Some conservatives are still steaming over the NYT’s 1619 Project. They see it as an attack on the honor of the American experiment or certainly the honor of its founders. Michael Gerson, a conservative columnist for the Washington Post, pointed out, however, that America’s founders WERE uniquely hypocritical in fighting a war for freedom while owning slaves.
“To deny the uniqueness of American guilt on slavery is also to deny the uniqueness of its aspirations,” he wrote. “Americans are required to have ambiguous feelings about many of the country’s Founders precisely because of the moral ideals the Founders engraved in American life. The height of their ambitions is also the measure of their hypocrisy. It SHOULD unsettle us that the author of the Declaration of Independence built a way of life entirely dependent on human bondage.”
“This leads to an unavoidably complex form of patriotism. We properly venerate not the Founders, but the standards they raised and often failed to meet. This is their primary achievement: They put into place an ideological structure that harshly judged their own practice and drove American democracy to achievements beyond the limits of their vision.
Slate categorized conservative criticisms thusly: “It makes me feel bad about my country.”; “Everyone’s already heard of slavery”; “It’s rude to white people” (and doesn’t recognize) the costs white people paid to free their property, slaves; it suggests America is not an entirely good nation.
Gerson summed up additional rationalizations: “The institution of slavery, we are assured, was historically ubiquitous. The global slave trade, we are reminded, involved not just Americans but Arabs and black Africans. Other countries, we are told, took more slaves than America, treated them worse and liberated them later.” And of course we must consider the founders’ views on slavery in the context of their times.
But Gerson says we must not excuse the founders for narrow-minded and self-centered thinking on slavery given that there were plenty of abolitionist thinkers at the time. He goes on to cite three: Quaker Anthony Benezet; Presbyterian pastor Samuel Hopkins; and another minister, Jacob Green.
One benefit of the 1619 Project is that it illustrates that the country has African Americans to thank for holding it to its highest ideals.
“America’s story is not one of initial purity and eventual decay,” Gerson wrote. “It is the story of a radical principle — the principle of human equality — introduced into a deeply unjust society. That principle was carried forward by oppressed people who understood it better than many of the nation’s Founders. Denied the blessings of liberty, African Americans became the instruments by which the promise of liberty was broadly achieved. The victims of America’s moral blindness became carriers of the American ideal.
“This story is not simple to tell. But it is miraculous in its own way. And it is good reason to be proud of America.”
Read Gerson’s full column in The Washington Post.