The following essay is part of The Federalist’s 1620 Project, a symposium exploring the connections and contributions of the early Pilgrim and Puritan settlers in New England to the uniquely American synthesis of faith, family, freedom, and self-government.
In recent years, some prominent voices on the left have contended that America is and has been from its inception a nation established on racism and racial subjugation. This judgment implicitly informs The New York Times’s 1619 Project. According to its introductory blurb, the project “aims to reframe the country’s history by placing the consequences of slavery … at the very center of our national narrative.”
The American Civil Liberties Union is more direct: “America was founded on white supremacy.” What are we to make of such a disturbing claim?
Before examining its intrinsic merits, we might begin by noting — and rejecting — the improper use that is sometimes made of this interpretation of our country’s character. The assertion that America is a fundamentally racist nation has been deployed to discredit our traditional political institutions, including and especially the Constitution.
More than one article has been written holding that the Electoral College was devised to protect the political interests of the slave states. The same claim has been made more generally about America’s system of federalism. Federalism means “states’ rights,” and everybody knows that the southern defenders of slavery held that their right to self-government at the state level permitted them to enslave African Americans. Later on, after slavery had been abolished, southerners used “states’ rights” to defend their systems of racial segregation and denial of voting rights for black Americans.
Such arguments are both exaggerated and, of course, fallacious. Aside from a few provisions (such as the Fugitive Slave Clause) that were admittedly included to protect slavery, most of the Constitution’s structures and principles were not designed exclusively by or for slaveholders. They were intended instead to both empower the federal government to tend to the nation’s needs and prevent the abuse of that power. They should be judged today by how well they accomplish those (utterly non-controversial) purposes.
From the fact that federalism once sheltered slavery, it does not follow that state-level self-government today is unworthy of the Constitution’s protection. To take an even more obvious example, the First Amendment’s protections for freedom of speech are not bad or tainted just because some southerners once used that freedom to defend slavery or segregation.
It is also worth noting that today’s left, in claiming that America is founded on racism, aligns itself with some historical characters it might wish to avoid. Racial politics makes for strange bedfellows. This point was made many times by the late Harry Jaffa in response to an earlier generation of critics of America, and it is no less relevant now.
It was, after all, Stephen Douglas — a proponent of the right of territorial governments to establish slavery or not as they saw fit — who argued that “this government was made on the white basis, by white men, for the benefit of white men and their posterity forever.”
It was Abraham Lincoln — the Great Emancipator — who contended in response that America was founded on the Declaration of Independence’s claim that “all men are created equal.”
It was Chief Justice Roger Taney — writing in Dred Scott, holding that black Americans could never be citizens — who contended that at the time of the Founding:
[Black Americans had] for more than a century before been regarded as beings of an inferior order, and altogether unfit to associate with the white race, either in social or political relations; and so far inferior, that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect; and that the negro might justly and lawfully be reduced to slavery for his own benefit.
Dissenting from Taney’s view, Justice John McLean noted:
I prefer the lights of Hamilton, Madison, and Jay as a means of construing the Constitution in all its bearings, rather than to look behind that period, into a traffic which is now declared to be piracy, and punished with death by Christian nations.
Lincoln and Frederick Douglass likewise rejected Taney’s account as both a misinterpretation of and a slander on the nation’s Founding. Similarly, in the twentieth century Martin Luther King, Jr., presented the struggle for civil rights as a call to live up to the nation’s original principles, not as a call to reject and replace them.
The point here is not to taunt the left with this embarrassing pedigree of ideas. It is rather to ask which interpretation of America’s fundamental character has proven more constructive. It seems obvious, from even a cursory glance at our nation’s history, that most of the work of making America better has been carried out by people like Lincoln, Douglass, and King, who believed it was fundamentally good to begin with.
As important as these considerations are, they cannot excuse us from the duty of confronting more directly the claim that America was founded on white supremacy, that it was fundamentally characterized by racism from its earliest origins. But is this claim defensible?
