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America The Apologetic
Should our leaders say they’re sorry about slavery? About Indians? About their personal behavior? Such questions are hardly new; public contrition has been a national preoccupation for centuries.
December 1998 | Volume 49, Issue 8
Confession flourished alongside another religious rite, which was corporate: the day of fasting. In times of peril whole communities sought divine assistance by subjecting themselves to symbolic privation. Even as late as the last half of the supposedly enlightened eighteenth century, Americans humbled themselves when they called on God’s mercy. In May 1774, after the British closed the port of Boston, the Virginia Assembly declared a day of fasting, humiliation, and prayer, “devoutly to implore the Divine interposition for averting the heavy calamity.” Thomas Jefferson, who helped write the measure, recalled years later that he and his colleagues “rummaged over” an old book for the “forms of the Puritans” and “cooked up a resolution” that would “arouse our people from the lethargy into which they had fallen.” In 1797, when war with France threatened, Alexander Hamilton recommended “some religious solemnity to impress seriously the minds of the people.” Hamilton, though he was not American-born, had lived here long enough to learn what made Americans tick. “A day of fasting, humiliation and prayer,” he wrote, and besides being “very proper, it is very expedient.” For the deist Jefferson, the ceremony of collective humiliation was a political tool, as his breezy language (”rummaged,” “cooked up”) suggests. Hamilton, though he wrote more respectfully, was also a pragmatist. But for their countrymen, who had been humbling themselves as individuals for more than a century, the call to humble themselves together struck a chord.
Though fasts were not apologies for any specific deed, they mirrored the psychological process of repentance: Confession, like humiliation, was a way of making things right again. When a fallen American brought himself lower still by proclaiming his wrong, then he could rise, in the opinion of God, his neighbors, and himself.
Corporate apology, of the kind that President Clinton almost made in Uganda, grows naturally out of our religious past. Two events in American history, ever present in the nation’s dream mind, seem to merit this form of recompense: the conquest of the American Indian and slavery. These form the template of American guilt. Every other grievance, from internment camps for Japanese-Americans in World War II to anti-Jewish quotas at Ivy League colleges, is secondary to these dramas.
From the first Thanksgiving to the latest New Age drumming ceremony, the Indian has been the aboriginal other, the familiar stranger. It was hard at first to apologize for ill-treating him, because he was not just a victim but often an effective enemy. Besides the wars that Indians themselves launched or suffered, they were major players in every white man’s war from the colonial period to the War of 1812.
Only after the Indian threat disappeared from Eastern states did it occur to American whites that their old foe had been wronged. The Leatherstocking tales of James Fenimore Cooper (published from 1823 to 1841) were an early expression of white second thoughts. The story, which stretches over five books, begins in the French and Indian War, when the Wild West is in upstate New York, and ends sixty years later, when it has reached beyond the Mississippi. Over that time Natty Bumppo, the white hunter and scout, watches his way of life vanish. Change falls even more heavily on his Indian friend, Chingachgook, whose people vanish as well, victims of peace as much as of war. By the time of The Pioneers , set in the 1790s, Chingachgook is a drunk in a frontier town and renamed Indian John. “When John was young,” he boasts, “eyesight was not straighter than his bullet.” But now he has the shakes. “Is John old? . . . The white man brings old age with him—rum is his tomahawk!” In the religion of romanticism, apology is transformed into nostalgia.
With the final closing of the frontier and the passage of time, the Indian wars became distant enough to allow more white people to share Cooper’s regrets. In 1996 the United Methodist Church did something more specific. Its General Conference, meeting in Denver, apologized for a particular event. In 1864 Col. John M. Chivington, a cavalry officer and a Methodist lay preacher nicknamed the Fighting Parson, raided a camp of Cheyenne and Arapaho Indians at Sand Creek, in eastern Colorado. More than a hundred Indians—most of them women and children—were killed, despite the fact that they claimed government protection. A congressional committee at the time called the operation “a foul and dastardly massacre.” A century and a third later, Chivington’s co-religionists voted a “Sand Creek Apology,” offering the “hand of reconciliation” to all Cheyennes and Arapahos and asking forgiveness. “This was a tragedy in U.S. history that needed to be addressed,” said the Reverend Alvin Deer, a Methodist minister and an Indian, who had pushed for the apology.