Statement on Race and the Founding
At the McDonald Center for America’s Founding Principles, we denounce racism and any attempt to justify the perpetuation of prejudicial laws, policies, or conventions by appeals to the American founding. The history of the United States has been marked, from the beginning, by attempts to envision a political order capable of supporting our highest ideals as human beings and subsequent attempts to live up to these ideals. At the McDonald Center, “we hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” We also fully acknowledge and lament our country’s failures to live up to its own ideals. We seek to promote conversations and research that look at the past with clear eyes and to the future with hope.
Thomas Jefferson was the author of the Declaration of Independence, a document given its moral and philosophical weight through a powerful invocation of universal principles of human liberty and equality. George Washington and James Madison played indispensable roles in designing and building an institutional framework dedicated to securing republican self-government and the blessings of liberty. All three men were also slaveholders and thereby benefitted from a monstrous system of racial oppression. Not all of the major figures who contributed to the American founding were as directly implicated in the practice of slavery as these three famous Virginians, but no major statesman from that period can wholly avoid being tainted by the odiousness and injustice of an institution that had become widespread and exceedingly well-entrenched in the previous 150 years of American history.
What, then, are contemporary Americans to do with the great gulf that existed between the fair-sounding ideas espoused during the founding era and the wretched lived practices of the day? It is exceedingly tempting to take one of the two most common approaches to this dilemma. One approach is to treat the founders as untouchable demigods, possessed of virtue and wisdom so sublime that we should simply ignore—or perhaps minimize as a mere historical anomaly—the ways in which their practices betrayed their principles. This approach leads to hagiography and a whitewashing of history. The second approach, more forthright but neither fair nor wholly adequate, simply rejects the founders and their ideas as hopelessly bound up with slavery and white supremacy. This approach treats slavery as the defining feature of the American founding, and suggests that the great principles of liberty and equality articulated there were never meant to extend further than current practice. Interestingly, this second approach has been adopted at various times both by those who have sought to improve the condition of African Americans and those who have worked actively against such improvement—such as Chief Justice Roger Taney in Dred Scott v. Sandford.
Mercer’s McDonald Center finds both of these approaches inadequate because they fail to wrestle with the very real gulf between principle and practice. To reduce the principles to mere codification of 18th-Century practice, as required by the second approach, fails to appreciate the power of ideas to aspire to anything beyond the present. It also fails to acknowledge that the founders’ own words and self-understanding reveal that they were fully aware that their practices did not measure up to their principles. In order to secure the union, compromises were indeed made with slaveholding interests, but when slavery was defended in late-18th Century America, it was always treated as an existing evil to be accommodated only with great reluctance rather than as a positive good or even as something about which one could be morally indifferent. A fair reading of words and deeds shows that the founding generation sought to put the institution of slavery on the course of ultimate extinction. Only an approach that takes the principles seriously can account for why seven of the thirteen original states passed emancipatory legislation in the decades immediately following 1776, why slavery was banned in the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, or why Congress acted to abolish the international slave trade on January 1, 1808, the first date in which it was constitutionally permitted to do so. Only this approach treats the founding generation as real human beings, as people who must wrestle with the realizations that the world in which they live is not what they wish it to be, that longstanding wrongs require not only the identification of the wrong but extensive work and fierce determination, and that human will can be shamefully weak when it comes to correcting its own errors.
Mercer’s McDonald Center is therefore interested in studying America’s founding principles not out of any misbegotten attachment to a bygone age, but because the writings of the American founding are uniquely helpful in thinking through many of the fundamental and timeless challenges to creating a political society dedicated to the proposition that all human beings are created free and equal. Attempting to bring our practices in ever closer alignment with the best of our principles is one such challenge. The McDonald Center is confident that the United States of America’s best moments have always come in such periods of greater alignment. Moreover, we share with many of the most astute readers of American history the view that this was always a part of the founding design. For example, we cite Abraham Lincoln’s view that the authors of the Declaration of Independence:
. . . intended to include all men, but they did not intend to declare all men equal in all respects. They did not mean to say all were equal in color, size, intellect, moral developments, or social capacity. They defined with tolerable distinctness, in what aspects they did consider all men equal—equal in “certain inalienable rights, among which are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” This they said, and this meant: They did not mean to assert the obvious untruth, that all were then actually enjoying that equality, nor yet, that they were about to confer it immediately upon them. In fact they had no power to confer such a boon. They meant simply to declare the right, so that the enforcement of it might follow as fast as circumstances should permit. They meant to set up a standard maxim for free society, which should be familiar to all, and revered by all; constantly looked to, constantly labored for, and even though never perfectly attained, constantly approximated, and thereby constantly spreading and deepening its influence, and augmenting the happiness and value of life to all people of all colors everywhere.i
Likewise, on an even more complicated and disputed subject, we cite Frederick Douglass’ view that the three compromises with slavery in the U.S. Constitution were reluctant and practical deviations from the guiding principles rather than glimpses of the guiding principle itself:
I hold that the Federal Government was never, in its essence, anything but an anti-slavery government. Abolish slavery tomorrow, and not a sentence or syllable of the Constitution need be altered. It was purposely so framed as to give no claim, no sanction to the claim, of property in man. If in its origin slavery had any relation to the government, it was only as a scaffolding to the magnificent structure, to be removed as soon as the building was completed.ii
We acknowledge the existence of different scholarly interpretations of these documents, and we also acknowledge that even the most noble of the founders’ ideals have had to compete with many bad ideas and faulty principles.iii We are thereby committed to reading and studying the documents of the era in hopes of better understanding how liberty might prevail over tyranny in all its forms. Slavery is an all too real and tragic part of the history of America; racism continues to thwart the promise of America’s ideals. To argue, however, that slavery and racism are the essence of America misses both that these two evils existed long before the creation of the United States of America, and that the period of the American founding saw the articulation of some very powerful anti-slavery and anti-racist principles that have proven useful in the past as Americans of all races worked to correct our flawed practices. The McDonald Center is dedicated to exploring the possibility that we might continue to close the gap between our practices and our best principles, and in the process even create “a more perfect union, establish justice, ensure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.”
July 4, 2020
Will R. Jordan and Charlotte C.S. Thomas
i Abraham Lincoln, “Speech on the Dred Scott Decision,” June 26, 1857, in Abraham Lincoln: Speeches and Writings, 1832-1858 (New York: Library of America, 1989), 398.
ii Frederick Douglass, “Address for the Promotion of Colored Enlistments,” July 6, 1863, in Philip S. Foner, ed., The Life and Writings of Frederick Douglass (New York: International Publishers, 1950), vol. 3, p.365.
iii Although we argue that the founders’ consistent anti-slavery principles were in many ways better than others that preceded and followed them, we fully acknowledge that some of the founders also entertained dangerous and faulty views on subjects related to race. For an example, see Thomas Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia, Query XIV. Although Jefferson later walked back some of his most egregious claims in the Notes (see, for example, his 1809 letter to Henri Gregoire), he never systematically confronted the incompatibility between his anti-slavery natural rights philosophy of equal liberty and his interest in the ugly new racial “science” emerging in Europe. Exploring the important differences in these theories explains both why ideas matter, and how good principles can be obscured when bad ideas are strengthened by prejudice and interest.