American history for dummies, by dummies

Last week President Obama spoke to the Congressional Hispanic Caucus. The White House posted the text of his remarks here. The remarks reek of Obama’s characteristic demagogy. If he keeps it up, he may give politicians a bad name.
Obama’s treatment of the Declaration of Independence and American history in the peroration of his speech has attracted attention. Here it is:

Long before America was even an idea, this land of plenty was home to many peoples. To British and French, to Dutch and Spanish, to Mexican — (applause) — to countless Indian tribes. We all shared the same land. We didn’t always get along. But over the centuries, what eventually bound us together — what made us all Americans — was not a matter of blood, it wasn’t a matter of birth. It was faith and fidelity to the shared values that we all hold so dear. We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, endowed with certain inalienable rights: life and liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
That’s what makes us unique. That’s what makes us strong. The ability to recognize our common humanity; to remember that in this country, equality and opportunity are not just words on a piece of paper, they’re not just words in the mouths of politicians — they are promises to be kept.
And that is our calling now — to keep those promises for the next generation. No matter which way the political winds shift, I will stand with you for that better future. (Applause.) And if you stand with me, and if we remember that fundamental truth — that divided we fall, but united we are strong, and out of many, we are one — then you and I will finish what we have started. We will make sure that America forever remains an idea and a place that’s big enough and bold enough and brave enough to accommodate the dreams of all our children and all our people for years to come. Si, se puede.

Some unfriendly commentators have noted Obama’s omission of the Creator from the statement of the American creed in the Declaration of Independence (“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights…”). Others have noted a flaw in Obama’s potted history; Mexico did not even come into existence until 1821.
One could write a book on Obama’s abuse of American history. He has committed obvious howlers when discussing the Kennedy-Khrushchev Vienna conference and when bloviating on the Nuremberg trial. Citing American history, Obama either doesn’t know what he’s talking about or seeks to exploit the ignorance of his audience.
More notable than Obama’s omission of the Creator from his allusion to the Declaration is his advocacy of the American idea. Obama purports to extol it. This is a good thing and it is to his credit. Obama’s passage alluding to the Declaration of Independence carries a distant echo of Lincoln’s great speech of July 10, 1858 on the Declaration.
Note, however, that there is a tension between the “self-evident truths” of the Declaration and the “values” touted by Obama. And there is a tension as well between the American idea and “Si, se puede.” Obama’s invocation of unity is ambiguous. He seems in fact to be talking about the unity of the Democratic Party and its interest groups rather than the unity of the American people. Among other things, these subtract from the credit Obama otherwise earns here.


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