I love America for many reasons
By Maurice Washington
Much of academia, the liberal activist class and the public school system have operated on the premise that America is fundamentally racist. The latest display of this outlook is The 1619 Project rolled out by the New York Times. Claiming that “anti-black racism runs in the very DNA of this country,” it “aims to reframe the country’s history” by making 1619, the year slavery was first introduced by the British to Virginia, the year of “our true founding.”
The Times encourages public schools to adopt an accompanying curriculum that spreads The 1619 Project’s message to young Americans. Its goal is to brand our founding documents — the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution — as immoral and thus unworthy of our allegiance.
Irresponsibly omitted from this narrative is the fact that not a single major founder endorsed slavery. On the contrary, the founders unambiguously saw slavery as evil. George Washington said,“ There is not a man living who wishes more sincerely than I do, to see a plan adopted for the abolition of it,” and Thomas Jefferson’s original draft of the Declaration of Independence calls the slave trade an “execrable commerce” and an affront “against human nature itself.”
Adams, Hamilton, Franklin and Madison spoke strongly against the institution of slavery, too. The fact is, slavery was a prerevolutionary inheritance that the principles of the American Revolution unequivocally condemned. The Founders laid the constitutional ground for abolishing slavery. Several examples are as follows: In 1794, the United States Congress prohibited any participation by American ships in the Atlantic slave trade; in 1808, the Act Prohibiting Importation of Slaves took effect, making any shipment of enslaved persons from abroad into the U.S. a crime; and in 1865, all slavery was declared to be illegal, at the constitutional level, in the U.S.
The costs of the Civil War that freed the slaves in dollar terms alone was a high one. Between 1861 and 1865, the national debt of the U.S. surged from $65 million to $2.77 billion, an increase of tens or hundreds of billions in today’s dollars. However, even this pales in comparison to the great conflict’s human toll. According to History.com’s Jennie Cohen, the generally accepted figure for Union Army battle deaths during the Civil War is 360,222. The equivalent figure for Confederate deaths, which many historians consider something of a lowball, is 258,000.
All told, about one-tenth of the American men who were of military age in 1860 died as a direct result of the Civil War. Among specifically Southern white men in their early 20s, 22.6 percent — nearly one in four — died during the war. It seems no exaggeration to estimate that roughly one Union soldier died for every nine to ten slaves freed. If the U.S. owed a bill for slavery, we have, quite arguably, already paid it in blood.
Another often-ignored fact is that America was home to approximately 60,000 free blacks around the time of its founding; this number tripled in just 20 years. Black Americans voted in several states, which appears to make America the first nation in recorded history where both races voted side by side. Those free and freed persons represented the beginning of our long and strenuous path toward justice.
Indeed, I think a case can be made for unabashed black patriotism, for a forthright embrace of American nationalism by black people. The “America ain’t all it’s cracked up to be” posture that one hears so much these days is, in my view, nonsense. Our birthright citizenship in what is arguably history’s greatest republic is an inheritance of immense value. The plain fact is that the U.S. did not begin in 1619, and even slavery that existed in 1776 had a fairly limited impact on who we are as a society today. In 1619, the year during which the New York Times not long ago declared that America actually began, there were an estimated 210 English-speaking settlers on the North American continent, perhaps 20 of whom were black slaves. Even by the time of the first national census in 1790, more than a decade after independence, there were roughly 3.9 million Americans. Only an estimated 20 percent of these people were of African descent, and by no means were they all slaves. More than a few, in reality, were slave owners.
What happened in 1776, the founding of the U.S., was vastly more significant for world history than what happened in 1619, the first arrival in America of African slaves. The narrative we blacks settle upon about the American story, the American project, is fundamentally important. Is this, basically, a good country that affords boundless opportunity to all who are fortunate enough to enjoy the privileges and bear the responsibilities of American citizenship? Or is this, basically, a venal and immoral society of pillaging white supremacists founded in genocide and slavery and propelled by capitalist greed and unrepentant racism?
