In a number of recent speeches, President Joe Biden has been repeating that America is founded not on an ethnicity or a religion or a language but on an “idea.” He has emphasized that the nature of this idea is that human beings do not derive their rights from the government but instead cede some of those rights for government to secure people in their “other” rights.
He references the Declaration of Independence and says, “We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men and women.” Having rephrased those words to be more “politically correct,” he usually trails off at this point and then goes on to say, “We’ve never lived up to it, but we’ve never walked away from it before.” He most often references America’s past of slavery and racism as aspects of the country’s history that requires us to, “Acknowledge our mistakes so we don’t repeat them.”
Stated in that way, the words almost sound like “self-evident truths.” The American people have not always lived up to its guiding ideas and principles, and acknowledging the mistakes of the past is part of the way of getting back on to a truer course. But what Biden emphasized in his campaign speeches a year ago before his election to the presidency was that what America had to face up to was that the country’s beginning was not in 1776 with the Declaration of Independence but rather in 1619 with the introduction of the first African slaves to Virginia that produced “400 years of racism in the United States of America.”
Expression of this dichotomy and contradiction in American history between a country proclaiming its dedication to liberty yet at the same time practicing human bondage with accompanying racial prejudice did not originate with the recent arrival of systemic race theory or identity politics on the political scene. It was highlighted and decried by advocates of equal rights for all before the law and the abolition of the institution of slavery in the decades before the American Civil War that was fought in the first half of the 1860s.
The two Americas of 1619 and 1620
As an example, Frederick Frothingham (1825–1891) was a fairly well-known Christian minister and strong abolitionist who delivered a widely read public address in the state of Maine on “The Significance of the Struggle Between Liberty and Slavery in America” (April 10, 1857). He reminded his listeners that in 1620 the Pilgrim Fathers had landed in Plymouth, Massachusetts, and, “Strong of heart were they, men of religion, filled with an awful trust in God and an indomitable love of Liberty.”
But the year before, in August 1619, “the unconscious waters of Chesapeake Bay bore and gave their sunny welcome to a sadder freight than that which the Plymouth Bay received. A dark slave-ship sailed to Jamestown with its freight of 20 human souls, stolen from Africa.” There was “no sympathy for the woes of those broken-hearted men; but work, work, work, in a service harder than that of the children of Israel of old under the taskmasters of Egypt.”
The spirit of liberty shone brightly enough over time, said Frothingham, that “the great struggle for national independence began to dawn,” even though as yet, “The day of struggle for a higher independence [from slavery] had not begun to dawn.” This sentiment of liberty had spread to such a degree, and was so “strong and noble … that it found expression in that magnificent paper, certainly to be forever treasured by every American — yea, by every man that loves his brother-man — the Declaration of Independence” with its emphasis on the “fundamental truths” of the universal and inherent right of every person to their life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness.
“America became free,” Frothingham continued. “And the struggle for the independence of man began to dawn. The two principles [of Liberty and Slavery], which had flowed silently side by side for a century, now began to be found incompatible.” These two diametrically opposed ideas came face-to-face in the debates leading to the establishment of the U.S. Constitution. “Northern delegates, and the Noblest of the Southern, held out against Slavery. South Carolina and Georgia were as firm as a rock on its behalf.” And, thus, the South’s “peculiar institution” was left intact to eat away at the soul and character of the new country.
The Founding Fathers and the spirit of liberty
But in spite of the “evil deed done,” Frothingham did not consider the country to be beyond redemption, nor did he scoff at those among the Founding Fathers who failed in their own personal deeds and in their implementation of a new country to do away with this sin against God and nature. The belief and spirit of liberty still persisted in people’s thinking and actions. Explained Frothingham:
Slavery was odious to the best and greatest of minds. It will be only necessary to mention such names as Franklin, Madison, Patrick Henry, Jefferson and Washington as its foes. The love of Freedom was strong in the public mind. The celebrated Ordinance of 1787, passed in the same year as the present United States Constitution, was adopted by a unanimous vote. It excluded slavery from the then Northwest Territory. Energetic measures were taken to procure emancipation. The result was that gradually Slavery was abolished or died in the Northern States.
