Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Notes, and Myths, on American History - 1

Part 1

During Independence Day season, it is important, as well as interesting, to take note of what others think the day stands for. As a follow-up to my Holiday post, I want to answer a few fallacies that are accepted wisdom by many.

The following comment was posted to a letter-to-the-editor at Timberjay which, unfortunately, I can’t locate. However, from the comment text, we can certainly gather what it was about. Anyway, it is the ideas in this comment that I want to address here.

In response to Charlotte Cushmann’s statement (April 3 letter) that our country was founded on the idea that people have rights.

That’s not quite accurate. The only people who had rights were white men. Women had no rights, the native people certainly had no rights, the slaves who were hauled here in chains had no rights. So really, our country was founded on genocide and built on the backs of slaves.

And by the way…what is wrong with being our brother’s keeper? Isn’t that what Jesus taught?

Jacki Fisher
Ely, Minn.

The line of thinking evident here is, unfortunately, not unique. Ken Paulson, former USA Today editor who took up the cause of defending the First Amendment, said this:

“Every July 4th, we celebrate the Founding Fathers who gave America the gift of liberty.
Except that they didn’t.

“These gentlemen did a fine job of building a nation founded on freedom — unless you happened to be a woman, a slave or poor.”

Mr. Paulson is the president of the First Amendment Center, a pro First Amendment organization, and founder of its 1 for All First Amendment awareness campaign. I’m not yet fully familiar with Mr. Paulson’s views on the First Amendment, or of the organization he heads up. However, his Independence Day article concerns me here, because they show that Fisher’s sentiments encompass even those with a serious interest in our history and who should know better.

The ideas espoused by Fisher and Paulson deserve serious consideration, and rebuttal, because if this country is ever going to right itself, the validity of its Founding Ideals must be established (or re-established). Both ignore context. Paulson, in particular, should understand the importance of that. He’s a former editor of a major nationwide newspaper.

Charlotte Cushman is referred to as having stated, correctly, that this country was Founded on the idea of rights. Fisher doesn’t see it that way. But how is that “not quite accurate”? The Declaration of Independence and Constitution are quite explicit. Has Fisher read them? She simply denies they exist, because “The only people who had rights were white men”. Paulson, for his part, explicitly downgrades the importance of the Declaration to America’s Founding. He writes:

“For all the poetic flourish of the Declaration of Independence, the most powerful passage in America’s history can be found in the First Amendment to the Constitution. The five freedoms guaranteed there gave Americans the right to speak out against injustice, to report about inequality, to protest and petition, and to draw strength from freedom of faith.

“In the centuries that followed this nation’s founding, the First Amendment was used to free the slaves, extend the vote to women and ensure equal protection under the laws.”

Paulson reverses cause and effect. He fails to understand that the roots of the five freedoms he refers to – speech, press, religion, assembly, and petition - draw their vital nourishment from the Declaration’s philosophical soil. The unalienability of the First Amendment freedoms is what makes it such a powerful tool for freedom fighters. He takes the First Amendment as an isolated given, requiring no philosophical validation. There is a danger in singling out a specific concrete, without understanding how it relates to an integrated whole: In this case, the First Amendment vs. the broad sweep of America’s philosophical underpinnings. It is crucial, to put it simply, to see the forest and not just the trees.

Both Fisher and Paulson essentially claim that America’s Founding documents do not represent what they represent - the creation of a nation of liberty and rights for all. They are invalidated because, they claim, 1776 ushered in a nation of freedom limited to a select few.

But, that’s not what those documents say. The Declaration states that “ all men are created equal”, and “endowed with … unalienable rights” (Emphasis added). The Founders considered those principles to be “self-evident truths”. (The term “men” is used generically, and applies to all human beings.) It’s true that at America’s inception many people were denied the freedom guaranteed to them. But, that does not change the undeniable fact that “our country was founded on the idea that people have rights”. The Founders are precise on this point. How is it, then, that the fruits of liberty bypassed so many? Context, as I said, is crucial.

