and was America founded on racism?
By: Hayden Cunningham
To most Americans, the 4th of July is a day to celebrate with your family the privileges we all receive by living in this country. We live in the freest country the world has ever seen. But in 2021, gratitude for our country has turned into contempt for it’s history.
Every country has its flaws. But when judging the history of the country, at what point do the successes outweigh the flaws? You’ve heard the recent argument: “America is founded on racism.” But is that true? To understand the answer to that question, it’s important to analyze the entire context of our country’s founding.
When Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence, he wrote a powerful statement that until then had never been written down in the history of the world: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”
When it was written, the Declaration said that “all men” were created equal, not just white men. The hypocrisy of the statement would not be corrected for another one hundred years, and in many ways another hundred years after that. But by pointing out the hypocrisy, you recognize the intentions of Jefferson’s words. This was a declaration that all people, under the eyes of God, were equal and deserve the same rights. It took some time for the country to live up to it’s own standards, but that does not change the values of the words on their own.
Thomas Jefferson was a strong advocate for the abolishment of slavery. In fact, so were most signers of the Declaration of Independence. Out of the 56 signers, only 15 were pro-slavery. Jefferson had the intention of ending slavery in the Declaration, but feared doing so would prevent southern states from uniting with the north to rebel against Great Britain. The founders had the intention for slavery to be abolished over time after the United States was founded. George Mason, one of the writers of the constitution, refused to sign it in part because it did not outlaw slavery.
There were many individuals throughout our country’s founding that spoke on behalf of the rights of slaves. Unfortunately, they were unsuccessful. This does not justify that evil mistakes of our country’s past, but it proves the point that it is inaccurate to paint all the founders as racist and evil men.
Yes, many founders had slaves. Even Thomas Jefferson had slaves in his state of Virginia. But at the time, Virginia law made it illegal for him to free his own slaves. Jefferson tried to pass a bill in Virginia to end slavery, but it was voted down. He also tried to pass a national anti-slavery law to abolish slavery nationally, but it lost by one vote. He tried to end slavery by means of legislation, but he was not successful. George Washington also had slaves, but the state laws had a loophole at the time where you could free your slaves when you died. Washington used this loopholes to free his slaves once he died.
The Constitution does not state that a black person is worth three-fifths of a white person. At the time of the three-fifths compromise (1787), the most pro-slavery states at the time were North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia. The law at the time stated that every 30,000 people would have one representative in Congress. South Carolina and Georgia had more black people in the state than white. The states wanted their slaves to be counted for Congressional representation. The north rejected this, stating that only freed men would be counted. The north pointed out the hypocrisy of southern states: you can’t call men your property but then advocate for them to receive congressional representation.
The north and the south settled on the three-fifths compromise that each slave would receive 3/5 of a white person’s representation in Congress. Because of this, the compromise actually cut slavery representation in Congress in half.
After reading this, Frederick Douglas argued that the Constitution was actually anti-slavery. The three-fifths clause made it harder to get an anti-slavery representative in Congress than it was to get a pro-slavery representative.
Our modern society often reads the history of our country through the lens of a southern viewpoint. Much of our country’s history from the founding of this country should be viewed with a northern viewpoint. By the time of the revolution, there were many prominent black leaders in America among various fields. It was not uncommon to see black pastors preach over mostly white churches. In 1768, New Hampshire elected a black man into office. Since the time of the country’s founded, the state of Massachusetts never had a time where a law stated blacks could not vote.
There are so many misconceptions about slavery’s history in the U.S. (again this is not justifying its horrors). Too often, people today try to tie modern laws to a racist origin. Policing in the U.S. today is tied back to the “slave patrol” of the post-Civil War South, as if policing didn’t exist for hundreds of years. But there are so many aspects of our history not mentioned. By 1860, less than 9% of Americans owned slaves. During the Revolution, George Washington’s slaves owned guns, which was not uncommon on major plantations at the time. Did you know those facts? Probably not.
Jefferson and Washington were not perfect men. They had slaves, but they called for abolishment. So at what point does a person’s contributions to society outweigh their flaws? Take Martin Luther King Jr., for example. No one will disagree with the fact that the man completely changed the way black people were treated in this country. He was a symbol of hope, his words persuaded the hearts of a nation, and he lost his life fighting for what he believed in. He also had several allegations from the F.B.I. regarding his treatment of women. Even Gandhi, one of the most peaceful leaders the world has seen, had a controversial past regarding women.
We can condemn the poor behaviors of a person while applauding their contributions. But if we want to tear down every statue of people who are not perfect, we aren’t going to have any statues left.
The U.S. fought for slavery at a time where slavery was still occurring around the world. Slavery was inherited in this country from Britain. In the new nation of America, many white men died for the rights and freedoms of black people.
Civil Rights leaders throughout history pointed to Jefferson’s words as justification for the abolishment of slavery. Frederick Douglas, for example, called for America to hold itself to the standards it set in the Declaration of Independence.
The best documents to use to argue against slavery was the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. Of course they were not pro-slavery documents. Those who sought the abolishment of slavery proved that the documents called for freedom. Great civil right leaders showed the American people they were hypocrites. It’s why Abraham Lincoln’s famous Gettysburg Address immediately cited the Jefferson’s writing in the Declaration of Independence:
Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth, upon this continent, a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that “all men are created equal”Abraham Lincoln, Gettysburg Address (1863)
Frederick Douglas provides a similar argument. In his famous What to the Slave is the Fourth of July? (1852), Douglas is not saying America is a horrible country. Rather, he is saying it is a great country that needs to be held to its own standards.
Are the great principles of political freedom and of natural justice, embodied in that Declaration of Independence extended to us?Frederick Douglas, What to the Slave is the Fourth of July? (1852)
Calvin Coolidge, a lesser-known President of the United States, was another President who expressed this truth. His comments came five years after Woodrow Wilson left office (one of the most racist Presidents in our history). His statement marked the 150th anniversary of July 4 and called for the equal rights of all Americans regardless of skin color.
If all men are created equal, that is final. If they are endowed with inalienable rights, that is final. If governments derive their just power from the consent of the governed, that is final. No advance, no progress can be made beyond these propositions. If anyone wishes to deny their truth and their soundness, the only direction in which he can proceed historically is not forward, but backward toward the time when there was no equality, no rights of the individual, no rule of the people. Those who wish to proceed in that direction cannot lay claim to progress. They are reactionary.Calvin Coolidge, Presidential speech in Philadelphia commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence (1926)
In today’s world, slavery is still happening in many countries around the world. Yet, we tear down the statues of our country’s founders. We condemn the flaws of our past that have since been corrected, while ignoring the evils happening at this very moment. America is better than it once was. It is dishonest to say that the country is still hanging on to the racism of its past, especially after it elected its first black President.
Our country’s core documents express truth; individuals have rights which pre-exist government. Government does not grant us rights, but rather acknowledge the natural rights that every person has. The enlightenment era of the 17-18th century shaped the revolution with Judeo-Christian values. Self-evident rights, liberty, and freedom would be a prominent part of our nation’s founding. Unfortunately, our nation hesitated to grant these rights to all people. It took many great leaders to come forward and have courage to demand those freedoms be applied to everyone. And because of them, our country is now free for all. No country has allowed more freedom, and no country has had so many people willing to die for their natural rights. We should not forget the flaws in our history and we should remember all the heroes who built this great nation. But we should also acknowledge that our country is different than it was 200 years ago, and those battles have already been fought. Be grateful for the time that we live, and be proud of this country. Always remember to uphold the values of this country and never stop fighting to preserve the rights of every person.