The South fought back with the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which required forced repatriation of runaway slaves who had successfully escaped to free Northern states, and with the denial of a trial by jury for any person declared to be a slave. In addition, the domestic slave trade among the Southern states continued to grow and prosper even with the end of the importation of slaves from other countries after 1808. Virginia became notorious for specializing in the “breeding” of slaves and selling their human property to buyers in the other southern states.
The spirit of 1776 overcame that of 1619
Delivering his address in 1857, more than three years before beginning of the Civil War, Frothingham stated the situation in the country: “The two Ideas now fairly face to face, the one [Liberty] strong in the strength of truth and right, and the other [slavery] strong in the flush of success and the pride of power and will.” He feared that the slave states were more unified, more certain and determined than the free states in the North or West, especially with the extension of slavery with the incorporation of Texas following the U.S. government’s “most cowardly and wicked of wars — the war with Mexico [in 1846–1848].”
Who could know the future in 1857, and Frothingham wondered if it would be liberty or slavery that would prevail? But he told his audience that “The Declaration of Independence, indeed was given forth and that Declaration was that Slavery must die.” He did not see an America born into an inescapable “sin” with the importation of slaves in 1619. No, it is clear from Frothingham’s words that in his mind, America had two heritages, one that looked to the past with the institution of slavery, when it was brought into those colonies on the eastern shores of North America.
But at nearly the same time, in 1620, with the Pilgrims at Plymouth, another heritage carried over from Europe and especially England, that of a liberty that looked to the future. Absolute kings, plunder-based aristocracies, systems of power and privilege were set aside with the vision and hope of a new society based on the freedom of the individual secure in his life, liberty, and honestly acquired property. Where human associations, whether personal, commercial or political, were based on voluntarism and self-government.
Frothingham saw the emergence of
the final struggle between Liberty and Slavery. Slavery has disappeared from Europe. The European nations, except for Spain, have freed their slaves abroad. In Russia it is very different [serfdom] from ours and approaching gradually freedom. Slavery now awaits only America’s decision to disappear from the earth and for the emancipated nations to chant one great triumph completed…. Liberty or Slavery, which will you have? Humanity waits breathless on the answer.
Secession was about preserving slavery
A number of historians have highlighted that for Abraham Lincoln, the crucial issue was the preservation of the Union and his notorious statement that if either maintaining or abolishing slavery in the South would keep the United States politically intact, he would accept it. It was only when the Civil War kept dragging on and he needed the budgetary support of the abolitionists in Congress in 1863 to fund the Northern cause that he signed the Emancipation Proclamation, which abolished slavery in those states still in open rebellion against the Union Army.
Historians have also have pointed out that there were other issues over which the Southern states viewed themselves as having grievances against the North. This included trade protectionism that benefited emerging Northern industrial areas against the competition of less expensive European manufactured goods for which the Southern states preferred to sell their exports. There was also the distribution of import taxes collected by the Federal government that seemed to be disproportionately used for “internal improvements” — government infrastructure spending — to the benefit of Northern and Western states and territories at the expense of Southern taxpayers.
But the fact remains, for the South, the most important if not clearly paramount issue was the preservation of slavery. Reading the declarations of secession by Southern state governments makes it clear that the fear was that over time, the admission of new “free states” in the West, with the resulting change in the “balance of forces” in the Congress, along with the anti-slavery sentiments of someone like Lincoln being in the White House as a result of the presidential election of 1860, meant that their “peculiar institution” was facing doom in the longer run if they did not act aggressively to maintain their “way of life.”
Slaves had no say in Southern secession
But wasn’t secession the “will of the people” in these Southern states? The question is, which people? The British classical economist and liberal, John Stuart Mill, said during the American Civil War:
Secession may be laudable, and so may any other kind of insurrection, but it may also be an enormous crime when its purpose is the preservation of holding a portion of their population in perpetual bondage. If secession was meant to be an expression of the will of the people, have the slaves been consulted? Has their will been counted as any part in the estimate of collective volition? They [too] are a part of the population…. Remember, we consider them to be human beings, entitled to human rights.
According to the 1860 census, the black slave populations made up the majority of people in South Carolina and Mississippi, respectively, 57.2 percent, and 55.2 percent. In Louisiana, Alabama, and Georgia, the slaves made up, respectively, 46.9 percent, 45.1 percent, and 43.7 percent of the populations. These people’s preferences for secession or remaining in the Union were, obviously, not polled. Hardly, therefore, was this an expression of a “freedom of choice,” especially considering that the 1860 census recorded that out of the 9.103 million people in the states that seceded and formed the Confederacy, 3.52 million were slaves, or nearly 39 percent of the total population.
