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  • Jane Addams (left) and Lilian Wald (right)


    Anyone who has taken a United States history course in high school knows the story of Jane Addams and Chicago’s Hull House, the first Settlement House in America and arguably the genesis of social work in the country. More advanced textbooks may even have discussed Lillian Wald, founder of New York’s Henry Street Settlement House, who was instrumental in introducing the concept of “public health” – and the important epidemiological axiom that physical well being is inseparable from economic and living conditions. 


    What no one learned in high school, or later, was that Addams and Wald were women who loved other women and that these relationships – as well as the female friendship networks in which they were involved – were profoundly instrumental to their vision of social justice that changed America. 


    Since its founding – even amid deep seated prejudices and politics of exclusion and animus – there has been an American impulse to help the less advantaged. This was the kinder aspect of Winthrop’s 1630 sermon “The City on the Hill” (also know as “A Model of Christian Charity”)  and the sentiment was evident in George W. H. Bush’s 1988 “A Thousand Points of Light” speech. Helping fellow countrymen – at least those deemed worthy of help – was a social and political virtue. 


    What Jane Addams and Lillian Wald did was different. They imagined an America in which helping the poor was not charity but a work of democracy and a demonstration of equality. Addams and Wald, and many other women like them, were complicated products of the traditional American impulseforcharity and the massive reforms of the progressive era. What made them distinct was that their status as single women, and as lovers of women, gave them an outsider status that allowed them to envision different ways of structuring society.


    Jane Addams, born in 1860, grew up in what looked like a nineteenth-century picture-book American home in Cedarville, Illinois with servants and farmhands. Her family was prosperous and owned factories that produced wool and flour. Her father, friends with Abraham Lincoln, was an abolitionist and progressive and raised his children likewise. While attending Rockford Female Seminary in Rockford, Illinois, Addams met Ellen Gates Starr and the two became a couple, exchanging constant letters while they were apart. In 1885 Starr wrote to her: 


    My Dear, It has occurred to me that it might just be possible that you would spend a night with me if you should be going east at the right time. If you decide to go the week before Christmas - I mean - what do I mean? I think it is this. Couldn’t you decide to spend the Sunday before Christmas with me? Get here on Saturday and go on Monday? … Please forgive me for writing three letters in a week


    In 1887, after hearing about Toynbee Hall in London’s impoverished East End neighborhood of London, Addams became intrigued with the new concept of a settlement house: group living in poor neighborhoods that brought local women, men, and children together with teachers, artists, and counselors from various backgrounds. Today, we might call the concept “intentional living groups.” These collectives – often funded by wealthy people – offered education, health care, arts training, day care, meals, and emotional support for the economically disadvantaged. Addams and Starr visited Toynbee House and decided to open something similar in Chicago. In 1889 they opened Hull House with the charter “to provide a center for the higher civic and social life; to institute and maintain educational and philanthropic enterprises, and to investigate and improve the conditions in the industrial districts of Chicago.”  Later, after Addams and Starr separated, her new lover Mary Rozer Smith joined her in this grand social experiment.






    Lillian Wald had a similar story. Born into a comfortable, middle-class Jewish family in Cincinnati, Ohio in 1867 she was raised in Rochester, New York. Although she was a brilliant student, she was tuned down by Vassar College because she was considered too young at age 16. Instead, she later went to nursing school. Inspired by Jane Addams and Hull House, upon graduating, Wald and her close friend Mary Brewster moved into a tenement in the immigrant communities of New York’s Lower East Side and began their nursing careers. They believed that nursing involved more than physical care. It was important for them, and other nurses, to live in the neighborhoods of the people for whom they cared and to address the social and economic problems as much as the physical ills. Wald coined the term “public health nurse” to convey the broad swath of this goal. Soon, Wald and Brewster moved into a home on Henry Street that eventually became the Henry Street Settlement. This became  a model of community-based health initiatives and eventually the Visiting Nurse Service grew out of this work. In 1906, it housed 27 nurses; by 2013, the Henry Street Settlement employed 92 people. 


