Throughout the hideousness that was this recent ‘election cycle’, I would often meditate on the presence of a charming little building out in the middle of what almost could seem like nowhere, deep in the Wisconsin driftless. Thinking about it kept me sane.
Wisconsin’s first capitol in Belmont.
I visited the site in February of this year, back when all of what has just transpired was yet before us. It was a simpler time, when it would have seemed impossible to blatantly violate basic codes of decency and ethics if you wanted to run for - or be elected - president. Well, wasn’t that a time …
But I digress.
Belmont - a small wooden building. Dusk - a windswept crossroads - Amish families scurrying home, their horses and buggies outlined in flickering lights for safety in the lowering darkness. A rosy horizon as the sunlight wanes.
In this little building, 39 men gathered in the late fall of 1836 to set up government for the sprawling Wisconsin Territory. They hashed things out for a month and half - wrangling in meetings by day, and crammed together into the same rooming house each night.
Imagine politicians today working like this. More even than the “Little House on the Big Prairie” aspect, such conditions would require a broadness of character, the ability to compromise, an at least passing ability to view one’s own beliefs within a broader context of civility.
The choice of Belmont for the meetings was controversial, a whiff of corruption involving lead mining and what Governor Dodge stood to gain. Eventually the whole operation was moved to Madison.
Now the site is a lovely, if somewhat desolate little place. Quiet, quaint.
I visited another first capitol last winter - this one in Springfield. Much more momentous. You can walk through rooms where Abraham Lincoln said and did radical things on behalf of the greater good. Defended decency and humanity with eloquent grace.
Barack Obama launched his Presidential campaign on the steps of that building, drawing around him the uplifting glow of optimism, hope, and the fight for equity. He stood on those steps and called on us to reach for what is best in ourselves.
It’s a gross contrast to the gilded escalator chosen by the current president-elect, gliding downward, taking racist swipes at American immigrants. The son himself of immigrants. Insulting, dismissive, arrogant. Small.
The sinking heart numbs against it.
Over this past year that little building in Belmont came to represent for me a promise that things can work out alright. Those men who gathered there in 1836 weren’t perfect, in fact it isn’t perfect that they were all men, neither was Lincoln perfect, nor Obama. But that little building came to represent the workings of democracy: it’s not always perfect, but more or less there’s movement toward that ‘more perfect union’ referenced in our nation’s first goal statement.
Now, the road to that possibility is densely clouded. I don’t see a way through to even that humble grace. I stand at that rosy, waning crossroads and have serious doubts how we’ll get through. I still believe we can, but it’s daunting to not be able to discern the path.
I grew up in Wisconsin, inspired by stories of Fighting Bob LaFollette and Aldo Leopold and Gaylord Nelson. Of course there was also Joe McCarthy and the John Birch Society, but the legacies of those former heroes were ascendant, leading into our future. The latter group - McCarthy and his ilk - were of the past; difficult to root out, but finally vanquished. Scary examples of times when democracy lost its way.
Clearly we are facing another such phase. No safe assumptions now. Progress and Democracy can’t be taken for granted, but must be defended. It's time again for the continual hard work of creating a future based in dignity and respect.
There’s our path.
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