There are two things that I believe to be true. First, that America has a long history of brutal and shameful mistreatment of racial minorities — with black Americans its chief victims. And second, that America is a great nation, and that American citizens (and citizens of the world) should be grateful for its founding. Perhaps no nation has done more good for more people than the United States. It was and is a beacon of liberty and prosperity in a world long awash in tyranny and poverty.
In much of our modern political discourse, it seems to be taken as a given that the existence of one truth has to negate the other. A nation simply can’t be great and also inflict such immense pain and suffering on so many millions of black and brown citizens.
And so the public debate warps and twists. Speak about the greatness of the nation, and critics immediately accuse you of minimizing the undeniably hideous sin of white supremacy. Emphasize white supremacy, and opponents will accuse you of minimizing the immense sacrifices of black and white soldiers in the Union Army, the undeniable progress in civil rights since Jim Crow, and the obvious fact that black and brown citizens from across the globe flock to our shores in search of the American dream.
Let’s dodge that back-and-forth and go back and ask two more-fundamental questions. What is the nature of man? And what does that nature imply for the history of nations and cultures? Absent truthful answers to those questions, it’s not possible to accurately analyze a nation’s worth. And the answers are grim.
Human beings, to quote no lesser authority than Jesus Christ, are evil. As G. K. Chesterton observed, original sin is the “only part of Christian theology which can really be proved.” It doesn’t take a historian to know that a survey of human civilization over the ages leads us to conclude that social justice has been hard to find. Indeed, there isn’t even a straight line between, say, Athenian democracy and American liberty, or the Magna Carta and the American Constitution. Instead, there were times when three steps forward were followed by nine steps back.
The American republic was thus founded against the backdrop of millennia of conquest, oppression, slavery, monarchy, and tyranny — all of it an expression of humanity’s dark nature. That doesn’t mean there weren’t pockets of virtue or periodic prophetic condemnations of wickedness, but the presence of evil in human affairs has been persistent and often overpowering.
Noting that the evils of slavery and conquest have been pervasive doesn’t make them less evil. It does, however, help us to explain our appreciation for the American founding and the trajectory of the American nation.
That founding and that trajectory were hardly inevitable. Indeed, the introduction of slavery to our shores in 1619 showed that there was nothing particularly special about our new civilization. It was more of the dreary human same. The signing of the Declaration of Independence and the ratification of the Constitution (and the Bill of Rights) were, by contrast, remarkable. They marked the beginning of something new.
It’s important to emphasize the word “beginning.” I’ve been struggling to think of the right analogy to describe the role of the American founding in world history. Let’s try a term from counterinsurgency warfare: “the ink blot.”
In counterinsurgency warfare, the strategist looks at a nation or countryside in chaos — one that’s descending into a state of nature — and attempts to establish an island of safety and security. The purpose is for that island of safety and security to spread across the map the way an ink blot spreads across the paper.
The American founding declared universal principles: “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.” But then its constitution and laws granted only a particularized and narrow defense of those rights.
Even the Bill of Rights, sweeping in its language, was extraordinarily limited in its scope. It originally restrained only the actions of a small and relatively weak central government. The ink blot of liberty was tiny. The only people who could confidently assert those universal rights were a small class of white male property owners clustered on the Eastern Seaboard of the new United States.
Everyone else, to a greater or lesser extent, lived still within the ordinary state of nature, with slaves, as always, the most vulnerable of all. But the combination of a universal declaration of liberty — and the obvious joy and prosperity of its exercise — created an unbearable tension within the new nation. There was a tension between our founding ideals and our founding reality.
Thomas Jefferson, a slave owner, understood this tension. These words, adapted from his writings, are engraved on Panel Three of the Jefferson Memorial:
God who gave us life gave us liberty. Can the liberties of a nation be secure when we have removed a conviction that these liberties are the gift of God? Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just, that His justice cannot sleep forever. Commerce between master and slave is despotism. Nothing is more certainly written in the book of fate than that these people are to be free.
It is absolutely true that too many of those Americans who enjoyed the blessings of liberty did not ponder the question Frederick Douglass posed: “What to the slave is the Fourth of July?” Too many, once they cashed in their own “promissory note” of freedom, did not concern themselves with those who were still owed a debt of liberty. But in every generation, there were Americans — white and black, slave and free — who sought to close the gap between promise and reality.
And make no mistake, in the face of often violent resistance, the American promise is prevailing. The ink blot of liberty is spreading, blotting out the default human background of oppression and misery. Critically, that ink blot has jumped our borders. The mightiest military power in the history of the world has used its strength to defeat the world’s worst tyrannies, secure the existence of liberal democracies from Japan to Germany, and then maintained a long and prosperous peace.
But it’s a mistake to think that our chief task is to point backwards, to look at the immense gap between slavery and freedom, between Jim Crow and civil rights, and believe that our work has been done. One does not undo the consequences of 345 years of legalized oppression in a mere 56 years of contentious change. Instead, our task is to continue the struggle to match American principles with American reality. It’s to spread the ink blot — to continue the American counterinsurgency against the chaos of history.
In July of every year, I think of two seminal infantry charges. The first occurred on July 2, 1863, when Colonel Joshua Chamberlain led the 20th Maine Infantry Regiment on a desperate counterattack against Confederate troops on Little Round Top on perhaps the most fateful day in American history — day two of the Battle of Gettysburg.
The second charge happened just 16 days later, when the 54th Massachusetts Infantry launched its own desperate attack against the walls of Fort Wagner in South Carolina. The 54th was a black regiment, and its charge was a direct and physical manifestation that America’s black citizens were rising up to seize their inheritance.
The lesson of those two historic moments has been repeated time and again throughout American history. It took white Americans and black Americans to end slavery — and not through a revolt against the Founding but rather through a defense of the Founding. It took white Americans and black Americans to end Jim Crow. Again, not through a revolt against the Founding but rather through a defense of the Founding. Through appeals to America’s founding promise, every marginalized American community has muscled its way into more-complete membership in the American family.
It’s right to celebrate a nation that has — over time — combined courageous people with righteous principles to secure a “more perfect union.” Light the fireworks. Defend the monuments to the imperfect (though indispensable) people who in their turn and their time advanced human liberty and dignity.
It’s most important, however, that we run the race in our turn, that we look forward so that future generations can look back and say of us that we didn’t simply secure and maintain the gains of the past — we made our own payments on that promissory note of freedom. We continued to close the gap between American principles and American reality. We have far to go, but the courageous history of this great nation should give us confidence that the best part of the American story is yet to be told.
This article appears as “On Racial Progress” in the July 27, 2020, print edition of National Review.
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