Certainly, slavery existed in America from the time of its earliest colonial settlements. That fact alone, however, cannot settle the question. After all, a country with racism in its midst is very different from a country dedicated to racism.
The question is often difficult to address because we are apt to be misled, either by indignation or by protective love. Outraged by the injustices that were committed against generations of African Americans, we might be inclined to condemn the country that committed or permitted those injustices as fundamentally bad.
This is a common enough temptation in our judgments about individuals. Thus a man who has committed theft can be dismissed as nothing but “a thief,” when he is more than only that. On the other hand, a spirit of patriotic affection for our country might lead us to overlook some real defects or minimize their scope.
Just as an affectionate son would not want to admit that his father is a thief, no warm-hearted patriot would want to admit that his nation was founded on racism. How can our minds escape the distorting influence of these natural human passions?
We might try to avoid this problem by taking as our guide an intelligent, sympathetic, and honest outsider. Since it is so hard to judge our own country impartially, we might learn from the judgments of a candid and foreign friend, one who is willing to acknowledge and explain what is good and bad about America. We find such a guide in Alexis de Tocqueville, whose great work, “Democracy in America,” frankly, and honestly, confronts our nation’s experience with slavery, but without holding that it should be understood to define the nation’s core character.
Tocqueville famously notes the decisive importance of a nation’s “point of departure” for its subsequent development. If you want to really know a man, you have to know his childhood. “Only then will you understand the origin of the prejudices, habits, and passions which are to dominate his life.” So it is, Tocqueville adds, with nations. “Peoples always bear some marks of their origins. Circumstances of birth and growth affect all the rest of their careers.”
If we can examine a nation’s birth and infancy, there we will find the origins of its “prejudices, habits, dominating passions, and all that comes to be called the national character.” Here Tocqueville might seem to offer decisive support for the contemporary left’s criticism of America. But unlike many contemporary voices, Tocqueville does not view slavery and racism as fundamentally shaping the nation’s dominant character.
In the first place, he points out that slavery primarily influenced only a particular, localized part of America. Virginia “had hardly been established when slavery was introduced,” and this institution ended up exerting “an immense influence on the character, laws, and future of the whole South.” For Tocqueville, slavery shaped the South but not the whole country’s way of life.
In the second place, Tocqueville presents the origins of slavery in America less as a deliberate choice of the New World settlements and more as a tragic accident the consequences of which gradually grew to immense proportions. Here is how Tocqueville suggests American slavery should be understood:
[An] evil which has percolated furtively into the world. … It began with an individual whose name history does not record; it was cast like an accursed seed somewhere on the ground; it then nurtured itself, grew without effort, and spread with the society that accepted it.
Tocqueville clearly regards the original southern settlers as less moral and less enlightened than their northern counterparts. The northerners came to America primarily to found self-governing communities based upon their (lofty and demanding) religious vision of a righteous society. The original Virginians came primarily in the pursuit of gain. Nevertheless, as Tocqueville reminds us, it would be unjust to the original southern settlers to say that they came to America with a premeditated purpose to establish slavery.
In Tocqueville’s view, America’s original national character was not characterized by the local introduction of slavery by certain settlers, but instead by the long-established culture and deliberate aims of the Anglo-American colonists as a whole. They were, to begin with, liberty-loving Englishmen. They came from a country that had long been agitated by party conflict, and therefore in which “each faction, in turn, had been forced to put itself under the protection of the laws.” Thus, they had learned the value of the rule of law, and had acquired “more acquaintance with notions of rights and principles of true liberty than most of the European nations at that time.”
In addition, by the time of the first settlements, “local government, that fertile germ of free institutions, had already taken deep root in English ways.” Thus the English settlers came to America already committed to “the dogma of the sovereignty of the people.”
Moreover, the northern settlers — and particularly the Puritans of New England — came to America not only with the general habits of freedom characteristic of all the English but with a peculiarly intense inclination toward self-government. They came, Tocqueville says, driven by a “purely intellectual craving,” seeking the “triumph of an idea.”