Even if Lincoln’s reasons for taking up arms to prevent Southern session may have been merely preservation of the United States as one political entity, it is nonetheless the case that by the end of Civil War, the abolition of slavery had become identified as the great moral reason and justification for the loss of life of what ended up being 600,000 people in the conflict. It is also the case that in December 1865, following the end of hostilities with the South’s surrender in April, the 13th Amendment formally became part of the U.S. Constitution, ending the practice of slavery within the United States.
The persistence of racial ideas after the Civil War
While a legal institution can be eliminated by its formal repeal, a change in attitudes and personal actions is far more difficult and resistant to immediate transformation, in most instances. It is the case that biases and prejudices remained for much longer in the minds and conduct of many white Americans. Frederick Douglass may have successfully escaped from the slavery into which he had been born in that period before the Civil War and made of himself the model of the well-read, articulate, and independent self-made man. But he recounts in his autobiographies the discrimination and bigotry in the free North that made it sometimes difficult for him to successfully gain employment to earn a living due to the white workers in that corner of the market resisting his competition as a “black man” for work in their area of the economy.
For the nearly hundred years that separated the Civil War from the abolition of segregation laws in the Southern states, discrimination, bigotry, and abuse of black Americans remained a part of the American experience, and not just below the Mason-Dixon Line. Those who are not in their 70s or 80s cannot fully appreciate the extent to which racist rhetoric and actions persisted and prevailed in too many corners of American society.
Individual liberty over collective identity
I remember as a small boy in the late 1950s being at family gatherings and hearing the hypocrisy of elders who bemoaned the mistreatment and violated civil rights of blacks, but in the next breath using derogatory terms and words about the very people who a few minutes before were empathetically referred to in terms of their plight.
But why was any empathy expressed at all? One answer might be that this side of my family was Jewish, and given the anti-Semitic abuse and violence experienced by Jews in the past, a sympathetic ear would be expected for those black Americans suffering some of the same merely due those inescapable accidents of birth. But I would suggest there was more to it than that, especially since so many other Americans who were “white, Anglo-Saxon Protestant” or Catholic also spoke up, at least in words if not always in deeds, against the racial discrimination being experienced by American blacks.
This gets us back to Frederick Frothingham, who so outspokenly contrasted the bringing of slaves to Virginia in 1619 and the arrival of the Puritans to Massachusetts the following year in 1620, in his 1857 public address. The extension of slavery to the Americas that started in the early 1500s, first and far more to the Spanish and Portuguese colonies in South and Central America than to North America, was the continuation of a practice recorded in all of human history.
Ancient practice of slavery defeated by liberal idea of freedom
Historians of the ancient world have unearthed evidence of the capture and enslavement of defeated peoples in Mesopotamia in 6,800 B.C. Egyptian temples depict the capture and enslavement of black Africans from expeditions up the Nile River going back to 2,575 B.C. The Greek city-state of Athens used slaves for mining silver in 550 B.C. Slavery existed in ancient China going back at least to 2,000 years before Christ. Slavery was common in India as well, at least from 600 B.C. Slavery was a practice among black African tribes, also going back thousands of years and long before the arrival of Europeans and the slave trade to the Americas. In the 1600s, 1700s, and 1800s, the Arabs were notorious as African slave traders, since under Islamic law the non-believer could be held in bondage.
The modern movement to end this ancient human institution only began to be organized into an effective form in the second half of the eighteenth century with the formation of the Anti-Slavery Society in Great Britain. From that point until the formal end of slavery in the British Empire in 1834 by Parliament, a determined abolitionist movement made up of British (white) men and women worked diligently to educate, inform, and transform the thinking of both their fellow British and others around the world. Their influence and the wider British tradition of liberty led to the Abolitionist movement in the United States. By the end of the nineteenth century — after existing for all those thousands of years of recorded human history — slavery was in principle and increasingly in practice abolished in all parts of the world being touched by enlightened and liberal European ideas.
