WASHINGTON: In recent days, we have seen an escalation in assaults upon American history. Nike’s knee-jerk removal of sneakers displaying the 13-star Betsy Ross flag due to the complaints of Colin Kaepernick. Kaepernick, a former NFL football player is a Nike spokesperson. What is Kaepernick’s complaint about the flag? A few far-right groups waived it.
At almost the same time, the city of Charlottesville, Virginia decided that it would no longer celebrate the birthday of Thomas Jefferson. Moreover, the city of San Francisco announced that it would spend $600,000 to paint over a mural depicting the life of George Washington.
In the case of the Betsy Ross flag, there is no connection to slavery. For one Ross was a feminist of her time. She was also an anti-slavery Quaker.
The first flag of the United States was about uniting a new country
Mark Pitcavage, a senior fellow at the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism, says:
“We view it as essentially an innocuous historical flag. It’s not a thing in the white supremacist movement.” Lisa Moulder, Director of the Betsy Ross House in Philadelphia, says of the flag that, “I’ve always seen it as a representation of early America, a society that was not perfect and is not perfect today.”
In San Francisco, there are plans to paint over a mural painted 83 years ago as part of a New Deal program, which portrays the life of George Washington, at the cost of $600,000. The painter was Victor Arnatoff, a Russian-born radical. He represented many aspects of Washington’s life, including the depiction of slavery at Mt. Vernon. The mural consists of 13 panels and occupies 600 square feet on a wall in George Washington High School.
Richard Walker, professor emeritus at the University of California at Berkeley, an outspoken liberal and director of the History Project, argues that the portrait is an integral part of US history and should be maintained:
“We on the left ought to welcome an honest portrayal. Destroying this work of art is the worst we can do in dealing with history’s evils.”
The growing attacks upon the history of our country reflect a narrowness of vision. America, after all, is a human enterprise, and all human enterprises are deeply flawed. We define things based on how they differ from other things. With its many shortcomings, our country’s history, overall, is positive. Its critics compare America to perfection; not to the world’s reality.
In 1987, when we celebrated the bicentennial of the Constitution, Dr. Mark Cannon, Director of the Commission on the Bicentennial, noted that:
“Nearly two-thirds of the world’s national constitutions have been adopted or revised since 1970, and only fourteen predate World War ll. Fifty-three.three percent of the independent states of the world have been under more than one constitution since the end of the Second World War. The average nation has had two constitutions since the second World War. Two states, Syria and Thailand, have each had nine constitutions over the past forty years. The Constitution of the United States has proven remarkably durable.”
The history of slavery is a long one.
In some, mostly liberal, minds the Constitution and all of our history is found wanting because of the existence of slavery. Many critics appear to hold the view that slavery was a uniquely American evil, our “original sin.”
History, however, tells a far different story.
From the beginning of recorded history until the 19th century, slavery was the way of the world. in 1787, slavery was legal everyplace in the world. What was unique was that in the American colonies, there was a strenuous objection to slavery and the most prominent Framers of the Constitution wanted to eliminate it at the very start of the nation.
In the ancient world, most people regarded slavery as a natural condition of life, one which could befall anyone at any time. Slavery has existed almost universally through history among peoples of every culture. It existed among nomadic pastoralists of Asia, among societies of North American Indians, and the sea people such as the Norsemen. The legal codes of Sumer provide documentary evidence that slavery existed there as early as the 4th millennium BC.
The Sumerian symbol for slave in cuneiform writing suggests “foreign.” (From Sumerian Gods to Modern Day: The History of Slavery)
Denmark leads in abolishing the slave trade
When the Constitutional Convention met in Philadelphia in 1787, not a single nation had made slavery illegal. As they looked back through history, the Framers saw slavery as an acceptable and accepted institution.
It was not until 1792 that Denmark became the first Western nation to abolish the slave trade. In 1807, the British Parliament passed a bill, outlawing the slave trade. British slavery abolished in the colonies between 1834 and 1848.
