Today is the Fourth of July, the official birthday of the United States of America. For many Americans, that (usually) means parades, cookouts, waving flags, and enjoying fireworks.
Covid-19 has of course put a damper on many of our traditional celebrations, but the coronavirus isn’t the only thing dampening celebratory spirits.
Trending on Twitter today is the phrase “F — the Fourth” (only the “F” word is of course spelled out). There are thousands of people tweeting this and even more liking and sharing such comments. And they all have one thing in common: the sentiment that America isn’t worth celebrating.
Our country is, of course, grappling with race issues. The recent and reprehensible murder of George Floyd unleashed a wave of protests and unrest that rivals any we’ve seen in American history. This is truly a moment for the history books, and we are still in the midst of that moment.
The protests, of course, have been about more than just George Floyd. The murder of Mr. Floyd at the knee of a police officer, while other officers looked on and while several bystanders recorded it, was simply the catalyst that unleashed decades (centuries even) of pent-up anger and frustration over racism and injustice in America’s past — and present.
We are, you might say, undergoing painful exploratory surgery to identify and (hopefully) remove the last vestiges of racism and white supremacy. And allow me to say, for what it’s worth, that I deplore racism and unequivocally renounce white supremacy.
I acknowledge that the United States is a flawed nation, and that many people over the course of our history have been deeply hurt by bigotry and injustice.
Do the sins of America’s past and present, however, mean that the country itself is irredeemably wicked and that the United States is not worth celebrating?
For many, that answer is “yes.”
Last year, Nike yanked a planned 4th of July sneaker branded around the famous Betsy Ross 13-star colonial American flag. The reason was due to allegations from many, most notably Colin Kaepernick, that the Betsy Ross flag is “racist.” Georgetown University professor Michael Eric Dyson associated the Betsy Ross flag with the Nazi swastika.
Go on social media today and you will see many comments dripping with contempt for George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and the rest of America’s early statesmen. The primary line of attack: These men were slave owners, and Americans today should be ashamed to pay them any respect or honor.
There is indeed an ever-growing chorus of contempt and condemnation sung by activists, social media influencers, celebrities, scholars, students, politicians, judges, talk show hosts, authors, and everyday Americans concerning the sins of our nation’s past.
This refrain is of course based on the premise that the Founders were racist and genocidal white male elites who founded a nation built on bigotry, injustice, and inequality. Moreover, these critics claim that the bigotry woven into the very fabric of our founding continues in America.
Many critics believe that the only way to remove racism and inequality from our society is to fundamentally reshape the very systems upon which our nation operates and to turn our backs to the past and any romantic notions of nostalgia.
What then should our view be of the Founding Fathers?
After all, were they not a group of white male colonial leaders who collectively tolerated slavery and, in some cases, actually practiced it? Isn’t America better off to leave them in the dustbin of history and continue its progression toward a society that respects men and women as equals regardless of race, color, or ethnic origin?
Answering these questions requires us to consider deeper, more fundamental questions regarding our Founders and our nation’s origins.
What did the Founders mean when they declared “all men are created equal”?
The fact that race-based chattel slavery was an entrenched institution during the founding era is beyond debate. And it’s a fact that it’s been reinforced in today’s American mind by the recent 1619 Project.
What seems to elude popular realization is the equally relevant fact that slavery, as an institution, has sadly been with the human race for virtually its entire history. It’s hardly unique to North America or the founding of the United States.
Moreover, the men we know as the Founders grew up in a society that widely accepted slavery. They didn’t have the Internet. Virtually all of the information they had access to affirmed slavery.
Today’s “woke” progressives expect the Founders to have a level of awareness and conscience that frankly defies human nature, particularly in light of the social limitations of the Founders’ day.
This doesn’t fully abrogate the Founders’ guilt or responsibility. And I’m certainly not endorsing relative truth. But it’s a fact that our relationship to the truth, including moral truth, is relative — relative to our perspective.
What’s incredible is that it was during the generation of Americans we consider the founding generation that the tide of public opinion began to turn against slavery. And the men we know as the Founders were largely responsible for this turning-of-the-tide.
In the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson penned the now famous words of the Preamble: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights…”
What about men and women of African descent? Were they “created equal” with whites? Were they “endowed” with “unalienable rights”?
Conor Cruise O’Brien, a renowned biographer of Thomas Jefferson, writes:
It is accepted that the words ‘all men are created equal’ do not, in their literal meaning, apply to women, and were not intended by the Founding Fathers (collectively) to apply to slaves.
The late civil rights activist Ralph Abernathy agreed:
“The only logical conclusion that modern blacks can draw from [the Founding and slavery] is that their forefathers were not regarded as ‘men’ by the white founders of this country.”
Ironically, these conclusions, accepted today by a growing majority of Americans, are almost identical to the position taken by Stephen Douglas, the “Little Giant” of Illinois and lifelong rival of Abraham Lincoln.
When Lincoln asserted that the word of the Declaration of Independence did apply people of African descent as well as whites, Douglas responded that “the signers of the Declaration of Independence never dreamed of the Negro when they were writing that document.”
