The accusation that the United States of America was “founded on slavery” is advanced to discredit the nation.
Accordingly, if some people were oppressed at the time of the Founding, then somehow the entire American project is illegitimate to this day. Or, in another way, if some people who wrote or signed the Constitution also viewed others as racially inferior, then we’re supposed to deny the credibility of that document and the institutions it established. You realize the weakness of such arguments when you consider how quickly they distract you from any discussion of the Founding or the Constitution.
I’ve fallen for this game many times.
I find myself underscoring those aspects of Thomas Jefferson’s autobiography, Notes on the State of Virginia, personal correspondence, and even his architectural monuments and interior designs, which suggest he was not a racist and which show he thought slavery detrimental across the board.
But wait a second—should any of this matter?
For me, it does because I’m also interested in Jefferson’s aesthetic program, his relationship with Sally Hemings, and his understanding of Mediterranean history and culture. But if we’re considering whether the United States of America should exist or is still a good idea, per se, that is, on the merits, then I’m not convinced the existence of slavery or the racial biases of the Founders are disqualifying in any way. To be honest, they’re meaningless—or more radical still; they’re actually foundational in a good way.
This is not unlike the recent charge that Tesla, Inc. is racist. We’re told repeatedly that climate change is racist, and yet the greatest maker of electric vehicles is also racist? If you believe in global warming—I do not—then you’re being asked to despise a company that does the most to combat that supposedly racist phenomenon—a phenomenon which its believers also think is an existential threat to humanity, that is, to all races. You’re to think this merely because a single worker in California has been convinced by his lawyers and a jury that he got his feelings hurt and is, therefore, owed $137 million. It’s an astonishing sleight of hand. You can devote every ounce of your being to not being racist, to assuaging or repairing the effects of racism, but in the end, you’re still a racist because somebody thinks so. And for that, you can be fined and erased.
When race becomes an issue in a public forum in the United States, we almost always embrace the motives fallacy. It’s an embarrassing display of national ignorance. Other cultures have variations of this, but it’s our peculiar mania to accuse others of racism in order to end debates. We no longer need to think about the reasonableness of an idea or policy because somebody affiliated with it has been deemed guilty of the most egregious sin we can imagine. Someone is morally flawed beyond repair by way of the accusation alone. At best, we’re now arguing about the charge of racism, and the accuser has won the original debate by default. In that still puritanical corner of our national consciousness, if someone is morally flawed, it means their idea or policy is wrong, no matter how universally beneficial it might be, and no matter how many people it helps, no matter how antiracist it is.
But if an idea—in this case, the governing structure known as the United States of America—is a good one, then why should the nature of its origins matter? This is like objecting to a moonshot because the technology for its rocket was invented by Nazis. This is like asking the doctor who cures your cancer if she loves you or not. This is like refusing to laugh at a great joke because the comedian once mocked your family. Just so, when a conversation about the inherent worth of American civilization turns on whether Thomas Jefferson owned slaves or was a racist, then what you are most decidedly not arguing about anymore is whether the nation works better than others or offers any benefit to those who live here. That is, now you’re not talking about The Federalist Papers, you’re not contemplating the Fourteenth Amendment, and you’re not arguing about the causes or the results of the Civil War. Rather, you’re wading through the swampy mess of the Founders’ intentions—their ideas and consequences be damned. On its surface, the argument that America is founded on slavery is sloppy and pointless. And when its advocates are deceptive, claiming that indentured servants were slaves or that cotton was the true basis of the nation’s wealth, then they’re wallowing in bad faith.
This might upset some of their critics, but I think the promoters of the 1619 Project are right at some visceral philosophical level. Indeed, I think many of their critics are going about the debate in a shortsighted manner. It’s true that revisionist history needs to be countered because otherwise we’ll lose the ability to debate anything at all. The “King Cotton” thesis distorts economic facts. And to tear down a Frederick Douglass statue because it unwittingly redeems a racist country is absurd—if predictable. However, to argue that race and the institution of slavery don’t heavily influence the founding structures of the nation is equally misguided.
I’ll go further. I’m convinced the United States of America is a successful place to live precisely because when they designed the nation’s institutions, the Founders had to account for the existence of slavery and racism—both their own and that of their slaves.
I would just nuance the phrase “founded on slavery” to “founded proximate to slavery.” That makes sense and has explanatory power. Moreover, its message is now more disorienting than any of us wants to consider—whether we’re racist, antiracist, misogynist, or androphobic.
Why do I say this founding “proximate” to slavery is a good thing? For the same reason that I don’t believe every human being on the planet should be invited to vote about my property and my rights. For the same reason I don’t believe it would be wise to naturalize every single person who wants to be a citizen of the United States tomorrow morning at 8:00 a.m. sharp by pressing a magic button. What I believe is that such a policy would destroy my freedom and my well-being, and I strongly suspect it would put my life at risk. As much as I may love it and find it fascinating in its various locales, I don’t trust the rest of humanity to know what is best for me. Does this make me a racist? Perhaps. But race is not the essence of my point. Rather, power is. I’m skeptical about the power of pure democracy.