    Wald and Brewster received emotional and financial support from many women, and some men. But, much of the core of Henry Street Settlement was formed around a close network of single women, who among themselves had a complex series of personal friendships and romantic relationships. The Manhattan socialite, and daughter of a prominent New York minister, Mabel Hyde Kittredge, for example, worked at Henry Street Settlement for many years and was an intimate friend to Wald. In the early years of their friendship she wrote to Wald:


    I seemed to hold you in my arms and whisper all of this… . If you want me to stay all night tomorrow night just say so when you see me… . Then I can hear you say “I love you”-and again and again I can see in your eyes the strength, and the power and the truth that I love. 


    Wald had a vast network of women friends – lovingly referred to as her “steadies” – and at the end of her life she said “I am a very happy women… because I’ve had so many people to love, and so many who have loved me.” 


    What does it matter that Addams and Weld were women who loved women?  Addams had two major loves in her life, with whom she shared work, a vision and a bed. Wald’s relationships were less dedicated, but no less intense. Would they have been able to do this important work if they had been heterosexual, married and probably mothers? Certainly there were many married women – from Julia Ward Howe in the mid-nineteenth century to Eleanor Roosevelt in the mid-twentieth century –  who partook in public life, public service, and social reform. What set Addams and Wald and their friendship circles apart was that they were outsiders to social conventions. 


    In a world dominated by heterosexual expectations being a single woman culturally set you apart in ways that were dismissive – words and phases such as “spinster” and “old maid” – but also liberating: you were not burdened with the duties of marriage and motherhood. Addams and Wald were also fortunate to come from wealthy families which gave them the ability to dictate their own life choices. With limited opportunities for gainful employment, many women understood that marriage was their best path to economic security. As women unattached to male spouses, Adaams and Wald were able to break from the traditional methods of female giving such as the ideology of motherly love or the distanced, munificent “lady bountiful.” 


    Yet there is something else here as well. Unburdened by the expectations of heterosexual marriage these women imagined and explored new ways of organizing the world. They created new social and housing structures – extended non-biological families – that were more efficient and more capable of taking care of a wealth of human social, physical and emotional needs. In large part they were able to do this because they did not rely on the traditional model of heterosexual marriage and home as the building block of society. Instead, they rejected this model. 


    Historian Blanche Wiesen Cook has written extensively on how these female friendship circles – precisely because they were homosocial, and in many cases homosexual – were able to transform American social and political life with a new vision of how to organize society and conceptualize how to care for family is the largest sense of the word. Such a vision is not only profoundly American, it is the essence of social justice. 



    Why do people confess to serious crimes they did not commit? Such an act appears totally against human nature. And yet, we have the case of the Central Park Five where five teenage boys didn’t just say “I did it,” but gave detailed, overlapping, confessions. Based upon those confessions, and with no supporting physical evidence, the boys were sentenced to prison. After serving nearly a dozen years, someone else confessed to the rape, and that confession is backed up by DNA evidence. How can this happen?


    The more important question is: were the Central Park Five confessions a freak accident? The answer is NO. Every day, adults and juveniles falsely confess to serious crimes they did not commit.


    After 40 years of practicing law and having handled a case similar to the Central Park Five, I can tell you that it is not the people who make these false confessions that society should look to for an explanation, but rather the system itself. In particular, how the authorities question potential suspects.


    At the core of American criminal justice is an accusatorial system that assumes a suspect is guilty. This accusatory model runs through all levels of law enforcement and naturally leads to an accusatory method of interrogation, where the suspect is presumed guilty by their questioner.


    At first, physical torture was used to extract confessions, verifying the interrogator’s theory of guilt. Then in 1936, the United States Supreme Court ruled, in the case of Brown vs. Mississippi, confessions obtained through violence, such as beatings and hangings, could not be entered as evidence at trial. The court recognized that any human can be coerced to say anything, and as such, confessions by torture were unreliable.


    As a consequence, the authorities went to a softer and less obvious method of coercion: the “third degree.” The third degree left less-observable physical marks of torture; the police shoved the suspect’s head into a toilet, twisted arms, or struck the accused in places that would not leave an obvious mark. Interrogations were conducted nonstop for days, with sleep deprivation, bright lights, verbal abuse, and threats to the suspect and suspect’s family all commonplace.


