Politics & Policy

No, Bernie, America Was Not Actually Founded ‘on Racist Principles’

(Win McNamee/Getty)

The United States, Senator Bernie Sanders declared before a few thousand college students yesterday, was founded “from way back on racist principles.” “That,” he added, after briefly apologizing for bringing the topic up in the first instance, “is a fact — we have come a long way as a nation.”

The latter of these two asseverations is not in doubt. Time was when a black American would be beaten, broken, and even skinned alive on the flimsiest of pretexts, while his tormenters were let free without charge. Conservatives occasionally like to wonder aloud what might happen if this nation — or some part of it — were to be taken over by a monstrous and unflinching tyranny. They do not need to treat the question as a hypothetical: To read Ida B. Wells or Victoria Earle Matthews is to know the answer all too well. That Sanders should remind voters of this truth is admirable and necessary. That he should do so in the middle of an ideologically hostile crowd is even more so. One cannot enjoy redemption without guilt, and, on occasion at least, that guilt must be given a name. America has indeed “come a long way.”

It is unfortunate, however, that Sanders felt the need to attach his reminder to a dangerous falsehood. The American escutcheon is indeed sullied by original sin, but that sin is largely one of omission rather than commission. Flawed as it is, the United States was not founded on inadequate or abominable or “racist” principles, but upon extraordinary, revolutionary, and unusually virtuous propositions that, tragically, have all too often been ignored. As written, there is not a great deal wrong with the central tenets of the Declaration of Independence; rather, the disgraces that pepper the history books derive from the selective manner in which those tenets have been applied. If one is so minded, one can reasonably propose that Revolution-era America was chock-full of hypocrites, and that the lofty ideals to which the Founders paid eloquent lip service were routinely disregarded when deemed inconvenient. But to conclude that those ideals themselves are rotten is to commit an elemental reasoning error. As one would not examine an incident of marital infidelity and presume that the wedding vows must necessarily have been defective, one should not infer from the Founders’ betrayals that their essential precepts were in some way unsound. They weren’t. Man, as ever, is imperfect.

One should not infer from the founders’ betrayals that their essential precepts were in some way unsound. They weren’t. Man, as ever, is imperfect.

Likewise, one should refrain from blaming the founding generation for the perfidy of its heirs. In Philadelphia, the Constitution’s architects found themselves presented with two realistic choices. The first was to contrive a new Constitution and, alas, to tolerate the continuation of slavery. The second was to keep the existing Articles of Confederation, and, alas, to tolerate the continuation of slavery. Wisely, they chose the former path, conceding that abolition was impossible for now but electing to include within the charter a number of salutary measures intended to encourage its rescission. The Convention, James Madison confirmed during the debates, “thought it wrong to admit in the Constitution the idea that there could be property in men.” In the end, though, he was left with little choice. The references are deliberately oblique: The existence of the institution is in places acknowledged; there are obvious attempts to mitigate its corrupting influence; and there is even a timetable for restriction. But there is no abolition, and a careful reader will notice the joints. It is of its era.

Does this make the document an inherently corrupted work, as Sanders implied? I think not, no. Indeed, if there is a related principle within its structure, it is that slavery — which had existed almost everywhere since time immemorial — would henceforth be limited. Frederick Douglass, a former slave whose relationship with the young American republic was as complicated as one might expect, eventually came to agree with this assessment. Distancing himself from the cynicism of William Lloyd Garrison and the American Anti-Slavery Society, Douglass concluded that the charter was unsullied. “In that instrument I hold, there is neither warrant, license, nor sanction of the hateful thing,” he supposed in July of 1852. “But, interpreted as it ought to be interpreted, the Constitution is a GLORIOUS LIBERTY DOCUMENT. Read its preamble, consider its purposes. Is slavery among them? Is it at the gateway? Or is it in the temple? It is neither.” “Take the Constitution according to its plain reading,” he concluded. “And I defy the presentation of a single pro-slavery clause in it. On the other hand, it will be found to contain principles and purposes, entirely hostile to the existence of slavery.”

