Campus & Community

Wilentz, Alexander advise, inspire

7 min read

Phi Beta Kappa orator, poet speak and versify

American democracy is not a static, unchanging phenomenon, but rather an ongoing argument said Sean Wilentz, this year’s Phi Beta Kappa orator.

Because of its evolving nature, democracy is not something that can be easily exported, nor does it come about automatically as the result of overthrowing tyranny, he said.

“Our own history shows differently,” said Wilentz, the Dayton-Stockon Professor of History at Princeton University and author of “The Rise of American Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln” (2005). “American democracy is more of an event or a process than a thing.”


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Wilentz spoke Tuesday (June 6) in Sanders Theatre at the 216th Literary Exercises of the Alpha Iota chapter of Phi Beta Kappa. Elizabeth Alexander, associate professor of African American Studies at Yale University, was this year’s PBK poet.

Harvard’s chapter of PBK, founded in 1781, is the oldest uninterrupted chapter of the organization in the nation. The Radcliffe chapter was founded in 1914, and the two were merged in 1995. Originally held in Holden Chapel, the Phi Beta Kappa Exercises have taken place in Sanders Theatre since 1876.

In his talk, “History & Democracy,” Wilentz used historical evidence to show that defining democracy has always been a struggle and that the democracy of today is a far cry from that of 100 or 200 years ago.

For example, when Alexis de Tocqueville visited America in the 1830s and wrote his classic study, “Democracy in America,” American democracy still included slavery and excluded the poor from voting, “hardly a democracy as we would define it today, and yet it was more of a democracy than at the time of America’s founding, less than three score years before,” Wilentz said.

Looking at history, it is possible to see periods when American society was revising itself, Wilentz said. For example, between 1815 and 1860, “a sizeable number of Americans began to recognize slavery as an undemocratic enormity.”

Sean Wilentz describes democracy as an ongoing argument: 'American democracy is more of an event or a process than a thing.' (Staff photo Jon Chase/Harvard News Office)

The change was by no means universal. Northern abolitionists took the lead in condemning slavery while other elements of society defended it or tried to reach some compromise. “But out of those conflicts, there arose in 1854 the first anti-slavery party in human history,” Wilentz said. And it was this group, the Republican Party, that nominated Abraham Lincoln for president in 1860.

Such changes can also be traced in the careers of individuals, Wilentz said. For example, when President Andrew Jackson, credited with extending democracy to the common man, came to Harvard in 1833 to receive an honorary degree, one Harvard overseer, John Quincy Adams, boycotted the ceremony, calling Jackson “a barbarian who could not write a sentence of grammar and hardly could spell his own name.”

Yet, by 1839, the erudite and elitist Adams, who had run successfully for a seat in the House of Representatives after losing the presidency to Jackson, had embraced abolitionist principles to such an extent that he defended the mutinous slaves of the Spanish ship “Amistad” in the U.S. Supreme Court and won their freedom.

Meanwhile, Wilentz said, “Jackson sided with those who thought democracy and slavery could go hand in hand.”

These examples should teach us that while democracy may be “the world’s best hope,” it is also “fragile and contested” and that “self-satisfaction is dangerous and foolish.”

Wilentz ended by saying that “if we’re going to make hope and history rhyme, with all our might we must join democracy’s argument and help write the verse.”

Alexander’s poem, titled “Poem of a Thousand Stories,” affirmed the idea that each person’s story is unique and important and eventually finds a listener, someone to be moved and inspired by it.

Let the poem be the home for the stories
of tribes, far-flung and ill-defined.
Someone is listening for those stories.
Who is it? Somebody listens.

Hoxby,
Caroline M. Hoxby (left), the Allie S. Freed Professor of Economics, and Kay K. Shelemay, the G. Gordon Watts Professor of Music and Professor of African and African American Studies, are two of the recipients of the Phi Beta Kappa Teaching Prizes awarded at the ceremony. (Staff photo Rose Lincoln/Harvard News Office)

Alexander’s poem went on to recount the moving stories of individuals, several from the poet’s own family. Alexander’s great-aunt, Caroline Bond Day, received a Ph.D. from Harvard in 1830, the first black woman to earn an advanced degree in anthropology. Her dissertation, “A Study of Some Negro-White Families in the United States,” is still in the archives of the Peabody Museum, along with samples of hair the author snipped from her subjects.