    In the early 1960s, John E. Reid, a polygraph expert and former police officer, and Fred E. Inbau, a lawyer and criminologist, devised an extensive method of psychological interrogation called the Reid Technique of Interrogation. This model is based on psychological manipulations and the ability of the questioner to tell when the suspect is lying, and it is used today by practically all police departments in the United States. The Reid Technique follows the American tradition of accusatory criminal investigation. Instead of torture, however, the Reid Technique utilizes isolation, confrontation, the minimization of culpability and consequences, and the officer’s use of lies about evidence that supposedly proves the suspect is guilty.


    This accusatory method establishes control over the person being investigated by leaving the suspect alone in a small, windowless, claustrophobic room prior to interrogation; has the interrogator ask accusatory, closed-ended questions that reflect the police theory of what happened; and has the officers evaluate body language and speech in order to determine if the suspect is lying. The goal of this psychological interrogation is to overwhelm the person being questioned and to maximize the suspect’s perception of their guilt. When necessary, a softer approach by the investigator allows the suspect to perceive their conduct in a socially more acceptable light and thereby minimizes both the perception of the suspect’s guilt and the likely legal consequences if they confess.  


    By the time the Supreme Court decided Miranda v. Arizona, psychological interrogations had supplanted physical coercion. But with no obvious marks of torture, the Supreme Court now had difficulty distinguishing voluntary from involuntary confessions. The Court noted:

    [T]he modern practice of in-custody interrogation is psychological rather than physically oriented.


    As we have stated before, this Court has recognized that coercion can be mental as well as physical, and that blood of the accused is not the only hallmark of an unconstitutional inquisition.


    The justices went on to emphasize the “inherent coercion of custodial interrogation [when considering] the interaction of physical isolation and psychological manipulation,” and concluded that new safeguards were necessary in order to ensure non-coerced confessions. Thus, the Court required the now-famous Miranda rights warning that law-enforcement agencies read to suspects.


    These safeguards are as follows:

    • You have the right to remain silent.
    • Anything you say will be used against you in court.
    • You have the right to an attorney.
    • If you cannot afford an attorney, one will be provided to you.


    However, these Miranda safeguards do not prevent psychologically induced false confessions.


    Scholars say the flaw in psychological interrogations like the Reid Technique is the assumption that the investigator can detect when the suspect is lying. Studies challenge the ability of a person, even a trained investigator, to tell when a person is lying. This is particularly true when dealing with the young, the poorly educated, or the mentally ill, especially when the suspect is under the psychological stress of isolation, accusation, and the presentation of false evidence.


    As a criminal defense attorney, I have had firsthand experience observing the results of the Reed Technique when used against juvenile suspects. The Crowe murder case is a prime example of how psychological interrogation goes wrong when the police follow their presumed skilled assumption that a suspect is guilty. In the Crowe case, the police had no evidence as to who killed 12-year-old Stephanie Crowe. But her 14-year-old brother, Michael, didn’t seem to be grieving appropriately. By the time the police were done interrogating Michael, he had confessed to the murder, and two other high school friends had given statements tying them to the murder. All three were charged as adults for the murder. I represented one of the boys. At defense insistence, a mentally ill vagrant’s clothing was tested. DNA tests found Stephanie’s blood on the vagrant’s clothing. The boys were released and exonerated of all guilt.


    Such false confessions need not happen. There is a new method of interrogation created by the High-Value Detainee Interrogation Group (HIG) that is quietly being used by a few law enforcement agencies. HIG was established in 2009 as a reaction to the physical and psychological torture at Guantanamo Bay, Abu Ghraib, and other overseas CIA facilities during the post-9/11 Bush years. The HIG technique represents a joint effort by the FBI, the CIA, and the Pentagon to conduct non-coercive interrogations.


    How HIG works and the tactics used by interrogators are closely held government secrets. But this we do know: The United States government through HIG has funded over sixty studies in the psychological and behavioral sciences worldwide, with particular emphasis on studies of the law enforcement models in England and Canada. These two countries have abandoned the Reid Technique of psychologically accusatory interrogations for a “cognitive interview” model where the suspect is asked what they know about the crime. This method presumes the suspect is innocent and allows the suspect to tell their story without interruption or accusation. The investigator may ask the suspect about contradictions or inconsistencies between the suspect’s narration and the known evidence. But the interrogator may not lie about the evidence or deceive the suspect.


