Angus King: New England finds its Chamberlain

Angus King may be the most important and influential of Virginians to travel north to us since Bronson Alcott brought up his doctrine of “inner light” and passed it on to Emerson and Thoreau. There is today on the op-ed pages of The New York Times a profile of him by Jennifer Finney Boylan that compares Maine’s former governor, who is running as an Independent for the Senate seat being vacated by Olympia Snowe (R), to Maine's Joshua Chamberlain, who singlehandedly held off the Confederates at Gettysburg. It brought the critical turning to the Civil War and you could therefore say that Chamberlain brought forth with arms the modern age.

In the middle of the George W. Bush administration when sensible people were looking for a new direction, the idea of a “Unity” party appeared and The Wall Street Journal’s Peggy Noonan declared that we might be seeing in it a new political party. Unity’s forum suggested Angus King, Wesley Clark, Mike Bloomberg or Virginia’s then-Gov. Mark Warner take the initiative. But it was then only a world of the imagination; a world beyond Kennedy, beyond Bush, beyond Clinton.

ADVERTISEMENT
King represented then and now what might be considered, for lack of a better phrase, classic New England liberalism, a concoction that might occur if you blended Chamberlain with Emerson. But if you visited Bowdoin College seven years ago, as I did with one of my kids, you might not have been alerted that Chamberlain worked there as its most famous college president. The student guide expressed a general disdain for “those soldiers” when it was brought up, and advised that in today’s more enlightened era you could take an advanced intellectual journey in the anthropology of Bart Simpson. So it is nice to note that New Englanders are discovering once again their seminal warrior, Joshua Chamberlain, and pitching him to advance Angus King to the Senate.

King represented to New England what could be found in part today in Scott Brown and part in Elizabeth Warren, and part in the popular Bill Weld, who was governor of Massachusetts when King was governor of Maine. He can be seen in part in Howard Dean, Snowe, Susan Collins and John Lynch, the current Democratic governor of New Hampshire. Liberal or conservative doesn’t really apply as we see it played nationally, but “New England sensibility” does. Add to the mix Joshua Chamberlain and you have a formidable new grouping. Chamberlain perfectly reconnects us New Englanders with our ancient selves and memory and King brings the link. If King wins his race, and I think he will, he will be an appealing figure. In a time of change, he will be considered for president in 2016.

Boylan, citing Chamberlain at Appomattox, says it is hard to imagine a contemporary politician making a gesture as conciliatory as Chamberlain’s there. “But compromise in human affairs is utterly necessary in order to do anything,” King told her.

Just so, but Little Round Top was not about compromise. It was about total conquest and victory at any and all costs, and it’s with a modest foreboding that we are finding ourselves there again 150 years later.