This article is part of TPM Cafe, TPM’s home for opinion and news analysis.
The legacy of slavery, the idealism of American-style socialism, and the necessity of solidarity flowed through the morning’s messages that accompanied Joe Biden’s swearing-in, speech and through the songs and recitations that are traditionally included in an inaugural ceremony.
From the steps of the Capitol, built by slaves, we witnessed an African American woman sworn in as vice president, a Black minister deliver the benediction and a 22-year old Black poet read her inspiring tribute to the potential of American democracy.
First Lady Jill Biden recommended poet Amanda Gorman to the inaugural team. A resident of Los Angeles and the country’s first National Youth Poet Laureate, she’s a recent Harvard graduate who had overcome a speech impediment, like the new president. Gorman’s poem, “The Hill We Climb,” echoed her generation’s fears and hopes:
“Somehow we’ve weathered and witnessed a nation that isn’t broken, but simply unfinished,” she proclaimed. “We, the successors of a country and a time where a skinny Black girl descended from slaves and raised by a single mother can dream of becoming president only to find herself reciting for one.”
From the steps of the Capitol, built by slaves, we heard Lady Gaga sing the “Star Spangled Banner,” another poem, written by Francis Scott Key in 1814 not long after the British had torched the White House in an earlier assault on our national buildings. Key, an American lawyer, had witnessed the British bombardment of Fort McHenry while aboard a British ship. At dawn, he saw the American flag — 15 stars and 15 stripes — waving over the fort and knew that the U.S. had defeated the British. It inspired him to write the poem that became our national anthem.
Often missing from the story is the role that slavery played in Key’s thinking. He was from a wealthy family that owned slaves. He called Black people a “distinct and inferior race.” He supported freeing slaves on the condition that they were shipped to Africa.
Slavery was also an issue in the British-American war that inspired Key’s poem. In 1814, the British were not yet persuaded that American independence was a done deal and sought to take back the country they had lost in the revolutionary war. To win the allegiance of Black Americans, the British promised refuge to slaves who escaped bondage, and to offer them a place in the British Corps of Colonial Marines in exchange for land. At least 4,000 slaves, mostly from Maryland and Virginia, escaped. Many white Americans, like Key, were worried that a full-scale revolt was at hand, threatening the fragile new democracy.
Some historians argue that one of the verses of Key’s original poem were a warning to the slaves not to take the British up on their offer. Remain loyal to the United States, he was saying, or face grave consequences:
“No refuge could save the hireling and slave
From the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave,
And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.”
The Americans again defeated the British. After the war ended, the U.S. demanded that the British return the escaped slaves. The British refused, instead offering them property in the island colonies of Trinidad and Tobago. Many resettled there and many of their descendants live there today.
From the steps of the Capitol, built by slaves, Andrea Hall recited the Pledge of Allegiance. Hall is the first African American female firefighter to become captain of the Fire Rescue Department in South Fulton, Georgia — the state that elected two Democratic Senators, one of them a black minister, that gives President Biden a working Democratic majority in the U.S. Senate.
An often overlooked fact about our national pledge is that it was written by a socialist at a time of great division within the country. Francis Bellamy, a Christian socialist, wrote the Pledge of Allegiance in 1892 to express his outrage at the nation’s widening economic divide.
It was the Gilded Age, an era marked by major political, economic, and social conflicts. Progressive reformers were outraged by the widening gap between rich and poor, and the behavior of corporate robber barons who were exploiting workers, gouging consumers, and corrupting politics with their money. Workers were organizing unions. Farmers were joining forces in the so-called Populist movement to rein in the power of banks, railroads and utility companies. Reformers fought for child labor laws, against slum housing and in favor of women’s suffrage. Socialists and other leftist radicals were gaining new converts.
Bellamy, who lived from 1855 to 1931, was a Baptist minister who was ousted from his Boston church for his sermons depicting Jesus as a socialist, and for his work among the poor in the Boston slums. Bellamy believed that unbridled capitalism, materialism, and individualism betrayed America’s promise. He hoped that the Pledge of Allegiance would promote a different moral vision to counter the rampant greed he argued was undermining the nation.
Bellamy had initially intended to use the phrase “liberty, fraternity, and equality,” but concluded that the radical rhetoric of the French Revolution wouldn’t sit well with many Americans. So he coined the phrase, “one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all,” as a means to express his more egalitarian vision of America, and a secular patriotism aimed at helping unite a divided nation.
Bellamy wrote the Pledge of Allegiance for Youth’s Companion, a magazine for young people published in Boston. He was hired to write the pledge as part of a public relations campaign to promote the use of flags in public schools. He hoped that if all the schoolchildren of America recited the pledge at the same moment, it would promote a sense of national unity and help mitigate the class divisions and hostility toward immigrants in his day.
From the steps of the Capitol, built by slaves, Jennifer Lopez, a Latina, sang a medley of “America the Beautiful” and “This Land is Your Land.”
“America the Beautiful” was composed in 1893 by Katherine Lee Bates, a poet whose political sympathies were similar to those of Bellamy. She, too, was a Christian socialist, as well as an ally of labor unions, an advocate for immigrants, a feminist, an ardent foe of imperialism and a lesbian. A well-respected poet and professor of English at Wellesley College, Bates was part of progressive reform circles in the Boston area, concerned about labor rights, urban slums and women’s suffrage.
Bates was a Republican at a time when there were many progressive Republicans, like Theodore Roosevelt. Even so, she broke with the party to endorse Democratic presidential candidate John W. Davis in 1924 because of the GOP’s opposition to American participation in the League of Nations. (Davis lost that election to Calvin Coolidge).
