Should America's founding legacy be racism or liberty?
One of the central questions for the United States, both in its politics and its culture, is whether the founding of the nation is moral and legitimate. Whereas some of us believe that the Republic was founded on liberty and the principles of the full equality of mankind (despite never fully living up to them), many believe that the very foundations of the American Republic are racist and that racism is the central theme of American History. Where we land on this question is incredibly consequential. At stake is whether the whole system needs to be torn down, or if the solution is to fully live up to those founding principles and apply them to today’s problems.
The Declaration of Independence arose from natural law, but it was a unique natural law—one that embraced the universal equality of mankind and not just that of a select group. This was a truly revolutionary idea that arose from dual influences of the Great Awakening and the Enlightenment. However, the realization of a high ideal into reality is always a struggle—especially when it is a profound idea. Thomas Jefferson's use of “equality” in the Declaration meant that all humanity had the same inherent inalienable rights. It meant that all persons were equal in values and standing before God, and therefore they should likewise be equal before the government. This virtue is in direct conflict with the institution of slavery, and the Founders knew it all along.
It is important to note that the American Republic did not invent or establish slavery. Slavery in one form or another was nearly universally practiced in the world at the time of the Founding, and the practice was introduced to the English colonies by the Kings of England. Jefferson’s original draft of the Declaration called for the end of slavery, and the Founding Fathers always understood that the institution violated natural rights. While the passage was removed as part of a series of political compromises—the merits and intentions of which can be debated—the Declaration’s principles still had slavery in its crosshairs.
In 1807, the United States became the first nation to ban the slave trade—an event that marked great progress in the advancement of human rights. The end of slavery in Canada happened shortly afterward, and England banned the slave trade that same year. Some argue that America only did this because it no longer needed to import slaves, and could therefore alleviate its guilt and hypocrisy while losing nothing of value. This argument, however, ignores the reality that slave owners in the United States actively argued against the ban, and the confederacy later attempted to reinstitute the slave trade in its Confederate Constitution. America was clearly divided on the issue, but abolition was already beginning to win out.
Decades later, Abraham Lincoln centered his opposition to slavery on the principles of the Declaration and natural law. In his “House Divided Against Itself” speech, he spoke of the Dred Scott decision and the rise of legal positivism, saying that the nation had departed from the ways of the Founding Fathers. Frederick Douglass used the founding principles as the basis for his abolitionism. A century later, Martin Luther King Jr. directly cited the Declaration of Independence in his fight against segregation. Slavery and racism were colossal problems with which the American Republic has had to contend from its inception, but the principles of the Founding Fathers have been the basis for ending them.
All of this is why it is a mistake to say that slavery and racism are the central themes of American history. Today, certain socio-political movements in America are turning away from the principles of the Declaration and toward group identity, statism, and moral relativism. The national debate focuses not on the national interest and how best to solve problems, but instead on a power struggle between groups and the two major parties. The focus has shifted to smearing the supporters of the other party and members of other groups. This hyper-partisanship has divided the nation into warring camps, forgetting that we are individuals of equal value.
The truth is that despite its obvious failings, the story of America has been about the struggle to implement equality and liberty fully—to truly live up to its founding principles. This truth is essential to restoring order and civility to our society, and to understanding that all Americans must come together and move away from hate, grievances, and group identity conflicts. The principles of the Founding Fathers have always been aspirational and have always faced opposition from the forces of tyranny. Today is no different; and the solution to our present challenges, just as it was with our past challenges, is to continue to embody our founding principles in pursuit of a more perfect union.
The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the Foundation Against Intolerance & Racism or its employees.
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