#share#That Douglass came to conclude that the Constitution contains no “sanction” of human bondage — and, indeed that by “plain reading,” it is “hostile” toward the practice — should not in truth be surprising. Because the revolution had been fought at the call of both libertarian and equalitarian rhetoric; because the Declaration of Independence contained a set of universal propositions; and because so many blacks had participated willingly in the fight for separation, a reconsideration of the status quo had been inevitable from the moment the British surrendered at Yorktown. “Within thirty years of Lexington and Concord, every northern state had acted to end slavery, either immediately or gradually,” the historian John Ferling records in Whirlwind. “Change was less spectacular in slavery’s heartland, the southern states. Nevertheless, throughout the Upper South, state laws were revised making it easier for slave owners to manumit their slaves, with the result that the free black population witnessed a dramatic growth.” By 1810, the future looked bright. In 1787, slavery had been outlawed in the Northwest territory. In 1808 — on the earliest date that the Constitution permitted Congress to act — the slave trade had been brought to a swift end. And, outside of a few recalcitrant pockets in the Deep South, it was broadly predicted that if the practice was firmly restricted to a small part of the country, it would soon die out completely.

This, as we now know, did not happen. And why not? Well, because an ugly counter-ideal reared its head, and, tragically, took hold. Writing to Henry L. Pierce in 1859, Abraham Lincoln lamented that, in many parts of the slaveholding South, the Founders’ aspirations were gradually giving way to a novel and deeply rotten philosophy. “It is now no child’s play,” he calculated bitterly, “to save the principles of Jefferson from total overthrow in this nation.” Once upon a time, the “definitions” and “axioms” of the Declaration had been widely acknowledged. Now, where slavery remained in force, they were openly rejected. “One dashingly calls them ‘glittering generalities,’” Lincoln griped. “Another bluntly calls them ‘self evident lies’; and still others insidiously argue that they apply only to ‘superior races.’” Such claims, Lincoln contended, represented nothing more or less than a blunt repudiation of the codified American creed.

He was correct. In a matter of decades, the reluctant and primarily practical objections to manumission had been replaced by bold, abstract justifications in its favor. Thomas Jefferson, Lincoln argued, had exhibited “the coolness, forecast, and capacity to introduce into a merely revolutionary document, an abstract truth, applicable to all men and all times, and so to embalm it there, that to-day, and in all coming days, it shall be a rebuke and a stumbling-block to the very harbingers of re-appearing tyranny and oppression.” That stumbling block was now under fire.

How prescient Lincoln’s warning must have seemed two years later when, on the eve of the Civil War, the vice president of the newly minted Confederacy made the repudiation official. The Declaration of Independence, Alexander Stephens proposed, had been built upon a falsehood. Thomas Jefferson, now dead and buried, had been wrong. “The prevailing ideas entertained by him and most of the leading statesmen at the time of the formation of the old constitution,” Stephens argued, “were that the enslavement of the African was in violation of the laws of nature; that it was wrong in principle, socially, morally, and politically.” The core problem with the Constitution, Stephens submitted, was not that it was the compromised product of realpolitik, but that, like the Declaration before it, it actively presumed that slavery would — and should — disappear. “They knew not well how to deal with it,” Stephens noted with disdain. “But the general opinion of the men of that day was that, somehow or other in the order of Providence, the institution would be evanescent and pass away.” Such an idea, he concluded, was “fundamentally wrong” and ought to be put aside by all civilized men. Whereas the United States “rested upon the assumption of the equality of races,” the Confederacy would be “founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner- stone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition.” The departure from the settlement of 1789 would be dramatic. “This, our new government,” he submitted, “is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.”

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Mercifully, Stephens’s pernicious pseudo-“truth” was smashed and cut into pieces by the Union Army, and the older, more virtuous axioms were restored to the center of American life. Over the next century, by a tricky combination of legal reform and social pressure, the unrealized values of the founding were extended, little by little, to all. Today, we still grapple with them — not because we suspect that they may be wrong but because we worry that they are not being universally enjoyed and that this is unacceptable. When the likes of Bernie Sanders submit that that the creed is flawed per se, they do a disservice not only to America’s North Star — her “promissory note” as Martin Luther King Jr. memorably put it — but to themselves, for to advance the idea that warped men can by their behavior sully self-evident truths is to side unwittingly with the Calhouns and the Stephenses of the world, and to take firm aim at the hard-earned scars on Frederick Douglass’s back.

— Charles C. W. Cooke is a staff writer at National Review and the author of The Conservatarian Manifesto.


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