There are forces these days, acting in the open, the aim of which is to destroy America.
One argument often heard is that since the Founders didn’t abolish slavery in the Constitution, the lofty ideas in the Declaration of Independence – and those in the Constitution itself – are all lies, and America’s founding is illegitimate. Jamelle Bouie, writing in the “1619 Project” stated:
“America holds onto an undemocratic assumption from its founding: that some people deserve more power than others.”
Another argument is that America’s greatness is based on myths built to support the lies. Again, from the “The 1619 Project”, Nikita Stewart writes:
“Jeffries and teachers in upper grades I talked to around the country say they spend the beginning of their presentations on slavery explaining to students that what they learned in elementary school was not the full story and possibly not even true.”
Somewhat unsurprisingly, I disagree.
As to the first charge, we need to begin by looking to the Constitution. The Framers of the Constitution left us one piece of parchment that presents two separate, but unified philosophical viewpoints.
The first is the legal philosophy, the law of the land. While the respect for this aspect has declined with as progressivism has risen, it is the clear language of the Constitution that defines our national government and which powers it has – and more importantly, which powers it does not have, which are reserved for the several states, and the people.
The second is the ASPIRATIONAL philosophy – and this is something rarely discussed – but the aspirational principles set forth in the document are least as important as the legal dimensions of the Constitution.
What I mean when I say it is an “aspirational document” is this: the Founders knew America was an imperfect nation because it consisted of imperfect people. Intent on creating something Abe Lincoln later described as a government “of the people, by the people and for the people”, the Framers did leave some important questions of equality and fairness unanswered, but for a reason. The leaders of the colonies were most interested in creation of a unified government – a debate over slavery at that point would have almost guaranteed that any sort of common government would be impossible, so they did the next best thing. They laid down a set of aspirational guiding principles for all Americans and left it to future generations so sort it out.
The Founders could have directed government to fix all the ills of America – but they didn’t give it that power. They knew, as all rational people know, government cannot address one issue without creating another – but people, working together to change hearts and minds, can.
Did America live up to the ideals of the Declaration and Constitution at the time of founding?
Of course, the answer is “no”.
Have we achieved the goals set in the Declaration and the Constitution?
The best answer I have is that we are trying. We’ve made progress. We have had setbacks – but the important thing to remember is that we have the freedom to keep trying. We may not hit a home run every time at bat, but America keeps swinging. We continue to aspire to the ideals the Founders put in front of us.
President Calvin Coolidge was famous for understatement and of all his quotes, perhaps the following is the greatest understatement of all:
“To live under the American Constitution is the greatest political privilege that was ever accorded to the human race.”
As to the latter charge that America was founded on myth and we continue to invent myths to prop up our nation, the answer is more nuanced.
Did George Washington really chop down that cherry tree? Did Paul Revere really make his epic ride? Did the ownership of slaves by some of the Founders negate the ideals incorporated in the Declaration of Independence? What about honor and gallantry during the Civil War, are those characteristics denied to soldiers of the Confederacy while savagery on the part of the Union soldiers ignored?
The fact is every great nation, religion or movement is inevitably based at least partially on beliefs that could be described as myth. It comes as no surprise the victorious write history and the stories we tell ourselves are often equivalent to the old game of “Telephone”, except one that has lasted hundreds, often thousands, of years. There is also no doubt that mankind’s history is often in the eye of the beholder. Even when recorded as factually as possible, there are always good guys, bad guys, and victims – and it is no surprise that no matter who wins, the “winners” always want their actions to be validated, if not justified and celebrated.
These desires result in two different historical narratives – the bad guys, the cultures/forces we often understand as “wicked” tend to build a mythology around the past to paper over prior bad acts or to give themselves permission for future ones. This “history” is often enforced by coercion, censorship, and force as a way of attempting to explain or excuse their past, present, and future.
On the other hand, the “good guys” – the “righteous” cultures/forces, choose to record an “aspirational history”, that accentuates the positives while minimizing the negatives. That does not mean that the bad parts of their history are ignored, denied, forbidden, or hidden, what it means is that the nation resulting from such historical narratives tends to tell tales that imagine what they aspire to become – a hopeful visage of their futures.
Think of the evil done by the Nazi myth of a superior race descended from Roman rulers crafted by Adolph Hitler versus the good done by Jefferson’s articulation of the transcendental principles of freedom, liberty, and independence.
On the one hand, the bad guys tried to preserve a powerful people, while the good guys tried to preserve ideas that can set people free.
I have always been mindful of something the philosopher Immanuel Kant wrote. He noted that for the sake of morality and as a ground for reason, people are justified in believing in God, even though they could never know God’s presence empirically. He also noted:
“If one cannot prove that a thing is, he may try to prove that it is not. And if he succeeds in doing neither (as often occurs), he may still ask whether it is in his interest to accept one or the other of the alternatives hypothetically, from the theoretical or the practical point of view. Hence the question no longer is as to whether perpetual peace is a real thing or not a real thing, or as to whether we may not be deceiving ourselves when we adopt the former alternative, but we must act on the supposition of its being real.”
I think Kant’s philosophy is applicable to the creation, maintenance, and maturation of nations. It seems to me the nations with aspirational histories adopt those criteria as a basis for their systems of morality and make the decision that it is in the nation’s best interest to accept that history as true, are almost always the nations that advance the most righteous causes and support the most important advancements of mankind.
It is these are the nations that value the characteristics of freedom and self-determination. These nations are far less concerned with the mistakes of their past than they are getting it right for the future.
That is the America I know.