The City on a Hill

Republican Presidential hopeful Donald Trump speaks during a rally March 13, 2016 in West Chester, Ohio. / AFP / Brendan Smia
Republican Presidential hopeful Donald Trump speaks during a rally March 13, 2016 in West Chester, Ohio. / AFP / Brendan Smialowski (Photo credit should read BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)

"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."