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A Complex History: Critics ignoring extraordinary American achievements

Written By | Jul 6, 2020
American Achievement, History, Founding Fathers, Slavery

President Donald J. Trump and First Lady Melania Trump watch an aerial review of aircraft Friday, July 3, 2020, during South Dakota’s 2020 Mount Rushmore Fireworks Celebration at the Mount Rushmore National Memorial in Keystone, S.D. (Official White House Photo by Tia Dufour)

WASHINGTON: American history is now under attack.  Statues are being torn down, not only of Confederate generals, but also of the abolitionist John Brown, the poet John Greenleaf Whittier, the commander of the Union Army Ulysses S. Grant and a host of others.  There is now talk of removing statues of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson.  These are the people who are behind some of our greatest American Achievements.

But, America, we are told, was conceived in the “original sin” of slavery.

Slavery, of course, was a great sin.  But it was hardly an American creation.  It existed in Ancient Greece and Rome, in Africa, the Middle East and throughout Europe. In 1776, when the Declaration on Independence was written, slavery was legal every place in the world.

However, many of the Founding Fathers recognized it as an evil and sought to eliminate it at the Constitutional Convention in 1787.

Men and nations are imperfect.

If they are to be rejected because of their imperfections, all would be found wanting.  Men are not perfect beings. In the Bible, we are told that all men are sinners.   We celebrate individuals for their achievements, not because they are without faults and shortcomings.  If that was our standard, there would be no statues at all, except as one religious leader said, to Jesus Christ himself.  Even with Jesus, some activists want his statue removed because he is sometimes portrayed with blond hair and blue eyes.

Those who are so eager to destroy our history do not seem to realize that history is as complex as the men and women who make it.  Despite their failings, the Founding Fathers moved America ahead the rest of world in freedom in the 18th century.

The cultural divide: How we see each other in America

Consider religious freedom.  Throughout Europe, Catholics suffered persecution in Protestant countries, as did Protestants in Catholic countries.

Jews were limited in their rights virtually everywhere.  But in America, there was a separation of church and state and religious freedom for all.  As George Washington wrote to the Hebrew Congregation of Newport, Rhode Island, in America we give “to bigotry no sanction.”

The goal to destroy slavery from the early beginnings

What is interesting about the Founding Fathers is the fact that many of them wanted to eliminate slavery at the very beginning.  In his original draft of the Declaration of Independence, one of the principal charges made by Thomas Jefferson against King George lll and his predecessors was that they would not allow the American colonies to outlaw the importation of slaves.

When Jefferson was first elected to the Virginia legislature at the age of 25,  his first political act was to begin the elimination of slavery.  Though unsuccessful, he tried to further encourage the emancipation process by writing into the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal.”  In his draft of a constitution for Virginia, he provided that all slaves would be emancipated in that state by 1800 and that any child born in Virginia after 1801 would be born free.  This, however, was not adopted.

Jefferson resumed his attack on King George lll in his draft of the Declaration of Independence:

“He has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating and carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere, to incur miserable deaths in their transportation hither.”

This formulation was rejected at the instigation of Georgia and South Carolina.

In his autobiography, Jefferson declared,

“Nothing is more certainly written in the book of life than that these people are to be free.”  

In 1784, when an effort was unsuccessfully made to exclude slavery from the Northwest Territory,  Jefferson was one of its leading supporters.  Finally, with the passage of the Northwest Ordinance in 1787, slavery was indeed excluded from these territories. This being a further step along the path to the final elimination of slavery, and a clear indication of the view of slavery which predominated among the framers of the Constitution.

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In “Notes On The State Of Virginia,”. Jefferson wrote,

“The whole commerce between master and slave is a perpetual exercise of the most boisterous passions, the most unremitting despotism on the one part, and degrading submission on the other.  Our children see this, and learn to imitate it, for man is an imitative animal.  “

While many criticized the founders for not eliminating the slave trade immediately, others understood that they had set in motion an opposition to slavery that would bear fruit in the future.  James Wilson of Pennsylvania, for example, declared:

“I am sorry that it could be extended no farther, but so far as it operates, it presents us with the pleasing prospect that the rights of mankind will be acknowledged and established throughout the Union.  If there were no other lovely feature in the Constitution than this one, it would diffuse a beauty over its whole countenance.  Yet the lapse of a few years, and Congress will have power to exterminate slavery from within our borders.”

