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Even mainstream liberals today accept as fact that America is and always has been a racist system, built upon the backs of slaves. Yet American history itself was deeply divisive and extremely complicated, and after all, there is a finality to the subject: In the end, the United States abolished slavery, ending the scourge forever in this country.

Over the past two years, as I noted in my previous essay here at The Imaginative Conservative, we’ve seen what was once the very particular and limited politically-correct ideology of the New Left of the late 1960s—especially with its focus on race, class, and gender—become somewhat mainstream, especially in regards to the history of slavery in America. I don’t mean to suggest that political correctness (a rather Maoist concept) was ever dead. Far from it, it grew steadily from the late 1960s to today. But, the New York Times’ 1619 Project, as well as the great domestic upheavals of 2020, seem to have accelerated what was once the very particular and limited ideology of the New Left. Now, even mainstream liberals accept as fact that this country is and always has been a racist system, built upon the backs of slaves. Many would go as far as Karl Marx and other radicals of the nineteenth century, claiming that all of capitalism was built on the backs of slaves.

Yet, there are many problems with this. Aside from the critical fact that half of the states, prior to the Civil War, didn’t have slavery, and free labor radically outproduced slave labor (thus, leading to the conclusion that America and capitalism were really built on free labor, not on slave labor), perhaps the biggest problem resides in our very Founding and the documents that define it. In particular, it is worth considering the Declaration of Independence, passed on July 4, 1776, and signed on August 2, 1776. In it, Jefferson first defines the nature of the universe and man’s role within it. That is, “when in the course of human events….” In the following paragraph, though, Jefferson made a statement that astounded the world. But, to Jefferson and Congress, they were merely stating the obvious: “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, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” To be sure, this has to be one of the most powerful sentences in the history of the world, especially in its non-religious history. Critically, the statement claims that “all men”—not some men, not non-Catholics (see, for example, the 1689 English Bill of Rights), or not non-whites—are created equal. The founders could have easily tempered this statement, but they didn’t. Indeed, it exists in a world of glory, and it became, as Martin Luther King, Jr., so profoundly understood it, a promissory note. Just because Americans did not live up fully to the statement in 1776 did not mean that they never would.

On the 150th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, President Calvin Coolidge summed up the matter brilliantly:

About the Declaration there is a finality that is exceedingly restful. It is often asserted that the world has made a great deal of progress since 1776, that we have had new thoughts and new experiences which have given us a great advance over the people of that day, and that we may therefore very well discard their conclusions for something more modern. But that reasoning can not be applied to this great charter. If all men are created equal, that is final. If they are endowed with inalienable rights, that is final. If governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed, that is final. No advance, no progress can be made beyond these propositions. If anyone wishes to deny their truth or their soundness, the only direction in which he can proceed historically is not forward, but backward toward the time when there was no equality, no rights of the individual, no rule of the people. Those who wish to proceed in that direction can not lay claim to progress. They are reactionary. Their ideas are not more modern, but more ancient, than those of the Revolutionary fathers.

Coolidge, of course, is right, and much of American history has been about the fulfillment of the vision of the American Founding. None of this should suggest that the line toward fulfillment could be found in some imaginary and illusory progressivism. The building and maintenance of a republic is hard, hard work, and sometimes the labor is interrupted.

I am also reminded of the very good words of my colleague and friend, Miles Smith IV (mentioned in my last essay as well) that America’s history is as much anti-slavery as it is pro-slavery.

Perhaps, rather than a 1619 Project, we need the 1776 Project, or perhaps a 1861 Project, or, let’s hear it for Silent Cal, a 1926 Project. On a serious note—we really need is good moral history. And, what would good moral history tell us:

  • That racial slavery was always and everywhere an evil.
  • That no people should be ripped from their homelands and made property.
  • That free labor always outcompetes slave labor, and that, as Tocqueville so wisely observed, the Ohio River separated not just the free from the unfree, but the productive versus the unproductive.
  • That abolitionist societies first sprang up in Philadelphia in 1776.
  • That northern states systematically uprooted slavery as an institution.
  • That the common law forbade slavery.
  • That the Declaration of Independence, especially in its first draft but always in its intent, condemned slavery.
  • That for every pro-slavery man in the Constitutional Convention, there was an anti-slavery man as well.
  • That Congress, unanimously, prohibited slavery in the Northwest Territories, 1787.
  • That Congress ended America’s participation in the international slave trade as early as January 1, 1808.
  • That, as late as the Missouri Compromise of 1820, Founding Father Rufus King, though advanced in age, continued to fight the good fight against slavery.
  • That colleges—such as Hillsdale, founded in 1844—were abolitionist.
  • That northern states, throughout the 1830s and 1840s, passed Personal Liberty Laws, disallowing the use of state personnel or property to aide slave catchers.
  • That, the Civil War and the 13th Amendment forever ended slavery and slave holding.

While none of the above is written—in any way, shape, or form—to justify America’s slave history, it should be clear that the history itself was deeply divisive and extremely complicated. Yet, if we have to sum it all up, I would go back, happily, to the speech of President Coolidge. There is, after all, a finality to the subject. In the end, we abolished slavery, ending the scourge forever in this country.

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The featured image is “The Anti-Slavery Society Convention, 1840,” (1841) by Benjamin Robert Haydon, and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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