Driving home today from work, I realized just how much the current political turmoil in the United States has been encompassing my thoughts. Rather than turn on my radio to listen to music during my 30 minute commute (and much to the chagrin of my 3 and 6 year old passengers), I immediately turn on CNN news on my satellite radio to listen to the progress (or lack thereof) that has been made in regards to the current government shut down. It truly is like a terrible accident I can’t look away from.
My heart hurts for the innocent bystanders who are affected by this current shutdown.It truly has permeated all areas of American life. I mean, even in preparing to write this blog posting I ran into a disclaimer on the website for the national archives that no research would be done or discoveries updated due to furloughs of government workers. So, in attempting to wrap my thoughts around what is currently happening, I turned to Bellefontaine Cemetery as I commonly do. Bellefontaine, I have found over the years is one of the best self-help books for the living in both secular and religious ways. When a co-worker of mine suddenly passed away suddenly a few years ago, I spent my time of grief in springtime Bellefontaine, finding understanding in the beauty of nature, and peace in the silence. And although the sudden snowstorm today keeps me from physically traveling to the cemetery, my mind immediately drifted to the far north east corner of Bellefontaine, to the simple, understated tomb of Senator Edward Bates.
Edward Bates is by far one of my favorite permanent residents within the cemetery. A few years ago when I was completing research for my masters thesis, I had the opportunity to hold in my hand several of his letters and journals. He was, from my estimation, a bit dramatic.He wrote quickly and with emphasis. I could almost see that his brain was working faster than his pen would, which no doubt frustrated him. He was busy, too busy to be bothered by trivial nonsense. He was lawyer and a farmer and the father of seventeen children. This was not a man who tolerated stupidity well. Having said that, I know that he was devoted friend who suffered the losses of those friends deeply. When his brother-in-law Hamilton Gamble, who is also buried in Bellefontaine died, he lamented to another close friend who was ill at the time, James Eads of engineering fame, that he could not bear to suffer another loss so soon. Yes, Bates was a many of many emotions, and he seemed to feel them all deeply.
But these characteristics of Bates are not what brought him to my mind for this post. What made me think of Bates in these troubled times was the fact that although he held very strong and passionate views, he was not above putting those views aside for the greater good of humanity. Take for example the fact that Bates was a slave owner (slaves he did later grant their freedom). While slave ownership was a part of his life, he recognized that it would ultimately be bad for the nation, and took a stance advocating against the spread of slavery into new territories. He even took on and won the case of Lucy Ann Berry, a fourteen year old girl who sued for her freedom on the basis that her mother was free. Bates’s popularity and passion among the Republican party, and his success as Attorney General of Missouri led him to be one of the candidates running against Abraham Lincoln in 1860. And although he lost the election, Lincoln approached Bates to serve as his U.S. Attorney General during the tumultuous years of the Civil War, a position that the father of over a dozen children with a law practice and farm was reluctant to take.
Bates became part of what is known as Lincoln’s Team of Rivals, which was made up of those who had ran against the President and held very strong, and differing opinions. To be certain, this was NOT simply a matter of keeping ones enemies close, but rather Lincoln knew that by listening to those who opposed him, he received multiple points of view from which to consider his decisions. At the same time, the cabinet members were able to consider their own positions and do what is best for the nation as a whole. For example, Bates may have been a slave owner, but he did support the belief that citizenship should not be based on skin color, AND he supported the Emancipation Proclamation. Together, with Lincoln, the team of rivals helped to end the Civil War and reunite a nation divided which, although deep cracks like that one take time to heal and never truly mend perfectly, it did move our country forward as both president and parties found a middle ground a purpose higher than themselves.
Now, when you started to read this posting, you may have assumed I had a political agenda for one party or the other. But rest assured, this is not about choosing sides. Rather, it is about putting differences aside. It is about compromise. It is about solving problems over self glorification. At times like this my dad likes to talk about the HBO mini-series John Adams and the movie, “The American President”. He feels that those works of cinema reflect what our country was founded upon and the values that we upheld. And he’s right, these are great films. But I get the same feeling when I travel to Bellefontaine Cemetery and look at the small, unassuming stone, tucked back quietly in the Coulter lot belonging to the parents of Julia Coulter Bates. Even in his final rest, we can see that Bates put simplicity before self. A man of his fame and statue and personality would be assumed to have a Lincoln-esque monument, with perhaps a statue or bust (which does exist in Forrest Park, away from his burial place).
But instead, we see a simple marker, denoted by the words “Lawyer and Statesmen.” Despite all that he did and all that he was, he put state and service and the people of the nation first. We could all, regardless of party or presidential preference, put ourselves aside for the greater good of humanity. That we do, and quickly, is of the gravest importance.