This may be “politically incorrect” to say nowadays, but, yes, it was the classical liberal ideas of individual rights, personal freedom, rule of law, and freedom of association and trade, which had taken at least partial root in parts of, especially, Western Europe and most particularly in Great Britain and the young United States, that slowly but surely brought about this radical change in both people’s thinking and institutions. All of this was brought about in just over one hundred years.
Slavery, as Frederick Frothingham said, was the idea of the past that was carried over from the “old world” to the “new” in that shipload of slaves to Virginia in 1619. But it was very soon confronted by the idea and ideal of the future, which was that each individual was a distinct and unique human being, who by God and the laws of nature should be seen and considered to have a “natural right” to their life, liberty, and peacefully and honestly acquired private property, as the basis upon which each such person was to have the freedom to pursue happiness in their own personally chosen way.
Individualism overcame the tribal mentality
For most of their history on this planet, human beings lived in small tribal bands of strongly clannish collectivism. The distinctions between “them” and “us,” as groups in primitive competition for food, water, grazing lands, and safe places to live, formed and dominated the very meaning of life and existence for tens of thousands of years. External physical differences naturally came to be among the means of distinguishing members of the “in-group” from those of the “out-group.” Those not a part of one’s own group were considered a threat and a competitor for primal existence, in a setting in which the mindset was implicitly of a zero-sum situation. That is, if another tribe gained, it could only mean that your’s had lost in the struggle for survival.
The ancient Hebrews may have referenced a “higher authority” to whom and a “higher law” to which an individual might have recourse if abused or violated by those asserting political power over him. The Greeks may have reasoned on the essential role of a freedom of thought and argument if the free citizens of the Athenian city-state were to “reason together” to develop an understanding of the shared world in which they lived. The Romans may have searched for the “universal law” of right and justice that all men of good will might reason over and agree to as just and right for all men. And Christianity may have emphasized the freedom of conscience without which each unique individual made in the common image of God could not accept salvation in a community of belief in which all men were brothers in the eyes of God.
But it was only in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, with the emergence of the more modern idea of “natural rights” and its implication for the autonomy of the individual from the violent abuse of others in general and government in particular, that the modern ideal of personal liberty could fully take form and begin to capture the attention and adherence of increasing numbers of people. The idea of universal individual rights belonging to everyone, regardless of who they might be and where they may have come from, meant that humanity was now on course for a growing respect for the free human being.
There could no longer be a presumption and collective policies to assert and act on the notion that some men had rights that others did not; or, as Thomas Jefferson expressed it in 1826 shortly before his death, that “the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately.”
While there has been slavery and there have been racists in the United States, the idea behind America was clearly captured and articulated in the words of the Declaration of Independence. Those words rejected any rationale or justification for the political identification of people with any group identity other than a community of free individual human beings who were to be viewed and treated as such.
While in a free society any person may choose to follow tribal and primitive attitudes about others in his own personal conduct, doing so remains inconsistent with the founding philosophical premise of America: that no matter a person’s place of birth or originating station in life due to accidents of life, or his biological appearance and physical characteristics, he should be seen, treated, and interacted with on the basis of his characteristics and character as an individual human being.
In other words, all forms of tribalism, including racism, have no place in a liberal society of freedom. Some people, including some Americans, may still be guided by atavistic notions of race and racialist thought and conduct toward others. But the philosophical and political premises and institutional building blocks of America are inconsistent and incompatible with the very notion of “systemic racism.”
This is because the philosophy of individualism rejects the very conception of viewing and treating human beings in terms of collective group categories and characteristics. It is why racism and ideological “race consciousness” and conduct has slowly but surely continued to decline in the United States over the last half century.
It is also the case that if race identity and racial politics seem to be returning to the United States against the backdrop of its decline over recent decades, it is due to a growing number of academics and intellectuals who reject individualist ideas in all their political, economic, and cultural manifestations. And who are trying to restore the tribal collectivism that has taken at least part of humanity so long to set aside in thought, deed, and public policy.
In other words, it is the “systemic racism” theorists who are trying to make systemic racist thinking and acting once more both legitimate and presumed to be morally right. That is its essential and central threat and danger to the remaining residues of individual liberty and voluntary association in America and why it needs to be opposed and defeated through all peaceful and legitimate means that remain at our disposal.
This article was originally published in the September 2021 edition of Future of Freedom.