Our history vs. Clinton's covenant

Orlando Patterson

November 16, 1992|By Orlando Patterson

IT HAS taken two centuries of struggle for America to remedy the egregious compromises that made its Constitution possible.

The election of Bill Clinton, along with his running mate, another young Southerner, may mark a watershed in this historic remedy, one that holds special hope for African-Americans, for women and for all who now feel insecure and alienated from the American dream.

One powerful theme ran through his speeches at the Democratic convention and on election night: the Puritan ideal of America as a covenanted society.

Stripped of its religious traces, this is a vision of society in which free, responsible agents work, in the president-elect's words, with "a new spirit of community, a sense that we are all in this together," toward the construction of a just society.

It remains profoundly American in its introspective individualism. But it nonetheless insists that all rights are socially constructed, not inherent -- that, as Mr. Clinton said, there are "no rights without responsibilities."

Liberty has to mean something more than brute escape from authority into selfishness, embracing, at the very least, care for the needs and aspirations of other covenanted individuals in the conscious pursuit of the good life.

It was the freest and most powerful of Southern aristocrats who, in leading our nation to independence from Britain, became not only our founders but the source of a radically different conception of individual and society.

The Southern aristocratic ideal of freedom as an inherited quality TTC of the individual -- expressed through power over others in a hierarchical, paternalistic order -- joined with the old European notion of natural rights to fashion the distinctly American conception of the individual as a bearer of inalienable rights.

Under the impact of the evangelical doctrine of equality before God and the fraternal impulse of revolution, this aristocratic ideal was further democratized to the glorious belief that all men are created equal.

But however great in theory and promise, this was made possible only through the most horrible compromise, a "compact with death."

That fifth of the nation comprising enslaved African-Americans and the half of white people who were women were not only left out of Madison's "workshop of liberty." Their exclusion became a required basis of solidarity and identity in the emerging polity of free, prosperous white men.

Those who voted for Mr. Clinton now want to believe that what he said in his acceptance and victory speeches was not merely an adolescent echo of John Kennedy, but the reclamation of something far more profound.

This was a promise to reach back, with all of us, and to right the wrong that was done, by restoring to the alienated members of the nation the discarded vision of a covenant that now includes all.

In spite of his muted racial rhetoric, African-Americans are strongly drawn to the president-elect.

After the dastardly symbolic use of Willie Horton four years ago, every African-American, except Jesse Jackson, understood the poisonous potency of the Republican "Southern strategy" and the need to checkmate it.

Mr. Clinton's program, if it works, will encompass African-Americans as Americans, rather than as blacks. But they are also drawn to him precisely because, among whites, only a regenerate Southerner can truly empathize with the full horror of our racist heritage.

Much has been said in powerful symbolic ways, such as his off-camera engagement with African-American congregations.

The brutal assault on his character, all the hypocritical talk about trust and fidelity, struck the memory of the African-American like familiar sermons from the great house.

His cool survival of every adversity was almost a prototype of the collective African-American experience.

And it meant a great deal that this promised agent of change gave his victory speech at the governor's mansion in Little Rock, not far from Central High, that secular Calvary of the civil-rights movement.

But if Mr. Clinton's covenant message brings hope to dispossessed African-Americans and the even larger numbers of white poor, it also poses a serious challenge.

To join the public household of this great nation is to share responsibility for its fortunes and for one's failings.

The single mother who, correctly, insists on her right to the best possible care and education for herself and her children must accept the entailed duty of responsible parenting. The same principle holds for farmers, Social Security pensioners and all others who benefit from entitlements and subsidies.

Without such a moral and social contract the president-elect's domestic plan is headed for disaster.

For women, generally, his victory has great meaning. The attempt to replace Willie Horton with a demonized Hillary Clinton points to the persistent evil that requires the joint exclusion of blacks and women in the construction of divisive unity -- "We who are Americans; they who are not."

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