Oliver Ellsworth of Connecticut declared:

 “Slavery, in time, will not be a speck in our country.  Provision is already made in Connecticut for abolishing it.  And the abolition has already taken place in Massachusetts.”

James Madison pointed out that:

“The Southern states would not have entered into the Union without the temporary permission of that trade;  and if they were excluded from the Union, the consequences might be dreadful to them and to us…Great as the evil is, a dismemberment of the Union would be worse.  If those states were to disunite from the other states for indulging them in the temporary continuance of this traffic, they might solicit and obtain aid from foreign powers.”

Alexander Hamilton, on March 13, 1786, joined in sending a petition to the New York legislature urging the end of the slave trade as:

“A commerce so repugnant to humanity and so inconsistent with the liberality and justice which distinguish a free and enlightened people.”

Governor  Morris of Pennsylvania said that if South Carolina and Georgia refused to ratify the Constitution unless it contained full protection of the slave interest, then the other states should form a union without them.  He said of slavery,

“It is a nefarious Institution .  It is the curse of heaven on the states where it prevails.”

Those who criticize the framers of the Constitution today forget that prior to the late 18th century, opposition to the idea of slavery was almost nonexistent.  Yet in the American Colonies, there were vigorous anti-slavery societies.

In Philadelphia, in 1787 the most prominent of the framers wanted to eliminate slavery from the outset.

They decided, however, that creating the Union had to take precedence and argued that the question of slavery would have to be finally determined at a later time.

When the Constitution was written, the framers could look everywhere in the world for an example of a free society with limited government and freedom of religion and free speech. Yet the could find none to follow.  No existing government in 1787 was designed to provide its people with freedom, nor had any in past history.

The framers set out to create something which had never been created before—-an inherently perilous undertaking.  That they succeeded is a remarkable American achievement.
Being imperfect men, the Constitution was also imperfect, particularly when it came to slavery.

But the framers knew that changes would be needed. They provided a process to amend the Constitution and a Supreme Court to review the legislative decisions of Congress. This has been used to eliminate slavery and, later, segregation.  It has provided for equal rights for women and for men and women no matter what their sexual orientation.  Clearly, our current society needs further change and reform.  We have the means to provide it.

When our country was formed it was the freest country in the world at that time.  Our teaching of history has declined to such a  degree that many Americans do not understand that this is true.  Prof. Samuel Huntington points to the truly historic meaning of the Constitution:

“This is a new event in the history of mankind.  Heretofore  most governments have been formed by tyrants and imposed on mankind by force.  Never before did a people, in time of peace and tranquility, meet together by their representatives and, with calm deliberation, frame for themselves a system of government.”

American history is complex, but those who are now engaged in denigrating it seem to know little about its uniqueness.  It has survived for more than 200 years and is the oldest existing form of government.  It has enabled Americans to live in freedom. Attracting to our shores men and women of every race, religion, and ethnic group seeking liberty.

This is the extraordinary American Achievement of the Founding Fathers.  It is sad that so many Americans do not know this history and appreciate its uniqueness.

Allan C. Brownfeld

Received B.A. from the College of William and Mary, J.D. from the Marshall-Wythe School of Law of the College of William and Mary, and M.A. from the University of Maryland. Served as a member of the faculties of St. Stephen's Episcopal School, Alexandria, Virginia and the University College of the University of Maryland. The recipient of a Wall Street Journal Foundation Award, he has written for such newspapers as The Houston Press, The Washington Evening Star, The Richmond Times Dispatch, and The Cincinnati Enquirer. His column appeared for many years in Roll Call, the newspaper of Capitol Hill. His articles have appeared in The Yale Review, The Texas Quarterly, Orbis, Modern Age, The Michigan Quarterly, The Commonweal and The Christian Century. His essays have been reprinted in a number of text books for university courses in Government and Politics. For many years, his column appeared several times a week in papers such as The Washington Times, The Phoenix Gazette and the Orange County Register. He served as a member of the staff of the U.S. Senate Internal Security Subcommittee, as Assistant to the research director of the House Republican Conference and as a consultant to members of the U.S. Congress and to the Vice President. He is the author of five books and currently serves as Contributing Editor of The St. Croix Review, Associate Editor of The Lincoln Review and editor of Issues.