Today, I will offer some perspectives on the history of American democracy. As a student of history, this is my own perspective – and I make no claims that this is definitive, but I hope it will offer you a sense of who we are as a people, who we are as a nation, and how the American experience might help inform how Ivoirians and the other nations represented here today perceive their own country’s journey.
One of our foreign policy priorities in Africa is to enhance our engagement with the youth of this vast and diverse continent. Many of you may have noticed that President Obama created the Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI), and he invited YALI participants to join him at last year’s historic U.S.-Africa Leaders’ Summit in Washington. My President believes that we must build relationships with the future leaders of Africa, and that is why I was delighted to accept Professor Tompihé’s invitation to speak to you today. You are the future leaders of this continent; you are the next generation of lawyers, doctors, engineers, teachers, diplomats, and government officials. I believe in this room today is a young Ivoirian woman who will one day be a Prime Minister or President or Minister of Côte d’Ivoire. I believe in this room today are young Nigerians who will help to ensure that Nigeria’s vast oil and gas resources are finally used for the benefit of the Nigerian people. I believe in this room today are young Liberians who will contribute to the reconstruction of their country’s economy, and young Togolese who will help build their country’s institutions to consolidate democracy. You are our future partners, and that is one of the reasons I’m here with you today.
But let’s return to the topic at hand. I met recently with a group of young Ivoirians, and one young woman asked me what lessons the United States could share, given that America is what she termed a “paragon of democracy.” My response was that…it’s complicated. Certainly as Americans we are proud of our country’s history and of our values – which we hold to be universal — but one of our greatest achievements, in my view, and one of the strongest lessons we can offer aspiring democracies, is that we have learnt from our shortcomings, and that we have struggled constantly to perfect our democratic institutions. Ladies and gentlemen, democracy is hard work, and it requires the engagement and constancy of every single citizen. To paraphrase the great British statesman, Winston Churchill, democracy is the worst of all possible political systems…except for all the others that may have been invented.
And democracy can be a messy process, filled with compromises. Our nation’s history is a paradigm of this. Let’s consider for a moment one of our founding texts, our Declaration of Independence. Thomas Jefferson, the author of this seminal document wrote that “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, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” These words promulgated by our Founding Fathers launched the American Revolution, a prolonged conflict to secure our independence from Great Britain. And 239 years later, Jefferson’s lofty prose continues to serve as the basis for what we believe ourselves to be as a country and as a people.
And yet, having secured the “blessings of liberty” through victory in battle over the greatest power of the age, our Founding Fathers met in 1787 to translate the glorious principles of our Revolution into a document that would govern the young American Republic. And 226 years after the formal ratification of the U.S. Constitution – the longest surviving constitution in the world – it remains the Bible of American democracy. But our Constitution contained imperfections and injustices. As the delegates to our Constitutional Convention met in Philadelphia, conflict arose between representatives from the South, a largely agrarian zone dependent upon the forced labor of African slaves, and delegates from the fast-growing and economically dynamic north. The South, fearing a future threat to its “peculiar institution” of slavery demanded that the census counts of its population – key to representation in the new U.S. House of Representatives – include those held in involuntary servitude. Northerners balked, but the resulting compromise – enshrined in our Constitution – established that slaves would count as three-fifths of a human being for census purposes.
So from our earliest days as a nation, our notion of democracy was challenged by a shameful conflict between our stated values as a people and the reality of a large portion of our population held in bondage. And if one looks at American history, one can see a similar dissonance between our fundamental values and our treatment, for example of Native Americans, or the long journey toward equal rights for women (recall the Founders said that “All men are created equal”…no mention of women), or the ongoing struggle of the LGBT community to achieve full civil rights. But I remain convinced that the American experiment is unique, and perhaps offers examples for others, because we recognize that democracy is hard, that it takes continuous effort, and that only through constant unrelenting examination are we able to make progress toward a nation and a society that measure up to our founding principles.
In less than two months, on April 9, Americans will commemorate the 150thanniversary of the end of our Civil War. This conflict, which some historians have termed “the Second American Revolution,” pitted brother against brother in a four year struggle from 1861 to 1865 that cost 600,000 lives and devastated the southern states known as the Confederacy. Our Union survived, and the war ended the long, contentious debate over slavery, restoring our commitment to the founding principles of our nation. President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation freed the three to four million slaves in the Confederacy and paved the way for Amendments to the U.S. Constitution that abolished slavery, guaranteed equal rights to African-Americans, and provided the former slaves with the right to vote.
In addition to these Executive decisions and constitutional amendments, and in the aftermath of the armed conflict, the United States federal government launched a program in the defeated southern states known as Reconstruction. Reconstruction was intended to offer the Confederate states a path to rejoin the Union, while ensuring the rights of former slaves were respected. The program was carried out in a region that had been absolutely devastated by the war; a region that had lost a quarter of white men of military age to disease and war; a region in which two thirds of its infrastructure had been destroyed; a region where most of the population was reduced to a barter economy.
Despite these obstacles, Reconstruction showed early promise, as blacks and whites worked together to rebuild institutions and make political and economic reforms, and approximately 1,500 African-Americans were elected to public office in the South, including seats in the U.S. Congress and the first African-American Senator, Hiram Revels, of Mississippi.