Spain ended slavery in Puerto Rico in 1873 and Cuba in 1886. Brazil abolished slavery in 1888.
What is historically unique is not that slavery was the accepted way of the world in 1787, but that so many of the leading men of the American colonies wanted to eliminate it. Working vigorously to do so.
Benjamin Franklin and Alexander Hamilton were ardent abolitionists. As was Louisa May Alcott, Susan B. Anthony and Betsy Ross. Frederick Douglas, Henry Walton Bibb, Reverand Samuel Cornish.
John Jay, who would become the first Chief Justice, was president of the New York Anti-Slavery Society. (American Abolitionists and Antislavery Activists) Rufus King and Gouverneur Morris were at the forefront of the opposition to slavery and the slave trade, as were many of the era’s peoples and organizations.
At the Constitutional Convention, there were debates about the African slave trade.
George Mason of Virginia made an eloquent plea for making it illegal. He declared:
“This infernal traffic originated in the avarice of British merchants. The British government constantly checked the attempt of Virginia to put a stop to it; Every master of slaves is born a petty tyrant. They bring the judgment of heaven on a country.”
The provision finally adopted read:
“The Migration or Importation of such Persons as any of the States now existing shall think proper to admit, shall not be prohibited by the Congress prior to the year one thousand eight hundred and eight (1808), but a Tax or duty may be imposed on such importation, not exceeding ten dollars for each Person.”
Opponents of slavery did see this clause as an important first step on the long road to abolition. The delay of twenty years was the price ten of the states were willing to pay to assure that the developing union would include the three states of Georgia, South Carolina, and North Carolina.
However, even in Georgia, South Carolina, and North Carolina, there was sympathy for an end to slavery. Nonetheless, they wanted additional time to phase out their economic dependence on slave labor.
Slavery and the Declaration of Independence
At the age of 25, when Jefferson became a member of the state of Virginia legislature, his first political act was to begin the elimination of slavery. In the draft of a constitution for Virginia, he provided for the emancipation of slaves by the year 1800. Furthermore, that a child born in Virginia after 1801 would be born free.
Unfortunately, Jefferson’s proposals failed.
The Founding Fathers were committed to building a new civilization which would become a model for the rest of humanity. In Jefferson’s original draft of the Declaration of Independence, one of the principal charges Thomas Jefferson made against King George lll and his predecessors was that they would not allow the American colonies to outlaw the importation of slaves.
Though unsuccessful, he tried to further encourage the emancipation process by writing into the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal.”
Historian Sean Wilentz reconsiders the Founders’ debates over slavery and the Constitution as described in his new book, No Property in Man: Slavery and Antislavery at the Nation’s Founding.
Even before the Declaration of Independence, John Adams saw the human hope that was flowering in America and wrote:
“I always considered the settlement of America with reverence and wonder, of the opening of a grand scene and design in Providence for the illumination of the immigrant and the emancipation of the slavish part of mankind all, over the world.”
Similarly, James Madison declared,
“Happily for Americans, happily we trust for the whole human race, they (the founders) pursued a new and more noble course.”
To judge the founders of America in 1787 by the values of 2019 is to engage in the sin of contemporaneity.
It is self-righteous in the extreme to find our ancestors wanting, despite their extraordinary achievements. The Founders created a Constitution and a government which endures today. A Constitution with the flexibility to expand the freedoms inherent in its written words.
When religious persecution plagued the world, they established freedom of religion and separation of church and state. The Founders limited government power.
The fool’s errand to erase America’s history
Those who would topple statues and paint over murals because those who created our country were not perfect. Because those who have come before us were imperfect human beings, as are we today.
We celebrate them for their achievements, in spite of their faults and shortcomings.
In totalitarian societies, we have seen groups like the Nazis, the Red Guard, and the Taliban burn books, topple statues and destroy paintings. We should not permit those in our present-day society, a small but vocal group, to succeed in imitating such destructive behavior.