I’m told eight billion people live on Earth. Out of that number, I figure around 75 million Americans and maybe 75 million other people who live in a handful of countries like New Zealand, Taiwan, Hungary, and Chile would genuinely see eye-to-eye with me regarding my rights. Having lived abroad and having listened to the experiences of people from other countries who share my beliefs, I think this ratio of 50 to 1 is optimistic. I could be wrong, but given what I know about how most people think and behave, I wager that if everyone were a citizen of the United States, then one way or another my property, guns, speech, happiness, and practically everything else I have become accustomed to in life would be taken from me. I have no doubt that nefarious politicians would propose referendums to take away my rights because said politicians would correctly perceive that those who share my opinions can be outvoted by roughly 7.85 billion to 150 million. In sum, I do not suffer from democratic enthusiasm.
Edmund Burke (1729–97) predicted nearly every stage of the decline of the French Revolution into a collectivist nightmare followed by a military dictatorship. Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826) at first thought the War of American Independence would spread freedom to the rest of the world. He realized within a decade that neither France nor Latin America were ready for republican democracy—that is, for a system designed to allow self-governance rather than a system that takes from a rich minority and gives to a poor majority and the preferred overlords of the latter. Joseph de Maistre (1753–1821) observed that “every nation gets the government it deserves.” De Maistre meant that when you see a weak, corrupt, or tyrannical regime, said regime reflects the underlying nature of the society that sustains it. His statement is not complicated. It simply affirms the fundamental importance of habits and values. If our society consists mostly of envious animals who would rather rob their neighbor than depend on the fruits of personal responsibility and hard work, then we can’t expect to have a government that defends private property and law and order. Reactionary decisionist political philosopher Juan Donoso Cortés (1809–53) once noted that progressives love to extend the franchise until they discover that not everyone can be expected to vote democratically. He meant that a lot of people are inclined to opt for a one-off festival of revenge and gluttony at the expense of others.
Does the idea that any of these men were racists discredit the truth of their ideas? Not really. Today, the decaying state of America’s sanctuary cities—places congenitally plagued by high crime rates, extreme poverty, and laughable levels of governmental ineptness—all reflect the ugly bounty of unmitigated democracy. People who vote with their tribal hearts instead of their individual heads can be counted on to vote for people like Eric Adams (D–New York), Jenny Durkan (D–Seattle), Jacob Frey (D–Minneapolis), and Lori Lightfoot (D–Chicago). Are we sensing a pattern? Then, if these voters can afford it, they move to a nice, peaceful neighborhood in Florida, Texas, or Virginia. Another pattern. Absolute puritanical democracy for thee but not for me. Let’s hope voters learn something from their experiences. I remain, however, unconvinced that this is an argument for open borders—time will tell.
So, if somebody back in 1787, for reasons that might strike us today as disagreeable, even for racist or sadistic reasons, thought the franchise should be limited and restricted—that the mob should be given shock absorbers, or even, heaven forbid, actual barriers—then perhaps that was not an entirely bad thing. Instead of calling those people racists, we might debate the merits of their system. We might consider the utility of asymmetrical democracy, also known as republican democracy. How about a senate elected by state legislatures instead of a plebiscite, or maybe an electoral college that provides a breakwater for demographic tidal waves? What about a list of personal rights which no government should ever be allowed to take away—the right to free speech, the right to guns, and the right to a home that can’t be occupied by statist thugs? Should democracy itself be a right or, rather, a mode of self-governance that must be learned, internalized, and earned by way of demonstrated respect for the rights of others? If you accept the justness of any of these ideas, then it’s possible that your suspicion or fear of people who don’t look like you or people whom you’ve already abused can have positive consequences for thinking about a long-term governing structure. You might not sleep well at night, things might get worse over the near term, your soul might even be damned to hell by everyone who knows you or reads about you. But you can take pride in the fact that you were not prepared to commit suicide just to assuage your guilt.
Slavery was a horrific wrong that created a serious political paradox, which, for its part, disallowed a “one-and-done” mode of democracy: freedom is distinct from the equality it advocates. As a result, the United States is not Venezuela, Russia, Iran, or even France. It would be nice to repair the suffering of past ages, but we cannot. We can only try to make things right in the here and now—and perhaps with some consideration of future generations. Lately, I’m only willing to make sacrifices if I can get things in return. Does this make me a racist? Irrelevant. Motives fallacy. As a prime example, I don’t like the idea of school vouchers because I’m obliged to pay the taxes for them even though I have no children to educate. I suspect vouchers also reinforce long-term dependency on government handouts. But if vouchers might mean a more educated, and therein more adaptive, population of citizens who have more ambitious goals for themselves and their children—more people who are less likely to vote away my rights because they can appreciate the need to protect their own—well, then I’m prepared to admit vouchers are worth a try. Yes, even if they’re considered racist.
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