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WASHINGTON — Conservative reaction to The New York Times’ “1619 Project” — an attempt to tell the story of slavery and its lasting effect on American political, economic and social structures — has been both disappointing and instructive.

I am not referring here to thinkers (the term is employed loosely) who consciously embrace a philosophy of white supremacy. Though resurgent and repellant, they do not constitute the mainstream of conservative thinking on race.

I am thinking instead of conservative writers who argue that the 1619 Project is a prime example of leftist ideological overreach — that its (mainly African American) authors see the country entirely through the prism of its sins and intend to “delegitimize” the American experiment.

Michael Gerson mug

Michael Gerson

In making this case, some conservatives have offered excuses — or at least mitigations — for the moral failures of the founders on matters of race. The institution of slavery, we are assured, was historically ubiquitous. The global slave trade, we are reminded, involved not just Americans but Arabs and black Africans. Other countries, we are told, took more slaves than America, treated them worse and liberated them later.

The attempt here is to defend the honor of the American experiment by denying the uniqueness of its hypocrisy on slavery. In one way or another, all these arguments ask us to consider the inadequacies of the founders within the context of their times.

But to deny the uniqueness of American guilt on slavery is also to deny the uniqueness of its aspirations. Americans are required to have ambiguous feelings about many of the country’s founders precisely because of the moral ideals the founders engraved in American life. The height of their ambitions is also the measure of their hypocrisy. It should unsettle us that the author of the Declaration of Independence built a way of life entirely dependent on human bondage.

This leads to an unavoidably complex form of patriotism. We properly venerate not the founders, but the standards they raised and often failed to meet. This is their primary achievement: They put into place an ideological structure that harshly judged their own practice and drove American democracy to achievements beyond the limits of their vision.

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One thing we cannot do is excuse the founders according to the standards of their time. In the mid- to late 18th century, there was plenty of compelling moral thinking on the issue of slavery.

In 1759, Quaker Anthony Benezet wrote “Observations on the Enslaving, Importing and Purchasing of Negroes,” which presented eyewitness accounts of the cruelties of the slave trade. Benezet called slavery “inconsistent with the gospel of Christ, contrary to natural justice and the common feelings of humanity, and productive of infinite calamities to many thousand families, nay to many nations, and consequently offensive to God the father of all mankind.”

In 1776, the year independence was declared, Presbyterian pastor Samuel Hopkins wrote “A Dialogue Concerning the Slavery of the Africans,” which he dedicated to the Continental Congress. Hopkins was alert to the incongruity of the American cause, urging his readers to “behold the sons of liberty oppressing and tyrannizing over many thousands of poor blacks who have as good a claim to liberty as themselves.”

In 1778, another minister, Jacob Green, preached a fast-day sermon referring to slavery as a “most cruel, inhuman, unnatural sin.” He also pointed out the discrediting inconsistency of a country that was dedicated to liberty and yet tolerant of slavery: “What foreign nation can believe that we who so loudly complain of Britain’s attempts to oppress and enslave us, are, at the same time, voluntarily holding multitudes of fellow creatures in abject slavery…?”

America’s founders stand accused by the best, most humane standards of their own time. When Jefferson wrote about natural rights on his mountaintop prison for black people, many of his contemporaries knew he was, on this issue, a total hypocrite.

America’s story is not one of initial purity and eventual decay.

It is the story of a radical principle — the principle of human equality — introduced into a deeply unjust society. That principle was carried forward by oppressed people who understood it better than many of the nation’s founders. Denied the blessings of liberty, African Americans became the instruments by which the promise of liberty was broadly achieved. The victims of America’s moral blindness became carriers of the American ideal.

This story is not simple to tell. But it is miraculous in its own way. And it is good reason to be proud of America.

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Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson can be reached at michaelgerson@washpost.com.

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(19) comments

Hive

"johnny come late-lies," like crazy, selfish me-firster dingers, such as our genius, Bib Mac troughing POTUS?

Hive

To clarify..."live with bullroar, as we do during election time, voting party...bullroar, right or wrong...the main reason America has lost its patina; political liars who prey on us...and we approve, thereby insuring repeat performances.

Hive

Of interest: https://www.thedailybeast.com/charlottesville-confederate-statue-defender-sues-paper-prof-for-reporting-his-familys-slaveholding-history?ref=home



How it works...! The slave issue was never far from governance/the rules of law...a "free republic that tolerated slavery..." No lesson in that?



Please! Live with facts not bullroar, as we do during election time.

Hive

The man from Maine...K, seems so...soldiers often do have more respect for each other than for others. Maybe that is why the "Greatest Generation" let so much slide, post WWII?