They wanted to establish communities based upon their Puritan religious and moral convictions. “Puritanism,” however, “was not just a religious doctrine; in many respects, it shared the most absolute democratic and republican theories.” These settlers had “shaken off the pope’s authority” and “acknowledged no other religious supremacy.” Accordingly, they “brought into the New World” a “democratic and republican” form of Christianity,” and “this fact singularly favored the establishment of a temporal republic and democracy.”
For Tocqueville, the North’s combination of religion and self-government — and not the South’s experience with slavery — set the tone for all of America. “New England principles spread first to neighboring states and then in due course to those more distant, finally penetrating everywhere throughout the confederation.” As a result, America was able to embark on its experiment with self-government at a time when most European nations were still ruled by absolute monarchies.
Tocqueville thus offers us a balanced account of America’s origins, one that is both critical and respectful, one that acknowledges the fundamentally good character of our country without ignoring the evils that have marked its history.
The despotism of slavery arose within America and did much to mar its development. But the Americans who built the country were not fundamentally a despotic people. On the contrary, they were a freedom-loving people who sought to establish and perpetuate republican self-government.
This Tocquevillian interpretation of America’s point of departure is certainly more plausible than the claim made by some today that America was “founded on white supremacy.” It is reasonable to suppose that what is fundamentally bad will tend to deteriorate and what is fundamentally good will tend to improve. Nazism was fundamentally established on an ideology of racism. Its evil accordingly grew more malignant over time and was only stopped by the application of overwhelming external force.
Self-generated improvement, however, has obviously been the course of American development. If slavery and racism were the deepest marks on America’s national soul, then why would it have moved so consistently away from them and toward the establishment of freedom and equality?
A fundamentally racist nation would not have produced the generation of leaders who, in 1787, placed in the Constitution a power to abolish the foreign slave trade and who publicly condemned slavery and openly hoped for its eventual abolition. A nation founded on white supremacy would not have exerted itself first to limit the scope of slavery, later to abolish slavery, and finally to eliminate racial discrimination.
Ultimately, in a certain sense, America turned out to be a better country than even Tocqueville appreciated. He was deeply pessimistic about the potential for racial peace in America, even if slavery should be eliminated. Because slavery had been based on race, he thought, nobody on either side would be able to forget it or move beyond it. White Americans would never overcome their prejudices against black Americans, and black Americans would forever burn with resentment about the wrongs that had been done to them.
Tocqueville was certainly correct that the dire legacy of slavery would not be eliminated immediately upon its abolition. America’s path toward racial justice was long and difficult, continuing for many decades after the end of the Civil War. Nevertheless, over time the process turned out better than Tocqueville expected. The country was not engulfed in a race war, and whites and black Americans gradually learned to live with each other as fellow citizens.
Here Tocqueville may have overlooked something about the Americans that he actually appreciated and examined closely in other contexts. Tocqueville is famous for his positive account of Christianity’s influence on American democracy. Besides noting the aforementioned role of Puritanism in planting the seeds of self-government, he emphasized Christian morality’s role in placing limits on the power of the majority in America, as well as its ability to elevate the souls of Americans above the narrow individualism and petty materialism that threatened to dominate their lives.
This is the truth but not the whole truth about Christianity. It also teaches its adherents to love their fellow human beings as created in the image and likeness of God, and demands that they forgive those who have wronged them just as they hope God will forgive their own wrongdoing. Indeed, Christianity provided Americans the moral and spiritual resources to overcome differences of race, to cast aside old prejudices, to seek and to bestow forgiveness for past injustices.
Racism existed in America from the beginning, but America was not founded on white supremacy. It was instead founded, as Tocqueville teaches us, on the spirit of religion, freedom, and self-government — a benevolent spirit that gradually overcame racial injustice. This is the true and constructive account of our country that we ought to teach our children.