s not, but the part of the work of America, the project of America is to try.”

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