"These are the times that try men's souls"

Herb Strentz was dean of the Drake School of Journalism from 1975 to 1988 and professor there until retirement in 2004. He was executive secretary of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council from its founding in 1976 to 2000.

In the responses to President Joe Biden’s State of the Union address, Republican Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia was too predictable and shameful with her shouts of “Liar!”

More troubling to me was Arkansas Governor Sarah Huckabee Sanders' flag-waving response: “America is the greatest country the world has ever known, because we are the freest country the world has ever known…”

For one thing, as Huckabee Sanders raved about our freedom, what came to my mind was how soldiers from the U.S. Army's 101st Airborne Division had to protect nine Black students from a hate-filled mob in September 1957 as the children entered the all-white Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas.

Further, the 2022 Civility Report of the Peace Worldwide Organization ranked more than 50 other nations ahead of the U.S. when it comes to democracy, with similar low or mediocre rankings for us in categories of human rights, peace, and civility.

What we aspire to falls far short of Abraham Lincoln’s quest for a “government of the people, by the people, for the people.”

Perhaps other quotes from three founding fathers are better suited to today’s trials, if we want to grasp our ideals and not merely gloat about them.

Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine, and James Madison had the temerity to challenge and warn us about the work and risks inherent in self government.

After all, we need to do more than pat ourselves on the back if we are to counter a governor and a legislature who punish Iowa with measures already enacted or up for consideration. One, rushed through to become law less than three weeks after the legislature convened, might be called the Anti Public Education Law, to favor support of private schools over public ones.

The school voucher bill was the centerpiece of Republican attacks on public education, but far from the only one. Governor Kim Reynolds also proposes that if any school district removes a library book, access to that book should be restricted across all Iowa K-12 public schools.

Frustration with these and other items on the Reynolds agenda put Jefferson, Paine, and Madison on my mind.

In 1784, eight years after he was the key author of the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson fretted:

Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just, that His justice cannot sleep forever. Commerce between master and slave is despotism. Nothing is more certainly written in the book of fate than that these people ought to be free. Establish a law for educating the common people…

Another quote to recall is “These are the times that try men’s souls,” from Paine’s “Crisis Paper 1” of December 1776, written at Valley Forge.

Paine told of the unavoidable stress that comes with democracy:

What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: it is dearness only that gives every thing its value. Heaven knows how to put a proper price upon its goods; and it would be strange indeed if so celestial an article as FREEDOM should not be highly rated.

Madison, the key author of our Constitution and its Bill of Rights, was well aware of such inherent risks. In 1822, he warned us, “A popular Government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy; or, perhaps, both,” and also “a people who mean to be their own Governors, must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.”

Of the three, Madison’s comment seems the most appropriate these days.

Yes, Jefferson was vexed by the contradiction of the words he penned about equality and freedom and his ownership of slaves.

Yes, Thomas Paine, “the poet of the revolution,” came close to being guillotined in France despite his support of the French Revolution. (The differences between Paine and Great Britain’s Edmund Burke as to the best route to reform government are well covered in “The Great Debate” by Yuval Levin. Briefly, Paine wants to start everything anew and Burke wants to build on history and whatever strengths now exist.)

Jefferson and Paine had their flaws, of course, but would that many of today’s elected official contribute but a tenth of what Jefferson and Paine did to our freedoms.

Madison, America’s fourth President (1809-1817), seems prescient in his warnings 200 years ago.

Emphasizing the importance of access to information about what government is doing was a driving force in the Freedom of Information movements during the 1960s and 1970s. Madison's comment certainly is relevant today in multiple lawsuits filed against Reynolds for her office's failure to comply with the open records law during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Laura Belin, editor of Bleeding Heartland, and Iowa Freedom of Information Council executive director Randy Evans are among the plaintiffs in one of those lawsuits. I am among 22 Iowa journalists and journalism educators who have signed onto a friend-of-the-court brief in support of Suzette Rasmussen, a plaintiff in a similar lawsuit against the governor.)

Madison's concern about the public lacking information is also relevant to the cutbacks in news coverage of government agencies, as well as the declining tradition of editorial comment by the press as an institution.

Some critics of the transparency advocates' perspective suggest that Madison was talking about the need for an educated and informed public, not the need for press and public access to the records and meetings of government agencies.

Jefferson also recognized the need for “educating the common people.”

Fine, but on the “education” approach, too, the Reynolds administration and the Iowa legislature fail us.

Kathie Obradovich, editor of the online Iowa Capital Dispatch and former opinion page editor of the Des Moines Register, recently addressed those issues in a column about the governor and legislature doing anything they want—not out of responsibility to those they serve, but because they have the power to do so.

Likewise, Randy Evans, also a former editor of the Register's opinion pages before becoming leader of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council, has taken the governor and legislature to task.

That’s why these are the times that should try our souls.

It’s why we should “indeed tremble,” because we face the threat of a “farce or tragedy or perhaps both” when it comes to freedom and self-governance in Iowa and in the nation.

Top image, from left: official presidential portrait of Thomas Jefferson by Rembrandt Peale; Thomas Paine, copy by Auguste Millière, after an engraving by William Sharp, after George Romney, circa 1876 (1792); portrait of James Madison by John Vanderlyn.

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