I often see what I believe to be the miracle of the United States framed as its original sin. This original sin is centered around something like “a nation founded on the principle of equality enslaved people.” And while it is absolutely true that the idea was written down prior to it being a social reality, identifying that as a sin is antithetical to the manner in which the concept of humanity has been invented (not discovered) and then spread into the milieu of our cultural expectations throughout world history.
Nowhere is this as publicly evident as in the opening line of the New York Times’ 1619 project: “Our democracy’s founding ideals were false when they were written.” Not only is it inferring that the ideals were not applied fairly across the board, but that the ideals themselves were “false.” What that means, I cannot be sure. It’s somewhat incoherent. If the ideals themselves are false does the author believe that all men are not created equal? And yes, there is a lot more to the 1619 essays but the fact that this is the opening line says a lot.
Statements like these are often seen as jump off points — as slam-dunk arguments or self-evident presuppositions— for why we need to do soul searching and re-imagine the manner in which we frame the memories we hold of how our nation was formed. But they are not only conceptually, but historically, way off.
What really happened is that, in a world where slavery and inequality were the rule for longer than history can even record, some people stood up and stated the opposite as a new ideal by which to form a nation.
Not only did they say it, but they wrote it down where everyone could see it. When someone publicly states something and puts it in their founding documents, they are doing so not to simply shout it at the world, but to keep themselves accountable to a principle. We see that idea utilized by individuals and promoted by those same individuals all the time.
It’s a foundational concept in goal setting to declare goals publicly to friends and family to help keep you accountable. This is in part why you have friends on Facebook that share their journeys of fitness on social media. It adds accountability and encouragement along the way. “I thought you were going to go to the gym and eating healthy. Why are you on the couch eating Bon-Bons?”
Or specific to the Declaration of Independence, “I thought you said that all men are created equal? Why am I still a slave? Why can’t women vote? What’s up with that?”
What if a corporation adopted a diversity document without first creating diversity? Would we be upset or would we praise them for wanting to do the right thing as they were working towards what they thought was a noble goal in a world that does not yet reflect that reality?
Is Marquis de Lafayette to be criticized for writing France’s Declaration of the Rights of the Man and of the Citizen of 1789? Is he a sinner and is this declaration evidence of France’s “original sin?” It clearly states in its very first article that “Men are born and remain free and equal in rights.” But guess what…they had slaves at the time they wrote it! They even had slaves in colonies across the Atlantic. Women were not given any of those political rights and neither were Protestants nor Jews. Is France now forever stained with an “original sin” that will cloud every attempt for it to live up to those standards?
What happened after France’s declaration was people started to hold the writers of that document accountable to their words. First they asked about the Protestants, and then the Jews. Eventually, that internal logic was applied to free Blacks and then slaves. The colonial slaves in what we now call Haiti, through the heroic Toussaint Louverture, used that logic to invert the gaze back on France as the slaves fought against their own slavery. Toussaint stated, “It is not a liberty of circumstance, conceded to us alone, that we wish; it is the adoption absolute of the principle that no man, born red, black or white, can be the property of his fellow man.” [emphasis is mine].
In the United States, Frederick Douglas did the same by taking those words and throwing them back in the faces of his audience, when he stated that “…interpreted, as it ought to be interpreted, the Constitution is a GLORIOUS LIBERTY DOCUMENT.” Even he, a former slave that survived some of the deepest, most humiliating offenses, and had to mostly teach himself to read, was able to understand the miracle in publicly stating these principles.
Later on as those rights were spread further and further, Martin Luther King Jr. used the same concepts. His famous I Have A Dream speech has an important line that outlines just this concept. He reminds his audience that “In a sense we have come to our Nation’s Capital to cash a check. When the architects of our great republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed to the inalienable rights of life liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” MLK recognized the statement of principle and calls upon us to enhance it even further.
But here we are. Defending what so obviously in historical context is a statement that defies the nature of humanity. That shouts back at thousands of years of tribalism and oppression by declaring that everyone was wrong. That we need to change course. And that those who wrote those words and would live in a nation framed by them, would be held to a new standard. Just look at the motto the Founders chose for the nation and you will see that they knew exactly what they were doing.
Inscribed on the Great Seal is novus ordo seclorum — “a new order of the ages.” They looked at the current and historical nature of humanity and fully understood that they were headed in a brand new direction. And it worked!
Not only was the logic of that statement used to frame the aforementioned declaration in France, but it helped to spread the concept of human equality throughout the world.
Unfortunately because of the COVID pandemic, we missed the most recent Olympic games. But go back and look at some of the prior contests or look to who is on the docket for this next round. If the competitors were stripped of their uniforms, you could still tell who the American group was. Just look for a bunch of people all huddled together with varying ethnicities and skin tones. Or, just look for the group with the most medals. You know why that is?
Because that founding principle, even if not a social or political reality when it was first declared, has bit-by-bit transformed the psyche of millions or even billions of people throughout history. Those intellectual and emotional shockwaves were not relegated to this nation. The declaration in France was inspired by the United States’ Declaration and even written with the assistance of Thomas Jefferson. But it did not stop there.
As recently as 1948, this concept was written for humans on a global scale. The United Nations’ Declaration of Human Rights, drafted by representatives from every region in the world in its preamble states, “Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world,”. It’s no coincidence that the words “inalienable rights” are stated right up front. That equality which we enjoy comes from those inalienable rights shares its roots in what was declared by the Founders in 1776 and established in the U.S. Constitution then expanded by its Amendments.
But like all of the previously mentioned declarations, this one from the United Nations is not yet realized by all people within the world even today. In spite of this declaration, approximately 40 million people are enslaved in our world and very few have political, social or civil equality. But that in itself does not make the declaration a mistake, much less a sin. To state it publicly and write it down as a principle by which the nations of the world should be kept accountable is nothing but monumental.
Stating principles by which we should abide in anticipation of those principles becoming socially realized is no sin. It is a miracle that flies in the face of the very nature of the hellish world human beings have occupied prior to the realization of these miracles. Having an idea is just the start. Having an idea that took thousands of years to invent, declaring it to the world, writing it down, and then making it a social reality is a whole different ball game.
Robert Kagan in his book The Jungle Grows Back: America and Our Imperiled World, describes human history as a jungle. A jungle fraught with constant danger and chaos. America, or any space constructed by liberal values that include individual liberty and equality, is like a garden amidst the ever growing and creeping jungle. If we don’t attend to the jungle, and pull the weeds, we will soon see the size of our liberal garden shrink and shrink, until we have nothing but jungle again. Accepting anti-truths like our ideals being false and not challenging such ahistorical presuppositions is inviting not only the jungle back into our fragile garden, but the snake along with it.
Family man who values character over color. Politically homeless, dispositionally conservative. Lover of humanity’s ability to build wisdom through the cherished words of our ancestors, and applying reasoned thought to the present.