I want to take a moment to write in support of American exceptionalism. When I think about the extreme polarization in the United States today I am often struck by the growing number of things becoming dividing lines between left and right. Even worse, matters which used to be areas of common cause and symbols around which we could unite are no longer immune to this phenomenon. As much as it pains me to write these words, elements as simple as the flag of our great nation and the principles of our founding are now sources of contention. When someone on the right extols the greatness of our Constitution and Founding Fathers there is usually someone on the left ready to attack them both as racist and worse.
I do think much of the blame for that last part rests with the left, especially college professors and revisionist historians with an agenda of discrediting the United States and removing sources of pride and patriotism. Generally these types have a globalist agenda and so a vision of the United States as an exceptional experiment in self government and a “shining city on a hill” is anathema to everything they believe. For example, some will point to the fact that many of our Founding Fathers owned slaves and then decide this negates the value of the principles they espoused. Arguments along these lines may appear clever to some, but I have always found them to be snarky and laced with sophistry.
There is always a danger in attempting to gauge past events or people through modern morality. Slavery was a fact of the human condition from the earliest recorded histories. People of all colors and nationalities were kept as slaves for a variety of reasons at some point in every corner of the world. Rather than look down on the founders because some owned slaves, we should remember that until the 18th century abolitionist movement, in which many of our Founding Fathers were active participants, most folks around the world accepted slavery as a fact of life.
Rather than being hypocrites and racists, our Founding Fathers set the wheels in motion for the eventual abolition of slavery around the world. Even when early Americans were arguing about ending the practice of slavery, Barbary Pirates from North Africa were capturing Europeans to sell as slaves in Arabia. This is the world in which our Founding Fathers lived. Though Thomas Jefferson did not free his slaves until he died, his writings often refer to slavery as our young nation’s “original sin”. Similarly, by the end of his career Ben Franklin was one of the most powerful voices on the planet arguing for an end to slavery in all forms.
Slavery is just one example but it is the most powerful and important, and we are still dealing with many of its after effects today. The larger point is that the Founding Fathers were able to look at the world around them, a world of slavery, serfdom and privation, and see the potential for something better. Theirs was a world where kings, lords and emperors played games of war and greed while common folks bled and died trying to carve out a scrap of an existence hoping only to be left alone. The founders saw a better vision of the human condition and took on the most powerful empire on the planet to make it a reality. Many of our Founding Fathers died poor and bereft of property having sacrificed everything to bring their vision into existence.
We should not focus solely on the flaws and imperfections of our founders and our own difficult history attempting to live up to our stated values and principles. Rather, we should stand in awe of the powerful forces unleashed across the world by our Founding Fathers and our Constitution. When George Washington was offered a chance to crown himself King of the United States he turned it down forcefully; much to the surprise and derision of crowned heads across the globe. By making such a powerful statement about the importance of republican self government, Washington was laying down a marker for posterity. The notion that men (and women) needed a powerful and (hopefully) benevolent king to guide them was simply wrong. Well versed in philosophical principles dating back to the ancient Greeks, our founders boldly announced to the world that common people could rule themselves. This was a tectonic shift in societal evolution and the aftershocks are still being felt today.