By David Anderson
A few days from now we will celebrate a momentous historical event.
At 4 A.M. on February 24, 1807, England’s House of Commons, by an overwhelming majority of 283 to 16, abolished the slave trade. They rose to their feet, turned to fellow legislator William Wilberforce, and began to cheer while Wilberforce bowed his head and wept. So ended a twenty year fight, led nobly from start to finish by Wilberforce.
But that was just the beginning.
President Obama was likewise applauded, raucously and movingly even – tears were in evidence there as well – in his State of the Union address when at the 56-minute mark of his hour-long presentation he brought up the issue of gun control, his comments inspiring “the most emotionally powerful part of his speech,” wrote David Lauter, Washington Bureau for the Los Angeles Times.
But when Obama devotes “nearly nine minutes to a meticulous description of his bargaining position for the next round of budget confrontations,” repeatedly using the word “I” as he did so, on what syllable was the emphasis placed for the most part in his address to the nation?
With apologies to President John F. Kennedy, contrasting Obama’s highlight reel with that of Kennedy’s inaugural (13 minutes, 42 seconds) and most memorable moment: “And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country” – turn that on its head and you have Obama’s version: ‘We’re the government and we’re here to help.’
Sure they’re two different occasions, one is an inaugural and the other is well, arguable; one is etched in stone and the other reads more like an etch-a-sketch: erasable, forgettable, hardly memorable.
At least that would be the epitaph written by Sen. Marco Rubio who stated in his response: “More government isn’t going to help you get ahead. It will hold you back.”
Dana Milbank, opinion writer for “The Washington Post,” goes so far as to suggest that holding the State of the Union address on the same day as Mardi Gras is not coincidental. “One is a display of wretched excess, when giddy and rowdy participants give in to reckless and irresponsible behavior. The other is a street festival in New Orleans. There is, thankfully, less nudity in the House chamber for the president’s annual address, and (slightly) less inebriation. But what occurs beneath the Capitol Dome is as debauched as anything on Bourbon Street. But this spectacle, unlike the one in Louisiana, is not all harmless fun. Obama made clear that he is not entertaining serious spending cuts or major entitlement reforms.”
Wilberforce, unlike Obama, recognizing government as more of a problem than a solution, less a help than a hindrance, followed his victory in abolishing slavery by then setting about purposefully championing an incredible array of charitable initiatives by way of voluntary societies “because he thought that the good obtainable through political means had severe limitations.” Though he spent 44 years himself within the House of Commons, Wilberforce believed “the political good we can do is often too small and even doubtful.
“Attempts at political reform, without changing the hearts and minds of people at the same time, were futile.”
Rather than depend on the benevolence of the government, Wilberforce believed there to be a better way, “one that was to turn the tide of immorality in Britain; one that would prove to be the hallmark of the Victorian era which in 1837 just a few years after his death was largely attributed to Wilberforce.” So bedrock was Wilberforce’s etched-in-stone and lived-out-in-real-life conviction that he is memorialized by noted historian F. K. Brown as having this legacy: “Britain during the fifty-year period preceding the start of the Victorian era (is appropriately called) the ‘Age of Wilberforce.’”
Kevin Belmonte in his biography of Wilberforce, “Hero for Humanity,” observes that what this humanitarian set in motion “offers the best model we have for turning around a society and culture” or in other words to produce, borrowing from Obama: ‘change.’ Only in Wilberforce’s world, real change meant the kind of change that ended slavery and introduced a whole new chapter in history.
And what was that chief change component that characterized Wilberforce’s success and gave it lasting significance? It was to “make goodness fashionable.”
Not government doing thus-and-so; but the governed – the people, the individuals, person by person, one at a time, heart and mind reformed to bring about lasting reform. Each became themselves “an agent of change and renewal in his or her own right. Wherever they found themselves within society – rich, poor, or middle class – and with whatever gifts or talents they had been given, they could and should unite their energies with those of their fellow citizens and follow through on their duty to work toward making the good society. Wilberforce’s life is proof that a man can change his times” one person at a time, each one taking responsibility.
Inspired by Wilberforce’s emphasis and example, there came together “a vanguard of men and women from all corners of British society who desired and labored diligently to promote moral renewal, the societal benefits continuing for many years after their deaths. It is a matter of history that for two generations at least after Wilberforce, the British character was molded by attitudes that were essentially his” Wilberforce coming “to be venerated as a national treasure.”
Rightly did Brandon James Smith, 27, editorializing for “The Washington Times” of Obama’s address, declare “it is not the state that accomplishes this goal.”
Never has been. Never will be.
Sure, emotion can bring the house down, but the goal is to build the country up.
Starting with the skills, gifts, talents and abilities already possessed by that person you see in the mirror.