    Could we be seeing the end of the American method of accusatory interrogation and the beginning of a new and more effective form of interrogation? One thing is sure: the cognitive-interview method was found, in a 2014 HIG study, to be more effective in producing true confessions as opposed to false confessions than the American accusatory approach.




    An exasperated Father Henry Heintskill, C.S.C., a Notre Dame chaplain posted to naval duty in the Pacific, faced the same issue with which almost every military chaplain grappled during World War II—how to perform the multiple tasks that normally required the services of two or three chaplains. “There are all sorts of problems the men have,” Father Heintskill wrote in a letter to his superior, “they’re worried about conditions at home, etc.  We have to do what we can.”  He explained that after one Friday evening service, at least two hundred men gathered for Confession, requiring him to remain an hour after lights out at 9:30 p.m.  “If ever I felt that I ought to be five priests it was that week.”


    Chaplains celebrated Mass and helped the men complete government forms. Some soldiers, not long out of high school, wondered what combat would be like.  Others asked about the morality of taking another man’s life. 


    One duty, however, was paramount—to be at the side of a soldier or sailor as the young man died. It was then that the chaplain could administer Last Rites and its promise of dying with a clear conscience. 


    That was evident as soon as the first day of war, when ninety Japanese aircraft struck Clark Field in the Philippines shortly after noon. Father John Duffy, a Notre Dame diocesan priest from Ohio, eluded bullets and bombs as he ran to the field, littered with dead and wounded, to hear confessions and administer Last Rites. To avoid wasting precious moments by inquiring about the soldier’s faith, he gave Last Rites to any dying serviceman he came across. “I knew it would be effective for the members of my faith & that it would do the others no harm,” he explained later.  “There wasn’t sufficient time for inquiry about religious tenets of the wounded.” 


    Four months later, Father Duffy lay at the receiving end of the sacrament. After enduring severe abuse at the hands of cruel Japanese guards on what became known as the infamous Bataan Death March—“Extreme Unction, Baptism, Confessions administered daily on march,” wrote Father Duffy. “Death, pestilence, hunger, exhaustion, depleted all.”—the priest lay on the ground, apparently dying from bayonet slashes to his body. A Protestant chaplain knelt beside his friend, held Duffy’s head in his hands, and prayed, “Lord, have mercy on your servant. He’s a good man who served you well. Receive his soul.”  Within moments another Catholic chaplain came upon the scene and, also thinking the priest was dying, anointed Father Duffy.


    The importance of Last Rites extended even to the enemy. Two and one half years later, during the bitter combat in Normandy following the June 6, 1944 invasion, Father Francis L. Sampson spotted a German soldier lying in a creek a few feet away.  He crawled over to do what he could for the enemy soldier, but as Sampson lifted him into his arms, the German groaned a few times and died.  Because he saw a higher duty, the Catholic chaplain from Notre Dame, wearing an American uniform, gave absolution to a German soldier dying in a French creek.


    Father Joseph D. Barry, C.S.C., recognized that a paralyzing fear for a wounded or dying soldier was to lie alone on the battlefield, left to contend with his fears. During his more than 500 days in European combat with the 45th Infantry Division, Barry exerted every effort to reach a boy prone on the ground and bring him the peace of knowing that someone was there with him. “After 54 years, I can still see Father Barry administering last rites to soldiers in the field while enemy shells exploded all around him,” wrote Albert R. Panebianco, a soldier in the 45th Infantry Division.  


    On one occasion Barry talked with a soldier who, due to go into battle in a few hours, feared that “this might be my last night.” The soldier confided that he accepted fear as part of his task, but wondered if he would control his panic and still perform when it counted.  


    Barry inquired if there was anything the priest could do for him. Above all, the boy told Barry, he had wanted to be a good soldier—for his men, his family, his country, and his God—and if he died, would Barry please tell his family that he had fulfilled that wish.  During combat later that night, German fire cut down the youth. Father Barry rushed to him, cradled the mortally wounded boy in his arms, and with explosions and combat nearly drowning out his words, shouted into the dying boy’s ear, “Remember how we talked last night.  Here it is.  And I can say you were a good soldier.”