Else why the messes...can't just be more people or young persons, could it?

Khansky

It would appear that the men who fought an shed their blood, have more respect and honor for each other, then the contemporary 'johnny come late-lies' .



https://armyhistory.org/honor-answering-honor-bloody-chamberlain-and-the-surrender-at-appomattox/

Hive

Far, we come at his from polar points. I simply cannot condone iconclastics or book-burnings.

Will even use Gerson's words (last line) with one change... "This republic's story is not easy to tell or accept..."



I will ask another question. Is it better to bury head in sand, as so many (evangelicals prefer) or to look at past, to learn and condemn it? Which would further wayward politics.



So, "The Inquisition" and Torquemada are gone and dead, means evil like that cannot rise again, as in Germany and more recently Bosnia-Herzegovena...what would Trump be doing to those who express opposing views. Past is prologue, cannnot be changed...

farafield

Oh I do condemn Washington and all the others who enslaved human beings. A lot of people say that some slave owners were good to their slaves. But how good are you if you know that just down the road your neighbor is raping, torturing and killing his slaves, selling their children and molesting the little kids? Ignoring the screams from across the road so you can maintain your own slothfulness and greed is not really to treat your own slaves with kindness. As Gerson wrote, the founders gave us the standard by which to judge them.

killallthelawyersfirst

I have to agree with Mr. Hive. Picking and choosing is too political.

Hive

Far, I think our resistance can be accommplished without tearing down statues and burning books, is all. If we condemn say, Jackson, Lee, or Davis, why not condemn Washington, who kept his slaves, and his wife kept hers, as well? Hitler could have and should have been stopped, but given those times who is to blame and what would have been the good of ripping on VonHindenberg or Goethe, for them? The evil lies in the zero sum doings of the present. So the convenient, self-gratifying/serving PC-ness is okay, but a historic, factual past isn't?

farafield

Who are we to meddle? We are CITIZENS who confront the rise of anti-semitism and white supremacy precisely because the benefit of hindsight tells us this is the same old evil that always needed to be meddled with.

Hive

Maybe? Maybe not? Jeff Davis was a name, could a been Lee, Sheridan, Jackson, whomever... Lots of statues to these troopers and were heroes to some... Point is, that was then, who are we to meddle with then just because we have the benefit of hindsight? Book burning is not my cuppa, regardless. History is history. Look at the idea the SF schoolboard had to paint over the frescoes in one school in their district. They are not only beautiful, but tell a story of time past, like the tale or not. As noted, living a lie is not living, is it? If otherwise, how so?

farafield

"If Jeff Davis was a hero to some then, who are we to pooh-pooh them by removing art and covering up history..."



To allow the idea that Jefferson Davis was a hero to go unchallenged IS to cover up history. Worse, these people want a "South-shall-rise-again" do-over and we ignore them at our peril. And we are supposed to ignore them because we don't want to be accused of being "politically correct" --the horror!

Hive

"Precedent." Sorry!

And, I meant to type "Living by lies is not living, IMO."

Hive

Same old zero-sum gambit, like fanatics...ask a vet about the religious weirdos in Afganistan or research Bush's 9/11 omissions that got so many killed.

jdinfinity

Hate. So powerful of a mechanism it convinces many the weak minded they don't need to be held responsible or accountable for it. Makes it easy to forget history, atrocities, genocide. And furthermore to follow blindly the foolish tyrants ready to convince you again, anew.

Hive

Far...I do not disagree. George W, our first prez had 123 slaves...but would not free them, he could have, but maybe lost half of the states (politics/business), so he chose and left the matter. Had he freed his slaves...precident for others, but he did not. Nothing we do today can change past. And here we are with DT as prez, who am certain with Lindsey, would be a slaver, which he is now, in so many ways. Slavery was always a problem, as it should have been...pick up a copy of "These Truths." I just do not agree with gratuitous PC-ness, which has become an "excuse" for so many dingers...! But, that is me...

If Jeff Davis was a hero to some then, who are we to pooh-pooh them by removing art and covering up history, like some evangelicals like to do...living on lies is not living, IMO.

farafield

Excellent commentary by Gerson. There were plenty of people back then who understood slavery was wrong. I am sick of people pretending we can't judge people from the past by today's standards. The Golden Rule is a standard for all time--we didn't just think this up now. And by the same Golden Rule there were people in Biblical times who knew slavery was wrong even if the patriarchs pretended otherwise.

martin

Hive, WELCOME BACK ! I was getting a little "concerned" because You were gone for awhile.

Hive

Maybe not, but business counted even then, so bullroar on this. Then was then...we cannot revert and there is no point in burning books or iconoclasms...none, exept to aire PC bullroar!

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