Of course, there is some warrant in the historical record for both sentiments, but the weight of the evidence overwhelmingly favors the former. The founding of the United States of America, 1776-1787, was a world-historic event by means of which Enlightenment ideals about the rights of individual persons and the legitimacy of state power got instantiated for the first time in real institutions. African slavery flourished at the time of the founding, true enough. And yet, within a century of the founding, slavery was gone and people who had been chattel became citizens of the U.S.
They weren’t equal citizens; that’s true. That took another century — far too long, I agree. Should it have taken 100 years? No. Should they have been slaves in the first place? No. But the thing is, although slavery has been a common human experience going back to antiquity, the movement for abolition and emancipation is a relatively new idea. It’s a Western idea; an “Enlightenment” idea. It is an idea that was brought to fruition here in the U.S. more than 150 years ago, liberating many hundreds of thousands of people and creating the foundation for the world that we now inhabit.
Our democracy, flawed as it most surely is, nevertheless became a beacon to billions of people throughout what came to be known as “the free world.” We have witnessed here in America, since the end of the Civil War, the greatest transformation in the status of a serfdom people — which was what the emancipation of the slaves affected in the creation of what used to be called the American Negro — that you can find anywhere in world history. Forty million strong, we have become the richest people of African descent on the planet by far.
The issue, then, is a question of narrative. Are we going to look through the dark lens of the U.S. as a racist, genocidal, white supremacist, illegitimate force? Or are we going to see it for what it has been for the past 300 years, which is the greatest force for human liberty on the planet?
This great achievement surely would not have been possible without philosophical insights cultivated in the 17th and 18th centuries in the West — ideas about the dignity of human persons, about the limitations of government, and about what legitimates the exercise of governmental power over people. Something new was created here at the end of the 18th century. Slavery was a holocaust out of which emerged something that actually advanced the morality and dignity of humankind. In other words, the abolition of slavery and the incorporation of African-descended people into the body politic of the U.S. was a world-historic achievement.
The core promise of America, the principle this country was founded on, is the only principal that will allow America to survive going forward as a nation where all citizens are equal from birth and as a result enjoy equal rights and equal protection under the law. It’s the America that our Declaration of Independence describes.
This is America, where a Third Founding (taking Lincoln’s promise at Gettysburg and the Civil War as the second) was achieved in the civil rights movement and the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. The inclusive promise of “We, the People” was finally delivered to all people in this country. The formal debt owed to black people for centuries of enslavement and inexcusable mistreatment and exclusion from mainstream American society was paid.
America has always been a place of regeneration, renewal and self-examination, a place where peoplehood is not a given or a smug achievement, but, rather, a long and continuous aspiration.
There is a reason that boatloads of peasants from Haiti and Cuba and other countries have risked their lives in makeshift rafts and leaky boats to seek hope and a better way of life here in America. These people are largely black people. America gives all of them a space to negotiate its ongoing moral narrative.
We must not forget that it was in America in 1903 at Ellis Island that immigrants arriving at this magnificent nation were greeted by a copper statue, the Statue of Liberty, whose pedestal bears the words of Emma Lazarus: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these the homeless, tempest-tossed to me. I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”
I have fallen quite a few times in my journey through the American landscape as I traverse the paths towards my goals. I am so very blessed that my second-grade-educated mom instilled in me and my nine siblings the character to always pick ourselves up and look toward the frontier, because in America all things are possible.
Rather than indulge in recrimination, we should follow Lincoln in seeking “to bind up the nation’s wounds” and “to achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace, among ourselves.” Manipulating the next generation to disdain the American founding will not accomplish this.
Happy Birthday, America, and may God continue to bless you!
Maurice Washington is chairman of the Charleston County Republican Party and former Charleston City Council member. He is president CEO of Trust Management, LLC, and is committed to a life of public service.