The City on a Hill

Author: Gary Hart

“Oh, how hard it is to die and leave one’s country no better off than if one had never lived,” said Abraham Lincoln in a moment of despair as the nation stumbled toward civil war.  For anyone who has dedicated part of his or her life to the improvement and progress of the nation, these words are haunting.

Having always subscribed to Thomas Jefferson’s belief in “the progress of the human spirit”—and how else can one live?—these are not happy times.  A marvelous new book by Timothy Egan, Immortal Irishman, about Thomas Meagher, reminds us of the ugliness visited on immigrant Irishmen by the Know Nothing party in the mid-19th century.  The Know Nothings were not a fringe element in American society of that day.  They controlled city halls and councils and nominated candidates for president.

Like immigrants of today, the Irish were loathed because they competed for the lowliest jobs, including for jobs more established working class Americans did not want.

What are we to make of a cyclical return, like dormant locusts, of the Know Nothing mentality?  What does the eruption of violence at public gatherings say about the progress of the human spirit ?   Comfort may be, and is being, taken from the rise of similar movements in democracies of Europe, especially those confronted with waves of immigrants greater than those we are experiencing.  But such comfort seems hollow in the shining city on a hill so proclaimed by Ronald Reagan and many before him.  Whether historically true or not, we Americans like to think of ourselves as exemplars of the true spirit of democracy, the Statue of Liberty our iconic symbol of welcome to the teaming masses seeking refuge on our shores.

It might be suggested that Mr. Trump hold his next rally on the banks of the Hudson with the Statute as a backdrop.  Perhaps he could ask a descendant of Caesar Chavez to read the inscription on its base:

Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning

to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tos’t to me.

I lift my lamp beside the golden door.

For one who has given much of his life to the progress of the American spirit and who is entering life’s ultimate phase, Lincoln’s words toll like John Dunne’s bell.  Does the ugliness of today mean that it was all in vain?  Are we doomed to recycle history as if we have learned nothing from the worst of our past?  Some believe that the curse of slavery and the brutal conquest of Native Americans still haunts us.  Whether this is true or not, we seem destined to repeat the worst, not the best, of our history.

We Americans can and must do better than this.  We are better than this.

To be human is to fail, but never to give up.  In the words of the Irishman Samuel Beckett: “All of old.  Nothing else ever.  Ever tried.  Ever failed.  No matter.  Try again.  Fail again.  Fail better.”

5 Responses to “The City on a Hill”

  1. Elizabeth Miller Says:

    we Americans like to think of ourselves as exemplars of the true spirit of democracy, the Statue of Liberty our iconic symbol of welcome to the teaming masses seeking refuge on our shores.

    This is why I’m a big fan of America: you ARE exemplars of the true spirit of democracy … at least, this is the promise of America.

    And, America is the only nation on earth that is in a position to turn a promise like that into reality, regardless of how far down the road or off the beaten path it may seem at the moment. Because, the majority of Americans understand this and work toward the promise, everyday, day in and day out. And, you, Senator Hart, are fortunate to count yourself among those hard-working public servants who have served their country well and tried to keep it on course to one day realizing its full potential and keeping its promise.

    As hard as it is to endure, the Trump candidacy isn’t nearly strong enough to derail America and might even render the country all the stronger for having survived it, through the grace of all that is good and compassionate and the leadership of people like all who are connected with this blog. That is my fervent hope!

  2. Paul Borg Says:

    Dear Senator Hart,

    I believe the quote below mirrors much of what you what you may feel.

    “But now that I can see it all as from a lonely hilltop, I know it was the story of a mighty vision given to a man too weak to use it; of a holy tree that should have flourished in a people’s heart with flowers and singing birds, and now is withered; and of a people’s dream that died in bloody snow.”
    ― Black Elk, Black Elk speaks: Being the life story of a holy man of the Ogalala Sioux

    “It is in the darkness of their eyes that men get lost”
    ― Black Elk, Black Elk Speaks: Being the Life Story of a Holy Man of the Oglala Sioux

    Like Elizabeth’s response, I too counsel you take comfort from the friends drawn to this meeting place.

    “When a vision comes from the thunder beings of the west, it comes with terror like a thunder storm; but when the storm of vision has passed, the world is greenier and happier; for wherever the truth of vision comes upon the world, it is like a rain. The world, you see, is happier after the terror of the storm.”
    ― Black Elk, Black Elk Speaks: Being the Life Story of a Holy Man of the Oglala Sioux

    I do not know how many are lost and whether or not the darkness in their eyes will be removed.

    I do know the same MOTHER that gave birth to Black Elk gave birth to all of us. It is just that many have forgotten. We must help them remember.

  3. Tom Gee Says:

    Senator Hart, is is not just that you personally have done so much to make this a better country, as the above commenters aptly point out, but you have inspired so many of us to continue and deepen our service in the same cause, from feeding hungry children to facilitating progressive political candidacies. Thank you, and happy belated birthday!

  4. Paul G Says:

    Well “Donne” indeed, I say, to our honorable host and most recently successful US Envoy to Ireland and UK; and to Tom Gee, through decades of loyal toil, saw clearly and said it best: “Gary Hart is The Best President We Never Had!”

  5. Paul G Says:


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