Notwithstanding this early promise, however, Reconstruction failed to preserve the gains won on the bloody battlefields of Gettysburg, Antietam and Petersburg. In the face of unrelenting hostility from political opponents in the South, the party of Abraham Lincoln could not maintain the political consensus required to pursue Reconstruction, particularly in the face of terror campaigns carried out by armed racist groups like the Ku Klux Klan against the former slaves and their white supporters. Additionally, public support faded in the North, and Southern opponents of Reconstruction gradually took back control of state governments, enacting laws that disenfranchised blacks, and institutionalized a system of white supremacy.
So was this “Second American Revolution” a failure? And what does this chapter in our history tell us about the American democratic experiment? African-Americans struggled for another century to secure full civil rights, and the movement continues today. Women only secured the right to vote in the second decade of the 20th century, and members of the LGBT community have yet to gain rights which most Americans take for granted. And yet I return to my response earlier this week to my Ivoirian friend who called America a paragon of democracy: we recognize our shortcomings, we recognize that the construction of democracy is a difficult, iterative process, and we recognize the efforts of courageous men and women who insist on holding the country accountable to its founding values.
The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the NAACP, was founded in the early 20th century, and advocated fiercely for the rights of African-Americans. President Harry Truman ordered the desegregation of the U.S. armed forces in 1948, and the Supreme Court ended the noxious policy of “separate but equal” in education with its ruling in 1954 in Brown v the Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas. At the same time, Civil Rights leaders like Dr. Martin Luther King led the peaceful protests like the Montgomery, Alabama Bus Boycott from 1955 to 1956; and the Selma, Alabama marches that led to the Voting Rights Act of 1965. In his speech following the 1963 March on Washington, Dr. King articulated his dream for America, a vision that resonated with all Americans who held to the principles of freedom and equality bequeathed to us by our Founding Fathers. And the journey continues, as does the struggle, as evidenced so graphically by the events last year in Ferguson, Missouri. But as we celebrate African-American history month in the United States, and here in Côte d’Ivoire, we are reminded of how far we have come, but how vigilant we must remain.
But how does this American experience inform your own perspective of your country’s journey, and what – if any — are the lessons for Côte d’Ivoire in this critically important election year? Let me offer four suggestions for your consideration.
First, recovery and reconciliation following a civil war is extremely difficult, arguably one of humankind’s most taxing endeavors, requiring foresight and political maturity on the part of the victors as well as the vanquished, and commitment by both parties to the conflict to place the good of the nation above partisan political agendas.
Second, a perception of victor’s justice, and an absence of true reconciliation, will only hinder political and economic progress, as well as engender additional animosity and serve as a justification for further violence. After Lincoln’s assassination, some Republicans pushed for punitive actions to punish the defeated southern states, enhancing the credibility of the opponents of Reconstruction and effectively ensuring the restoration of a system that excluded African-Americans from the political process.
Third, efforts to hinder, frustrate, or oppress a portion of a nation’s population will only serve to prevent the whole society from reaching its full potential. Jim Crow laws and other measures to preserve white supremacy and exclude Black Americans from political and economic life were not only contrary to our founding principles, they contributed to a widening gap in social and economic indicators between the North and the states of the former Confederacy.
Finally, it is important to note that the consolidation of democratic institutions cannot be achieved in the vacuum of economic progress, which can at times mask the need to provide political and social justice for all. If the United States emerged as a new world power in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, if we built trans-continental railroads to connect the Atlantic and Pacific coasts, if we relied on the genius of Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, and others to create millions of jobs, inspired by the belief that anything and everything was possible in America, none of these achievements offer a counter-balance to the denial of rights and opportunities that African-Americans faced in the land of their birth.
Ivoirians are justifiably proud of their country’s recovery from more than a decade of conflict and political crisis. Côte d’Ivoire has made remarkable progress in infrastructure and economic growth, in re-establishing representative democratic institutions, in carrying out reforms in the security sector, in addressing the need to disarm and reintegrate legions of ex-combatants, in restoring the authority of the state, and in creating an investment climate that can help drive sustained growth and poverty reduction. Côte d’Ivoire now has the opportunity to turn the page on conflict by holding peaceful, inclusive and transparent elections this October. Building on this impressive record, Ivoirians will then need to ensure that all can experience the tangible benefits of recovery, in the form of reduced unemployment, better housing, improved security, and access to adequate health care and education. I am confident that Côte d’Ivoire will continue this journey, and I can assure you that the United States will remain a supportive partner.
In the United States this July 4, and around the world wherever Americans gather, we will celebrate 239 years of Independence from Great Britain. We will celebrate our achievements as a nation, but we will also recognize areas where we have failed to measure up to our values as a country. And as we celebrate African-American History Month in February, it is important to honor the achievements of Black Americans despite oppression and exclusion. Countries are defined by their history as nations, but they are not bound by it. We can learn from the past in order to perfect our societies and institutions. In this respect, I believe this is a bond we share with Ivoirians. I remain optimistic for Côte d’Ivoire, and confident that America and Côte d’Ivoire will continue to be, as one of my colleagues once said, fellow pilgrims on the path to democracy, learning from the past and determined to never repeat tragic mistakes.
Thank you very much for your kind attention.