Alexander’s father, Clifford Leopold Alexander Jr., came to Harvard in 1951 as a freshman and roomed alone because “the school would not give him a white roommate.” Nevertheless, he excelled as a student and years later had this advice for his daughter:

He tells me, speaking up
may not make you feel good,
may not right a wrong,
may not get you what you want,
but you never know who is listening
and someone is always listening.

The Exercises were also the occasion for the announcement of the Phi Beta Kappa Teaching Prizes. This year, they went to Joseph D. Harris, the Higgins Professor of Mathematics; Caroline M. Hoxby, the Allie S. Freed Professor of Economics; and Kay K. Shelemay, the G. Gordon Watts Professor of Music and Professor of African and African American Studies.

Three individuals were made honorary members of Phi Beta Kappa. They were: Caroline Elkins, the Hugo K. Foster Associate Professor of African Studies and author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Imperial Reckoning: The Untold Story Of Britain’s Gulag In Kenya” (2005); Fakhri A. Bazzaz, the Mallinckrodt Professor of Biology Emeritus; and François Bovon, the Frothingham Professor of the History of Religion.

Eighty-seven seniors from the class of 2006 were recently elected to the Harvard College chapter of Phi Beta Kappa (PBK), Alpha Iota of Massachusetts:

Adams House: Jayme Judi Herschkopf, Chang Liu, Srihari Mahadev, Yonina Robbie Murciano-Goroff, Kim Thuy Nguyen, Jared Roitstein-Vega, Ruchira Saha, Karin Sun Schrader, Henry Jacobson Seton

Cabot House: Lyly Cao Minh, Caroline Cecot, Rivers Cuomo, Benjamin Lee Istva, Sarah Lee Paiji

Currier House: Jennie Kay Hann, Charles Glen Kulwin, Conor Steven Tochilin, Annie Rui Zhang

Dudley House: Kyle Remey McCarthy, David Anderson Wax, Alexander Salah Captain

Dunster House: Christopher John Catizone, Farhang Heydari, Mary Julia James, Andrew Lee Kalloch

Eliot House: Jay Alexander Hilton Butler, Katharine Collins Hinkle, Meghan Verena Joyce, James Ginns Levine, Daniel Warren Shoag, Zachary Byron Singer, Ying Sun, Dina Shiang Wang, Shengping Yu

Kirkland House: Kyle Cooper Frisina, Nathan Alan Labenz, Liam Roine Martin, Lauren Alexis Eleanor Schuker

Leverett House: Luke Medford Appling, Amar Chopra Bakshi, Elizabeth Weiss Green, Stephanie Ruth Hurder, Alice Chihyun Hwang, Long Le-Khac, Jose Paul

Payne-Johnson, Emily Claire Richmond, Julian Mancel Rose, Lewis Alexander Slack, Matthew Anthony Steinert, Matthew Corey Sullivan

Lowell House: Orr Ashenberg, Lora Rabin Dagi, Evan Hepler-Smith, Jenny Jing Jin, Nancy Kang, Henry Cheng-Yu Lin, Rebecca Gail Pomerantz

Mather House: Hana Rachel Alberts, HeeWon Lee, Qicheng Ma, Robert Heller Michelassi, Eric Scott Nguyen, Daniel Jennis Obus, Prashant Pradeep Sharma, David William Simmons-Duffin, Hasuk Francis Song, Inna Ilana Zakharevich

Pforzheimer House: Amanda Ramsay Brosius, John Richard Hein, James William Honan-Hallock, Karin Sara Louise Johnsson, Victoria Lynn Sprow

Quincy House: Jennifer Shyamala Sayaka Balakrishnan, Jonathan Andrew Blazek, David Collis Foster, Lauren Aileen Horowitz, Christopher Moran Re, Jessica Ruth Rubin-Wills, Ariane Isabelle Tschumi

Winthrop House: Andrew Gellis Crocker, Susannah Moore Dickerson, Mina Dimitrova Dimitrova, Bethany Lynn Hoag, Christopher Ratcliffe Le Coney, Kathleen Anne Lee, Raphael Chayim Rosen, Adam Nathaniel Scheffler