    Father Barry consoled more people than the soldiers he tended. He also penned letters to parents and loved ones, often at the behest of the dying soldier who asked the priest to inform his mother or wife that he loved her. Above all, he made certain that they knew that their son had died with a priest at his side. “I wrote to so many.  You could write what they wanted to know more than anything else, ‘I wonder if there was a priest with my boy.’” Barry explained in an interview.  “And that is the only reason I wrote,” he said. 


    In Okinawa, Father John J. Burke, C.S.C., knew the difficulty of fashioning letters to grieving loved ones. After a Japanese torpedo struck the aft portion of his battleship, USS Pennsylvania, on August 12, 1945, killing twenty men, Father Burke mailed twenty responses to loved ones in which he relayed, with dignity and compassion, information about the loss of their son, brother, or husband. Rather than send a similar form letter to each family, he instead crafted similar opening and ending paragraphs, but inserted personal information unique to each individual in the main portion. “God bless you in your present sorrow,” Father Burke began each letter.  “As the Catholic Chaplain aboard the U.S.S. Pennsylvania I want to assure you that your son [here he inserted their first name] received Catholic Burial.  The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass was offered several times for the repose of his soul.”


    He then added personal information about each sailor.  To Mrs. Angeline Ortbals of Ferndale, Michigan, whose son, nineteen-year-old Seaman 1/c Robert J. Ortbals, died, he wrote that Robert “had a heart of gold” and went out of his way to help his shipmates. To the parents of a sailor named Roemer, he wrote that, “I feel that a boy so young must very soon, if not already, be enjoying the eternal happiness of heaven which is beyond human description and to which, in God’s mercy we all look forward.” 


    Father Burke closed all letters by explaining that their son had recently attended Mass and received Communion, and that as far as he knew, had led a religious life.  “It is impossible for me to express anything that will lessen the sorrow which you must endure.  You have returned to God your beloved son on your Country’s Altar of Sacrifice.  In this supreme sacrifice your son is most like our Divine Savior; and you, I trust, most like his Blessed Mother.  God bless you with the humble and Christian spirit of resignation to His Divine Will.”


    Though they conducted many rigorous tasks, the chaplains cherished the knowledge that they had comforted dying young men, and subsequently their families, in these final moments. As Father Duffy related, “I did what I could for each regardless of his faith, and a look of ineffable peace came to the face of many a tortured soul in that last bitter hour on earth.”

  • “Why don’t they go back and help fix the totally broken and crime-infested places from which they came” the president of the United States recently tweeted. Trump was referring to four Congress women of color, three of whom were born in the United States. The other is a naturalized American citizen. Trump continued his criticism of “the Squad,” in particular Congresswoman Ilhan Omar, at a campaign rally and the crowd responded by chanting “send her back.” As David Leonhardt of the New York Times wrote, “It was an ugly, lawless, racist sentiment, and President Trump loved it”. He later denied that he supported the crowd’s chant.  It’s hard to imagine Trump telling a white man, even someone like Senator Bernie Sanders who he disagrees with, to go back to where he came from. Correctly charged as a racist statement, the tweet also reflects an age-old question in our history: who can be an American?


    There have always been two views of what defines American identity. One is tied to a traditional racial or ethnic view, ethno-nationalism for short, the other is that America is an idea. Gunnar Myrdal of Sweden dubbed the second one the American Creed: Americans were bound together by “the ideals of the essential dignity and equality of all human beings, of inalienable rights to freedom, justice and opportunity.” Myrdal was referring to Jefferson’s natural rights section of the Declaration of Independence when he made this observation.


    Today, the United States is religiously, culturally, and ethnically diverse. Yet we see ourselves as Americans in large part due to this creedal notion of America. In 2018, two scholars at Grinnell College “polled Americans on what they most associate with being a real American.” They found that a “vast majority of respondents identified a set of values as more essential than any particular identity.” As the historian Mark Byrnes wrote for HNN back in 2016, “The United States is fundamentally an idea, one whose basic tenets were argued in the Declaration of Independence and given practical application in the Constitution.” These ideas revolve around liberty, equality, self-government, and equal justice for all, and have universal appeal. “Since America was an idea, one could become an American by learning and devoting oneself to” those universal ideas, Byrnes observes.


