The new year 2022 unscrolls. As we struggle to get clear of the wreckage of 2021, the question is whether Americans have it in them to begin again, to journey into the future with some humility. Can we leave behind the evil passions that have eroded the order and security of American life and re-envision something more wholesome, more generally beneficial, that’s kinder to nature and humankind?
The pressure to turn conservative is increasing: by which I mean, the pressure to appreciate and preserve what we have and to consolidate public sentiment around goals consonant with our historical strengths. Partisan sniping, barbarizing technologies, upper-class selfishness, and decades of in-migration have triggered keen disillusionment, anomie, and rage. Meanwhile, our love affair with globalism has turned sour. We are croaking from the environmental and monetary costs.
Amid the disappointment and weariness, January invites us to be open, to be curious, to regard the world with fresh eyes. Paradoxically, the recollection of what Americans have struggled toward as ideal goods can green the journey, can guide our hejira through a broken world.
Image: “The Journey” (1903) by Elizabeth Shippen Green Elliott,
from this source.
Janus is the Roman god of beginnings and endings; of gates, doors, and seasons; and all sorts of metaphorical passages. Associated with time and change, the two-faced god, whose gaze takes in both past and future, presides over all transitions, “whether abstract or concrete, sacred or profane.” He opens and shuts doors with his key, his staff (depicted above as a living branch heavy with fruit) symbolizing his power to determine what prospers. From this architect of the new, the month of January takes its name.
Where the past and future meet, Americans stand, wondering how “happy” or “new” 2019 can be. Given the dismal character of national politics, cries of “Happy New Year!” have a hollow ring. No need to be blithe, given that, in the manner of Janus, the new year will proceed from the year we’ve just had. An impotent Congress, two parties captive to an unproductive quest for partisan dominance, a president whose vulgarity and viciousness are infecting civil society: these conditions, in combination, are weakening and destabilizing one of the most prosperous and powerful nations in the world.
Underlying it all is a decline in social leadership and the dying off of what was formerly an effectively unifying civic culture. In 2018, retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, the late Senator John McCain, and the late President George H.W. Bush all pleaded for a renewal of civility, comity, and patriotic service, exhorting a new generation to assume the burdens of enlightened and disinterested leadership, in some cases pleading to us from beyond the grave. To my mind, motivating America’s “natural leaders” to resume their traditional role in promoting communal well-being and an enlightened politics is a crucial task that will determine whether this year improves upon a politically dismal 2018.
New Year’s has often been a working holiday for American statesmen. More than a day of moral resolution, January 1st marks the anniversary of several bold, ambitious actions that have opened new eras and horizons for Americans as a people.
1. SCOUTING THE WEST
New Year’s Day in 1803 found Thomas Jefferson secretly laying the groundwork for the Lewis and ClarkExpedition, a scheme that had to be covert because it proposed scouting out vast tracts of land that at the time belonged to other countries. The French lands now referred to as the Louisiana Purchase would not belong to the United States until the spring, while the Oregon Territory would remain the property of England for many decades. Yet Jefferson was undeterred in his determination to familiarize himself with, and strengthen American claims to, these unknown neighboring regions.
So he began crafting a confidential message to Congress, describing the possible benefits of reconnoitering these lands and asking for an appropriation of the $2,500 necessary to supply the journey. Congress looked with favor on his request, thus inaugurating a initiative that pioneered knowledge of the West’s lands, resources, and native peoples.
The government was rewarded with a treasure-trove of maps and documents that facilitated its later dealings with, and gradual displacement of, native American tribes. Today, we tend to discount the expansionist ambitions that motivated Jefferson, instead lauding the Expedition as an early model of the many progressive scientific projects and surveys the US government would subsequently fund.
2. FREEING THE SLAVE
Sixty years later, President Lincoln spent New Year’s Day greeting callers to the White House and putting his signature on the final version of his Emancipation Proclamation, which was sent out over the telegraph wires later that day. Not unlike the Lewis and Clark expedition, Lincoln’s statement had had a long fruition, with earlier drafts of the measure being floated and discussed the previous fall. Lincoln’s determination to associate the waging of the Civil War with the moral cause of ending slavery marked a tipping point in the long struggle to secure for African-Americans personal freedom and civil equality, a struggle begun decades earlier and continuing on for more than a century, even down to today.
The executive order, which famously declared the freedom of all slaves held in rebel states, was on display at the National Archives in Washington yesterday, on the occasion of its 150th anniversary. Though limited in its scope and practical effects, the proclamation spelled liberation for a people who had suffered oppression since colonial times. Lincoln’s deliberate blow to slavery paved the way for its complete and permanent abolition, accomplished through the ratification of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution.
3. WELCOMING THE IMMIGRANT
Finally, on New Year’s Day in 1892, the first immigrant (of some 16 million) passed through the doors of Ellis Island. It is commonly said that “American is a nation of immigrants,” but the establishment of Ellis Island and other formal points of entry gave that rite of passage a dignity and regularity that was previously missing.
Located near the Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island bestowed welcome and the necessary paperwork on immigrants who had previously been less distinguishable from American citizens. At a time when many born Americans went through life without the legal documentation of a birth certificate, Ellis Island conferred a bureaucratic identity on the newly arrived, routinizing a more paper-bound and legalistic conception of Americanness that is with us still. Today, however, Ellis Island stands as a cherished symbol of the rational means the government employed to bind its disparate population into one people.
May these complex and impressive projects inspire today’s political leaders to lift up their sights and grapple bravely with the issues confronting the nation now.