Like many activists at the time, Bates believed that the U.S. should participate in global affairs, but that it should not be a bully against weaker nations — sentiments she clearly expressed in “America the Beautiful.”
Bates penned the poem “America the Beautiful” after visiting Pikes Peak in Colorado, from which she saw the Rocky Mountains in one direction and the Great Plains in the other. When she returned to her hotel room, she wrote a letter to friends, observing that “countries such as England failed because, while they may have been ‘great,’ they had not been ‘good.’” She declared, “Unless we are willing to crown our greatness with goodness, and our bounty with brotherhood, our beloved America may go the same way.” “America the Beautiful” is both a declaration of Bates’ patriotism and a protest against Gilded Age greed.
The poem’s final words — “and crown thy good with brotherhood, from sea to shining sea” — are an appeal for social justice rather than the pursuit of wealth.
Woody Guthrie, another socialist, wrote “This Land is Your Land” in 1940. Born in Oklahoma in 1912, Guthrie was radicalized by the hardships he experienced and witnessed during the Depression in his native state and in Los Angeles, where he lived from 1937 to 1940. He wrote songs about families facing foreclosure by unscrupulous banks, migrant Mexican farm workers exploited by agribusiness and politicians who turned a blind eye to the widespread suffering — topics that unfortunately still resonate today. He also penned patriotic songs about America’s promise and its natural beauty, and angry songs encouraging Americans to organize unions and protest against injustice.
He wrote “This Land Is Your Land” as an answer to Irving Berlin’s popular “God Bless America.” In the song, Guthrie celebrated America’s natural beauty and bounty but criticized the country for its failure to share its riches. The lyrics reflect Guthrie’s belief that patriotism and support for the underdog were interconnected.
Lopez sang the song’s well-known chorus, but the left out the two radical verses that are often omitted from songbooks and recordings (but which Pete Seeger and Bruce Springsteen sang at a pre-inauguration party for Barack Obama in 2009).
As I went walking, I saw a sign there
And on the sign it said “No Trespassing”
But on the other side it didn’t say nothing
That side was made for you and me.
In the shadow of the steeple, I saw my people
By the relief office I seen my people
As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking
Is this land made for you and me?
In between her renditions of the two songs, Lopez shouted out, in Spanish, “Justicia para todos” — justice for all.
Those words are not only the themes of the Pledge of Allegiance, “America the Beautiful” and “This Land Is Your Land,” but also traversed much of President Joe Biden’s inauguration speech. “The dream of justice for all will be deferred no longer,” he said.
Biden’s speech was both pedestrian and inspiring. He covered the expected themes: The need for decency, tolerance, and reconciliation. And the need for unity to face the multiple threats of the pandemic, the economy, climate change and the insurrection that revealed the fragility of our democracy. But he acknowledged that unity does not mean unanimity. We might disagree on policy, he suggested, but we need to agree on the rules of the game. Even so, passing legislation that can improve Americans’ lives — jobs, businesses, health care, vaccines, college tuition, minimum wages, and other initiatives — does not mean that every American, or every member of Congress, has to agree. It only requires, Biden said, “enough of us.”
From the Capitol steps, built by slaves, Biden observed that the “cry for racial justice, some four hundred years in the making, moves us.” His was the first presidential inaugural address to use the phrases “white supremacy” and “systemic racism.” (Just hours after his speech, Biden sent to Congress an extensive immigration reform bill and among his first executive orders will be a halt to construction of Trump’s border wall and a reversal of Trump’s travel ban targeting largely Muslim countries).
In his speech, Biden did not use the word “solidarity” — often associated with the labor movement and the left — but he did identify the problem of “growing inequity.” He called on Americans to ”stand in the other person’s shoes.” Because, he said, “there’s no accounting for what fate will deal you. Some days, when you need a hand. There are other days when we’re called to lend a hand. That’s how it has to be. That’s what we do for one another.”
Biden is likely hoping that by quickly addressing the COVID pandemic, the wider health care crisis (including the opioid epidemic that disproportionately hurts the white working class), the declining number of good jobs that pay a living wage and the huge spike in evictions and foreclosures, he can win over enough Trump voters and put pressure on enough Republicans in Congress to support, however reluctantly, his legislative priorities.
Biden also needs to work with the left wing of his own party, many of whom remain skeptical of a politician they consider a creature of the establishment. Biden has moved significantly leftward over the past year, in part due to the reality that the nation’s deepening problems require bold approaches, but also because he understands that public opinion has shifted in that direction. He has embraced many aspects of the progressive agenda put forward by Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren during their presidential campaigns.
For example, Biden has pledged to raise the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour, expand worker safety enforcement and restore the mission of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, jumpstart a large-scale infrastructure plan to create new jobs (including clean energy “green” jobs) and sign the Protecting the Right to Organize Act, a bill adopted in the House that would strengthen workers’ ability to unionize.
No matter what Biden does, Republicans and conservatives will call it “socialism.” But on the Capitol steps on Wednesday, Democrats and Republicans, conservatives and liberals, all joined in reciting the words of the Pledge of Allegiance, “This Land is Your Land,” and “America the Beautiful,” penned by historic socialists who viewed themselves as patriots.
Biden is no socialist. But his success will depend on building a broad constituency of “enough of us” for a bold progressive agenda, a new New Deal, needed to meet our current challenges. It will also depend on enough Americans realizing that throughout our history, the radical ideas of one generation often become the common sense of future generations.
Peter Dreier is professor of Politics and the founding chair of the Urban & Environmental Policy Department at Occidental College. His books include Place Matters: Metropolitics for the 21st Century, The 100 Greatest Americans of the 20th Century: A Social Justice Hall of Fame, and the forthcoming Baseball Rebels: The Reformers and Radicals Who Shook Up the Game and Changed America.