    Despite the strong appeal of the American Creed, 25 percent of those polled by Grinnell College held nativist views similar to those espoused by Donald Trump during his 2016 election campaign for president, and as further reflected in his comments after Charlottesville and in his recent tweet. The view that ethnicity and race made the United States one people predominated in the early American Republic. John Jay, in Federalist No. 2, made the argument that the United States was one nation at the time of the debate over ratification of the Constitution by appealing to ethno-nationalism. He wrote that we are “one united people—a people descended from the same ancestors, speaking the same language, professing the same religion, attached to the same principles of government, very similar in their manners and customs and who, by their joint counsels, arms, and efforts…established their general liberty and independence.” Jay’s thesis largely reflected the traditional view of nationhood. A majority of Americans were of English descent in 1788 and they viewed America as a nation for white people, with Caucasians, and specifically Anglo-Saxons,as the superior race. Some scholars even defend these ideas: the late Samuel P. Huntington, who was a Harvard political scientist, has argued that this Anglo-Saxon heritage ultimately contributed to the American Creed.


    While Jay’s ethno-nationalist perspective obviously cannot describe the United States today, it was inaccurate even in 1790, when we were already a diverse people. African Americans, most of them enslaved, were 20 percent of the total population in 1790. In Pennsylvania, thirty-three percent of the people were of German ancestry, and both New York and New Jersey had large numbers of German and Dutch peoples. There were also conflicts between the English and these other groups, including the Irish, the Scottish, and the Welsh, who were themselves from the British Isles.


    While ethno-nationalism has deep roots in the United States, so too does Jefferson’s American Creed. Jay himself noted that the United States was “attached to the same principles of government,” a reference to the support for the establishment of a government grounded in the consent of the governed. To Thomas Paine, the country was drawn from “people from different nations, speaking different languages” who were melded together “by the simple operation of constructing governments on the principles of society and the Rights of Man” in which “every difficulty retires and all the parts are brought into cordial union.” Washington saw America as a place that was “open to receive not only the Opulent and respectable Stranger, but the oppressed and persecuted of all Nations and Religions.” Hector St. John de Crevecoeur was another adherent of the view that America was an idea. Originally from France, he emigrated to New York during the colonial period. Crevecoeur talked about the amazing “mixture of English, Scotch, Irish, French, Dutch, Germans, and Swedes” who were “a strange mixture of blood.” He referred to people who came to the United States as Americans, a place where “individuals of all nations are melted into a new race of men.”


    Still, rapid increases in immigration have always threatened this notion of American identity.The founding fathers differentiated between the people who inhabited the original thirteen colonies, who were largely drawn from northern Europeans, even if today we see few differences between people of European descent. Benjamin Franklin complained about the “Palatine Boors” who swarmed “into our Settlements…herding together” and creating a “Colony of Aliens.” Thomas Jefferson doubted that he shared the same blood as the “Scotch” and worried about immigrants from the wrong parts of Europe coming to the United States,” Francis Fukuyama writes in his recent book Identity. During periods of rapid immigration, nativist movements tend to emerge. 


    For people of color, America has rarely been a welcoming place. Many Black Americans were brought here as slaves, and Native Americans were overrun as the insatiable desire for land led to ever greater westward expansion. Our history must always take into account “the shameful fact: historically the United States has been a racist nation,” as the historian Arthur Schlesinger framed it in his book The Disuniting of America. “The curse of racism has been the great failure of the American experiment, the glaring contradiction of American ideals.”  


    So much of American history can be seen as an attempt by previously excluded groups to also be granted their share of the rights for which the American Creed calls. By the 1850’s, abolitionists had been agitating for an end to slavery and the extension of rights to black people. Lincoln eventually become committed to a creedal view of America that extended the rights enshrined in the Declaration of Independence to all people, black and white, native born and immigrant. Martin Luther King Jr., in his “I Have A Dream Speech” delivered in front of the Lincoln Memorial in 1963, reminded the nation that it had fallen short of its founding ideals, that the Declaration of Independence was a “promissory note to which every American was to fall heir…yes black men as well as white men.”  


