Editor’s Note: The following essay was adapted from remarks delivered to the annual dinner of the Lincoln Club of Orange County, in California, on October 4.
Every American heart must break when lies are told to boys and girls, who then grow up to think the worst about their past: that the American Revolution was fought to preserve slavery; that the Civil War was about money, not slaves; or that America is a racist nation.
Of course, Americans didn’t create slavery. America was born to a world in which that savagery was as old and deeply rooted as anything in human history. The Greeks and Romans kept slaves. The Israelites were slaves to the Egyptians, and 500 years after they were freed, King Solomon built the temple to his God with slaves. The Spanish brought slaves to North America 200 years before the American founding, and, in 1776, Europe’s leading states — Spain, France, Portugal, Britain, and the Netherlands — each traded in slaves.
From the beginning, Americans were split wide open about slavery. In her book Team of Rivals, Doris Kearns Goodwin tells a story from 1835 about William Seward and his wife, Frances, two New Yorkers, who took a trip through the South. Riding in their carriage around sunset, the couple saw a dust cloud rising down the road. Emerging slowly from the dust, Seward wrote, were:
ten naked little boys, between six and twelve years old, tied together, two by two, by their wrists, . . . all fastened to a long rope, and followed by a tall, gaunt white man, who, with his long lash, whipped up the sad and weary little procession, drove it to the horse trough to drink, and thence to a shed where they lay down on the ground and sobbed and moaned themselves to sleep. These were children gathered up at different plantations . . . and were to be driven down to Richmond to be sold at auction, and taken south.
Kearns says Frances “begged her husband to cancel the rest of their tour. . . . They turned their horses’ heads northward and homeward.” Horrors such as this ignited a Civil War.
How many Americans died in the war over slavery? Some historians say as many as 850,000; they were farm boys and city kids and overwhelmingly white. White lives for black lives.
With the end of the war in sight, the nation exhausted and sick of death and with mothers still wailing for their sons, Lincoln weighed the cost of slavery. Both the North and the South, Lincoln said,
read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes His aid against the other . . . [but the] Almighty has His own purposes. . . . Fondly do we hope — fervently do we pray — that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue, until all the wealth piled by the bond-man’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord, are true and righteous altogether.”
What leader stands before his people during a bloody crisis, and tells them, at the moment of their deepest sorrow, that one’s good brother and another’s sweet son — both dead, and thousands dead beside them — paid with their lives for the nation’s sins? What kind of man would say that if God demands a drop of blood in battle for every drop spilled by the slave driver’s whip, well, the judgments of the Lord are right and true?
An honest man. An American.
We were a people, born into a slaveholding world, who prayed, and fought, and died to end it.
The truth is, our own birth certificate, the Declaration of Independence, was designed to sail high, flash across the sky, and crack open a brutally racist world.
The Declaration was the first crushing blow for equality in history. It proclaimed that each of us is created equal and given by our creator certain rights — the right to life and liberty, and to pursue happiness. It warned that what God gives us, no one can take away.
That Declaration never died. It marched again when we passed the 13th Amendment and forbade slavery forever on every square inch of American soil. It raged in 1871, when President Ulysses Grant fought the Ku Klux Klan, and it gloried in 1965 when we finally guaranteed voting rights for black Americans.
We are not a racist nation. We are a nation that wars against racism. Human history is barbaric, and our job, as Americans, is to struggle to make people freer. Our history is filled with people who never stopped trying. Not perfect people. Good people.
Steady men, such as George Washington, who had lifetime power in his grasp. Yes, after the Revolution, he was so popular that some wanted to make him king. But, instead, he opened his hand and released that power.
In Washington’s day, we were alone, without another democracy in the world. Our example lit the lamp, and other nations followed. By 1941, as that light dimmed and flickered — when the Nazis, with their racist fever dreams, strangled Europe — we sent American men on D-Day who charged the beach as the waiting Nazis rained down on them a savage hail of fire and iron.
How many people did we set free?
Our boys, soldiers and marines, dug trenches in Korea and fought in mud and snow more desperately than animals. But they ennobled themselves when they saved South Korea’s millions from the nationwide concentration camp that, even today, wastes the lives of their cousins in the north.
We fought and lost in Vietnam. We waged a war, cold and hot, to keep communists from clapping in irons the minds and souls of ordinary people in Eastern Europe, Central America, and Asia. And under Ronald Reagan, we extinguished the Soviet slave system once and for all.
At home, we are tenacious women such as the seamstress Rosa Parks, who put the weight of a race on her back like a cross as she climbed the steps of a bus in Montgomery, Alabama.
We are strong black men who salute the flag because they’ve lived and fought under that flag during the Civil War, in the Pacific, and in Afghanistan. Men who knew that Jim Crow once lived here, but who still say, “This is my country, Lord God, I have worked hard to build it; this is my country!”
America isn’t race, and it’s not blood. It is the revelation that all of us are created equal. It’s a promise that we’ve made to each other. We are brothers and sisters, one nation, one tribe.
We are Americans. And we set people free.