The fight for freedom and political equality did not start or end in 1776. America’s founding was a tremendous advance philosophically and politically, because it established, for the first time as the foundation for a new nation, the bedrock principle of the unalienable individual rights of all men. This did not happen in a vacuum. America was, in fundamental respects, centuries in the making. Its ideals were developed and fought for over a long span of history (see my July 4 post). The achievement of a rights-based nation was the high point of that historical battle. But, the fight for individual rights neither began nor ended on July 4, 1776. This greatest of all political achievements, that for the first time established rights as unalienable and the government as servant and rights-protector, should not be underestimated or brushed off, as both Jacki Fisher and Ken Paulson rather flippantly do.

Even though America’s philosophical foundation was set, the practical task of full implementation was far from complete. The fight continued against ancient evils. The biggest concerned the slaves. But, and this is crucial, America can not be faulted for the institution of slavery.

America inherited slavery. Its existence was a remnant of mankind’s barbaric past. America’s early acceptance of slavery was indeed a black mark, precisely because it contradicted our individual rights-based founding. Anti-slavery forces chose of necessity to make a political compromise, to establish the nation. But, they did not make a philosophical compromise, as we shall see in the words of one of America’s greatest freedom fighters. Slavery, the roots of which penetrate back through all of mankind’s history, survived into this country’s early decades, but only under the looming shadow of the bedrock, radical American principle of individual rights. That contradiction could never stand. Slavery’s fate was sealed at America’s Founding. The defeat of slavery in early America was ultimately inevitable, even though it could not be achieved immediately, and would require a bloody civil war to accomplish. The wiping out of slavery – a practice that up to that time had been practiced by all races, nationalities, and cultures at one time or another - was one of this country’s (and Western Civilization’s) finest hours, and a demonstration of the power of its noble ideals.

Yet the lie continues to be perpetuated. Historian Thomas Sowell writes:

“The history of slavery across the centuries and in many countries around the world is a painful history to read … because slaves and enslavers alike have been of every race, religion and nationality.

“If the history of slavery ought to teach us anything, it is that human beings cannot be trusted with unbridled power over other human beings…

“But that is not the message that is being taught in our schools and colleges, or dramatized on television and in the movies. The message that is pounded home again and again is that white people enslaved black people.”

There are other fallacies in Fisher’s comments, as well, such as the common Leftist claim that America was “built on the backs of slaves”. If this were true, then history would be one long, unstoppable economic boom, because slavery was a widely accepted practice worldwide throughout mankind’s history prior to the rise of capitalistic Western Civilization – and still is in third world tribal societies. Instead, material destitution was the norm until the advent of capitalism wiped out slavery in the Western world.

It is utterly absurd to claim that prosperity is the result of slavery. That illogical claim ignores the basic source of wealth – the individual mind and its liberation under a rights-based socio-political system. The truth is just the opposite of her wild assertion. Free people built this country. The slaves, who were forbidden an education, the freedom to act on their own judgement, and forced to perform repetitive, menial muscular tasks, were a drag on American progress. The correspondent, Jacki Fisher, has no idea of the evil premise she is promoting with that statement. To claim that the economic powerhouse that is America was “built on the backs of slaves” is to elevate the evil practice of slavery to the exalted position of mankind’s benefactor. If slavery produces prosperity, there is no other conclusion one can draw.

America is poorer for that evil practice, not richer. To the extent that any Americans were enslaved, was the extent to which the source of material production – the human mind - was stymied. The innovative chemist and agricultural giant George Washington Carver contributed more to American prosperity as a single free man than all of the plantation slaves combined. How many Carvers, and ambitious black men and women generally, failed to flourish because they were locked up in the slave system. How much better off would America be today had this country’s Founding ideals been spread to everyone at its beginning? The loss to this country in terms of today’s prosperity because of the existence of slavery is incalculable.

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