Abraham Lincoln defied his opponent to find “one single affirmation from one single man” during the founding era that stated “the Negro was not included in the Declaration of Independence.” Douglas could not.
And neither can O’Brien, Abernathy, or any other critic of America’s founding today.
Lincoln’s position was that the existence of slavery during the founding era was not an indicator of the Founders’ support for it. According to Lincoln, the Founders never saw slavery as consistent with the principles they enshrined in our heritage.
Rather, the Founding Fathers overwhelmingly deplored slavery and considered black Americans to be included in the Declaration’s creed. Said Lincoln:
“The fathers of this government expected and intended the institution of slavery to come to an end. They expected and intended that it would be in the course of ultimate extinction.”
His view is ignored or rejected in today’s classrooms and in the media, and we are seeing today the fruits of this ignorance in the bitterness and bewilderment many Americans today have of their founding.
Consider that in Jefferson’s original draft of the Declaration of Independence, the Virginian added the following as one of the many deplorable examples of the conduct of King George III:
“He has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating and carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere …Determined to keep a market where men should be bought and sold, he has prostituted his negative for suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or to restrain this execrable commerce.”
This portion of Jefferson’s draft was removed from the final document in order to appease delegates from the Deep South. Nevertheless, it clearly refers to the victims of the African slave trade as “men,” thus indicating that Jefferson included both blacks and whites in his earlier reference to “all men.”
James Madison, another leading Virginian at the time of the nation’s founding and widely considered the “Father of the Constitution” is even clearer on this matter. In one of his many condemnations of slavery, Madison declared: “We have seen the mere distinction of color made in the most enlightened period of time, a ground of the most oppressive dominion of man over man.” Note that last part again: “man over man.”
Why then did slavery exist if the Founders hated it so much?
As mentioned previously, the sad truth is that slavery was an accepted institution in most of the world prior to the American Revolution. By the time Britain had colonized North America, slavery had become an integral part of the nation’s heavily agricultural economy and culture. Many generations of white colonists grew up with slavery as much a part of their society as farming or horseback riding.
Many simply didn’t take the time to assess it for the evil that it was. This all, however, began to change with the Declaration of Independence.
With the Declaration, the United States became the first nation officially dedicated to the revolutionary ideal that all human beings are created equal. And it was this precept that led to what many historians consider “the Opening of the American Mind.”
John Jay, the first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, described the changing views of Americans toward slavery and race relations in a 1788 letter to the president of the Society for the Manumission of Slaves. Jay wrote that prior to the Revolutionary War, most Americans were “accustomed to the practice and convenience of having slaves, that very few among them doubted the propriety and rectitude of it.”
However, as the Revolution unfolded with colonists clamoring for equal rights and justice, Jay observed that the denunciations by some of the institution of slavery began to prevail “by almost insensible degrees.” It soon became quite apparent that slavery was entirely inconsistent with the ideals and principles of the United States.
None of the prominent Founders defended the institution of slavery on moral grounds. And most began to speak out against it, at the conclusion of the American Revolution, including many who actually held slaves. And they didn’t just talk.
- In 1787, the pre-Constitution Congress forbade slavery in the Northwest Territory. The First Congress (under the new Constitution) later affirmed this ban.
- By 1798, every state had outlawed the importation of slaves within its borders. When South Carolina later reopened the slave trade in 1803, Congress intervened and outlawed it nationally in 1808.
- By 1804, seven of the original thirteen states had abolished slavery itself.
Unfortunately, while the Founders collectively spoke against and took action against slavery, many of them don’t escape the judgment of history so easily. Some Founders, such as Abraham Baldwin and Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, were supporters of the institution, though they were in the minority.
Furthermore, the Founders were collectively too optimistic about slavery’s natural demise. They truly believed that, once the slave trade was banned (hence, the fierce debate over this portion of the Constitution in convention) and the economy became more industrial, the institution would die off. They saw it surviving for only a few more decades.
In part, their hopes were correct. Slavery did wane following the American Revolution and the livelihood of African Americans was modestly enhanced.
These positive developments, though, were quickly reversed in the Deep South once the cotton gin became more popular and the founding generation passed from the scene.
Therefore, it must be acknowledged that, on this score, these men of usually remarkable foresight were found lacking and deserve their due criticism. Thomas G. West, author of Vindicating the Founders, writes: “The Founders’ hopeful sentiments [concerning the demise of slavery] proved to be a delusion.”
In the end, the truth of the biblical lesson of “sowing and reaping” is undeniable. By compromising with the institution of slavery, the Founders made possible the founding of the United States, but they also sowed the seeds for a civil war as well as many more years of injustice and oppression.
This, however, does not negate the nobility and impact of the founding principles themselves. The Fourth of July is still worth celebrating.
The great reformers and civil rights champions of our past, from Frederick Douglass to Martin Luther King, Jr., have all called on America to live UP to its founding principles, rather than renounce them.
This must be our way forward.
We will accomplish more in the pursuit of civil rights and racial equality with love, rather than hate.
Let us not hate America. Let us call on America to continue its pursuit of fulfilling, in the words of Martin Luther King, Jr. the “promissory note” of its noble founding.