Transcript of speech from Pulitzer Prize-winning author and historian Jon Meacham
Everything was falling apart. In the first years of the 1860s, the nation was torn asunder amid what the beleaguered wartime president would call the “fiery trial” of the Civil War. The conflict was existential, claiming perhaps three quarters of a million lives. No one knew what would happen. No one knew if the nation conceived in two Philadelphia summers—the first in 1776, the second in 1787—would survive as Union and Confederate forces clashed again and again and again once war came in the spring of 1861.
And yet in the darkness of war there were glimmers of light. In the summer of 1862, enveloped by the demands of defending the nation from armed rebellion, President Abraham Lincoln signed legislation authorizing the transcontinental railroad, a far-sighted act for a Commander in Chief buffeted by the winds of war. Hope in a time of fear; optimism in a moment of pessimism; a thought of the future amid the storms of the present: the transcontinental railroad stands even now as an emblem of American boldness and of American union.
The Golden Spike was about many things, not least commerce and technology. And it was about some of the worst aspects of the American soul, particularly in light of the tragic treatment of Native Americans and of immigrant workers. But it was also about the best parts of that soul, those precincts of our national character that look ahead, that reach out, that dream big. We should not sentimentalize the American experience; the nation has been morally flawed, often egregiously so, from the beginning. We must be honest about that—honest about the plights of African Americans, of Native Americans, of women, of immigrants. And our honesty should lead us to do all that we can to be about the work of justice.
Talked of for three decades before the legislation, the fact that the transcontinental railroad was authorized during the Civil War and was completed, in 1869, amid Reconstruction makes the whole thing unmistakably American. For to build in a time of destruction and to persevere in a time of division was very much in keeping with the spirit of a nation that had always believed, as Thomas Paine had put it, that we had it in our power to begin the world over again. A continent would come together; what Thomas Jefferson had called the “empire of liberty” would be not just parts, but a whole; the nation was united if not in spirit, in fact—and facts, as John Adams once observed, are stubborn things.
We stand, therefore, on a kind of sacred ground.
The story of the transcontinental railroad is the story of America, for both are stories of ambition and of drive, of vision and of unity, of hope and of history.
It’s especially significant that we are here at this particular moment in the life of the nation, for many of the elements so essential to the conception and to the realization of this vast project seem so elusive in our own time. A century and a half on from the foresight and the energy of a Lincoln and his battles to preserve the Union and to lay the tracks for its future prosperity, we—you and I—are caught in a moment of public dispiritedness, of reflexive partisanship, and of a broad distrust of the future.
Which is why this is a good moment, and a good place, to reflect on who we’ve been, who we are, and where we might go in the next 150 years. To know what’s come before is to be armed against despair. Think about it: if the men and women of the past—with all their flaws and limitations and ambitions and appetites—could press on through ignorance and superstition, racism and sexism, selfishness and greed, to form a more perfect union, then perhaps we, too, can right wrongs and leave things better than we found them.
Our common welfare depends not on what separates but on what unifies us. St. Augustine defined a nation as a multitude of rational beings united by the common objects of our love.
The common objects of our love: nearly two decades into the 21st century, what do we love in common? The painful answer is: not enough. Still, history has the capacity to bring us together, for our story is ultimately the story of obstacles overcome, crises resolved, freedom expanded. We have always grown in strength the wider we have opened our arms—and the more we have opened our hearts. From Lexington and Concord to Lewis and Clark; from Fort Sumter to D-Day; from Seneca Falls to Selma; and, yes, from the canals of the East to the railroads of the West, Americans have sought to perfect our Union.
What can we in our time learn from the past? That the perfect should not be the enemy of the good. That compromise is the oxygen of democracy. And that we learn the most from those who came before not by looking up at them uncritically or down on them condescendingly but by looking them in the eye and taking their true measure as human beings, not as impossibly perfect gods or hopelessly irredeemable villains.
Knowing the history of freedom is not only illuminating but enabling. A person who understands the past, in all its glory and grandeur and horror and injustice, understands that, as Winston Churchill once put it, the path of civilization, while never straight, is essentially upward—upward to what he called the sun-lit uplands of happiness and peace.
We stand in the sunlight of a legacy of union, for the architects and the builders and the lawmakers and the laborers who transformed a dream into a reality in this place 150 years ago knew that a nation connected might well be a nation unified. It was made possible by the powerful in government and in commerce and by immigrant laborers—from China, from Ireland, and elsewhere—who joined in the hard, unforgiving work of construction. It was constructed in an era of prevailing white supremacy and an ongoing struggle to more broadly and justly apply the implications of what may have been the most important sentence ever originally rendered in English: Jefferson’s assertion that all men are created equal. And we stand here today knowing that the work of America is not done, that in many ways the American Revolution unfolds still. That’s our blessing—and our burden.
If a nation fighting for its survival in the crucible of the 19th century could transcend the tumult of the moment to do something that big, that hopeful, why can’t we? The transcontinental project was shaped by sectionalism, by battles for power, by party politics—and yet our forebears delivered. However bad things are—and that, like so much else in America, is a matter of opinion—I for one would rather be dealing with Facebook than with Fort Sumter. Let’s not indulge ourselves in the narcissism of the present and act as though our problems are more insuperable than the innumerable problems that were more or less overcome to create a nation where, for all our ferocity, what George Washington called the “sacred fire of liberty” still burns.
If Americans want to know what is possible, come here. If they want to know what can happen when government and the private sector cooperate rather than clash, come here. If they want to know how to build a nation worth the fighting for, come here. If they want to know why a spirit of union matters, come here. If they want to understand how the faith of Jefferson, Lincoln, TR, FDR, JFK, and Reagan—a faith founded on the conviction that tomorrow can be better than today—can find tangible expression, come here. The story is not perfect, but then neither are we. History tells us that we rise when we build and we thrive when we give everyone what Lincoln called a “fair chance.” A fair chance. Such was an animating impulse behind the Golden Spike, and big ideas and big dreams are the stuff of the best of the American story. In that history lies our hope.