    In the early 21st century, in the aftermath of the election of our first African American president, many of us hoped that our great nation had grown beyond the ethno-nationalist version of America, but the election of Donald Trump proved that this is not the case.  As Americans, our challenge, in the words of Francis Fukuyama, is to avoid “the narrow, ethnically based, intolerant, aggressive, and deeply illiberal form that national identity took” in our past, and which Trump is trying to reignite. Instead, we need “to define an inclusive national identity that fits [our] society’s diverse reality.” The challenge of our times is to continue our commitment to a creedal vision of America. We need to make a reality of the opening words of our Constitution, that “We the People” means all people who share the American creed, regardless of race, ethnicity, or religion, and to constantly strive to unleash, in Lincoln’s words, “ the better angels of our nature.” We can start by denouncing Trump’s continuing appeal to racism. 




    Even before Donald Trump was elected president of the United States he was being compared to Caligula, third emperor of Rome. Following Mr. Trump’s election, comparisons flowed thick and fast. But, is it fair to compare the unpredictable, ultimately chaotic reign and questionable mental state of Caligula with the administration and personality of the forty- fifth president of the United States? Do comparisons stand up to scrutiny?


    Well, both men ruled/rule the largest military and economic powers of their age. Caligula emptied the treasury with his extravagances. Trump presides over a ballooning U.S. national debt. Neither man had served in the military they ended up commanding.


    Both had few friends growing up. Both had multiple wives. Both men had successful, wealthy fathers. The parents of both Caligula and Trump all died before their son rose to the highest office in the land.


    Both men rid themselves of senior advisers who restrained them. Both were/are sports lovers, building their own sporting facilities in furtherance of their passions. In Caligula’s case it was chariot racing and hippodromes. For Trump, it’s been golf and golf courses.


    Then there are the obvious differences. Caligula was twenty-four years old when he came to power. Trump was seventy on taking the top job. Caligula had absolute power with no specified end date. Unless the system is changed, Trump can expect a maximum of eight years in power. Trump has made numerous outrageous claims. Caligula made just one—that he and his sister Drusilla were gods.


    Caligula was well-read and an accomplished public speaker with a lively if barbed wit. Trump’s wit can be similarly stinging. But he comes across as an inarticulate man, exhibiting an obvious discomfort with formal speeches and producing a nervous sniff when out of his comfort zone.


    It’s instructive to look at the handshakes of both. The handshake as a form of greeting went well back before the foundation of Rome. Originally, it demonstrated that neither party held a sword in the right hand. If a Roman respected the other party, he would “yield the upper hand” in a handshake, offering his hand palm up.


    Caligula yielded the upper hand to few men other than his best friend Herod Agrippa, grandson of King Herod the Great. Donald Trump sometimes yields the upper hand. But is it through respect, or diffidence?


    At his first public meeting as president with Russia’s president Vladimir Putin at the 2017 G20 summit in Germany, Trump offered his hand first, palm up, yielding the upper hand to Putin. He did the same when meeting France’s president Emanuel Macron that same year. In contrast, Trump offered female leaders Germany’s chancellor Angela Merkel and Britain’s prime minister Theresa May a straight up and down handshake.


    Through late 2018, Trump was photographed yielding the upper hand to Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison. In October, he did the same with America’s then ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, in the Oval Office.


    In terms of policy, Trump and Caligula are poles apart. Some of Caligula’s public infrastructure policies were ambitiously innovative and progressive, if expensive. While Trump has always painted himself as entrepreneurial, his policies have been regressive – a blanket program of retreat. Retreat from the Paris Climate Accord. Retreat from free trade. Retreat from government regulatory control of the economy and the environment. Retreat from military boots on the ground in Syria and Afghanistan.


    As US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in January, “When America retreats, chaos often follows.” From the available evidence, it seems Caligula did suffer from a mental illness. Trump’s mental stability is, in the words of an ancient Roman saying, still before the judge. 


    In the end, it wasn’t external foes who caused Caligula’s downfall. Caligula was brought down by a dread among his inner circle of being next as he eliminated many around him. Loyalty and friendship were no guarantee of survival. Similarly, it’s been said that President Trump turns on a dime when it comes to friends. In the case of Caligula’s friends, self-preservation eventually made the most loyal the most lethal.


    When Caligula’s reign was terminated at the point of swords wielded by assassins in his own guard, it had lasted around four years, the equivalent of a U.S. presidential term. Perhaps it will take that long for the proverbial knives to come out among the Republican old guard in Washington today. As was the case in AD 41, it will probably not be a pretty sight.

“The great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways, and history is literally present in all that we do.”

James Baldwin
The Price of the Ticket