by Rachel A. Elovitz
As we approach the sesquicentennial anniversary of the American Civil War, we have a responsibility – to the children of the next 150 years – to ask ourselves some tough questions. Where are we now as a nation in relation to where we were then? What lessons have we learned? What mistakes have we repeated? How can we avoid them in the future, and in our efforts to evolve as a nation, what role should the legal community play?
A century-and-a-half ago, in his infamous Dred Scott decision, Supreme Court Justice Roger B. Taney ruled that African slaves were chattel, property of which their owners could not be deprived in the absence of due process, “beings . . . so far inferior that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.” We were a “house divided,” languishing in a schism so consuming that shortly after congressional nominee Abraham Lincoln highlighted its schizophrenic state, the house exploded – behind the white smoke of Springfield muskets and Harpers Ferry rifles.
As Americans, we boast an inimitable moral compass. We pride ourselves on being “one nation under God . . . indivisible.” That has been our banner, one we’ve stamped across our chests and worn like a red, white and blue badge of courage. It has been our calling card since Francis Bellamy coined the phrase in 1892 (“under God” having been added in 1954). It is a notion to which Americans have clung, and occasionally undertaken to forsake.
With President Lincoln’s election, 11 Southern states, Georgia among them, seceded from the Union. We were not “one nation,” but “Virginians” and “New Yorkers,” “Southerners,” and “Federalists.” We were members of the 37th Tennessee Infantry, the 149th Regiment New York State Volunteers, and other state armed militias. Our division was palpable – at Gettysburg and Chickamauga, Bull Run and Shiloh, Peachtree Creek and Kennesaw Mountain. Our combined experience was tangible – in the faces of more than 600,000 dead Americans and in the letters of besieged soldiers, their words memorialized on the walls of Atlanta’s History Center.
“I had rather fall in this cause,” said William Paxton (a lawyer who left his practice to join the 19th Volunteer Infantry Regiment, a part of the Confederate Army), “than to live to see my country dismantled of its glory and independence.” As earnest were the words of Pennsylvania Sergeant Joseph Griner, “Oh, my Country, how my heart bleeds for your welfare. If this poor life of mine could save you, how willingly would I make the sacrifice.”
Horace Greely, then the editor of the New York Tribune, wrote a letter to President Lincoln, describing this country as a “bleeding, bankrupt, almost dying country,” one that “long[ed] for peace and shudder[ed] at the prospect of fresh conscriptions, of further wholesale devastations, and of new rivers of human blood . . . .”
In the last 150 years Americans have revisited those rivers – in WWI and II, Vietnam, Korea, Afghanistan, Iraq – even on our own soil on Sept. 11, 2001. We’ve trudged through wholesale economic devastation (with the Great Depression in 1929-1942). We’ve witnessed the collapse of prominent financial institutions, an economic housing bubble, bank insolvency, and national “bail outs.” We have waged war overseas in defense of country – and at home over whether to afford civil rights to enemy combatants. Thousands of miles away, our children are dying to protect our freedoms, while we, as a nation, remain divided on the scope of our right to life, right to die, right to choose, and right to marry. We are, as a nation, guilty of political gamesmanship. We have been slaves to our fears, to ignorance, to apathy, to procrastination and equivocation. We have chosen blame over accountability.
The end of the Civil War brought freedom for 4 million slaves. From the ashes of disease and death, an Emancipation Proclamation was born, and through its enactment, state action, and the 13th Amendment, shackles eroded. The law and its agents forged a new path and set the tone for a more enlightened society. One-hundred-and-fifty years later, will we, as members of the legal community, again be negotiators of clarity and transformation? Will we be facilitators of a more civil and collaborative discourse in a house once again so deeply divided?
We are a strong, but distressed nation and this is our opportunity to foster a new image for our profession, not in the name of self-aggrandizement, but because renewing trust in our legal system will be the genesis of an enhanced administration of justice, the catalyst of communal good will, and a stronger, more unified America. So don’t wait. Get involved. Run for office. The Georgia Legislature is composed largely of non-lawyers writing laws for laymen. We need your knowledge and experience. Sponsor a bill. Lobby for change. As always, lend a truthful and tolerant voice to the dialogue, always remembering where we’ve been, what we’ve overcome, where we want to end up, and where we never hope to return.
Rachel A. Elovitz is a domestic litigator who regularly serves as a guardian ad litem, representing the interests of children in custody, abuse, and neglect cases in Georgia’s Superior and Juvenile Courts. She is a regular contributor to the DeKalb Bar News.