Ignorance of What America Was and Is
As the 2020 election season began, the New York Times promised its readers a recalibration of American history called “The 1619 Project.” The ensuing series of essays and media kits had a twofold agenda. One was to rewrite the origins of American history as the four-century foreign intrusion into a pristine North America, co-predicated on stealing Native American lands with the help of the racist exploitation of imported African slaves. Racism then was the key that supposedly defined the birth and trajectory of the later United States.
A second catalyst was more overtly political. The project was aimed at forcing a supposedly flawed contemporary America to admit its mostly foul pre-Constitutional origins. Only that way might it recalibrate the present nation, in reparatory fashion, to embrace a radical equality of result, one necessitating an all-powerful woke federal government. Aristotle long ago warned that in a democracy those who are politically equal thereby assume that they also deserve equality in all other aspects of their lives—even beyond the reach of the state—and therefore vote accordingly to empower the state to do just that. Almost all assaults on constitutional citizenship reflect both personal and career agendas. To state without evidence that the DNA of America was, and thus is, always racist is to expect to be granted the current material resources and power to redeem such an original sin.
Apparently, the implied preferred model for millions of Americans recently has become the more all-encompassing French Revolution that sought to implement egalitarianism and fraternity at any cost, rather than the American Revolution’s emphases on individual freedom and personal liberty and private property. For example, arguing for free higher education, universal health care, and wealth redistribution, socialist Bernie Sanders almost won the Democratic Party presidential nomination in 2016—in a way no prior socialist presidential candidate had come close. Sanders, for a while, led the primary candidates again in 2020.
Sanders talked often of “revolution” and his supporters sometimes fancied themselves as French-style Jacobins. In 2011, the journal Jacobin appeared as a self-described “democratic quarterly socialist magazine.” Its motto “reason in revolt” deliberately sought to echo the supposedly rational role of Maximilien de Robespierre (1758–1794), the catalyst for the so-called “Reign of Terror” during the cycles of French revolutionary violence, and the influence of his Jacobins on later movements such as those in Haiti. Statue toppling, name changing, and warring on the customs of the past that followed the death of African-American George Floyd while in custody of Minneapolis police were in the tradition of the French, not American, Revolution. The targets in spring 2020 among protesters were not Jacobin-like figures such as Robespierre but the names and statutes of Washington, Lincoln, and Jefferson.
Critics of the American experiment apparently believe that because our Founders idealistically often envisioned or thought about a free society of equality under the law for all its citizens, thereby they should have had the absolute power in 1776 to implement such visions. But they did not. They were, after all, men, not gods. At the founding, the Framers did not have the ability to create all-encompassing unified ethical values within individual states under the auspices of the Constitution. Northern colonies certainly were not going to be able to war instantaneously with the pre-Confederacy states, in a forced effort to end slavery, and thus match constitutional aspirations with a successful eighteenth-century civil war of abolition at the very founding of the nation. As Alexander Hamilton pointed out in Federalist Papers Nos. 15 and 16, the fatal weakness of the failed Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union was the impotency of a central government, and the unwillingness of squabbling states for some eight years to surrender elements of their own authority to a unified federal power.
In April 2020, when the coronavirus was at an epidemiological apex and the public was terrified of the plague, 73 percent of Americans nonetheless expressed worry that the mass quarantine response to the plague was endangering their freedoms. The idea that the government could trace all of the citizen’s movements and hourly contacts by electronically monitoring his cell phone signals—and so help to curb the spread of the infection—was nonetheless especially scary. What we were witnessing was nothing less than the death of citizenship itself….