Last week, columnist Rich Lowry of the National Review attacked Democrats for “throw[ing] America under the bus.”
He bases this accusation on the way Beto O’Rourke, Bernie Sanders and The New York Times talk about the role of slavery in our early history. In truth, Lowry and the Democrats pretty much agree on the facts. There’s no gainsaying slavery’s role in our history, and Mr. Lowry concedes that the Constitution marred our finest political ideals by compromising with slave owners.
When Bernie Sanders says that the United States “was created ... [in great part] on racist principles,” Lowry seems to be more rankled by the emphasis than the fact. O’Rourke and Sanders and The New York Times don’t seem proud enough of the Founding Fathers.
Lowry’s no knee-jerk Trump supporter, but he’s coming dangerously close to the president’s glib understanding of the world. Are we going to brag about the nation’s founding, or are we ashamed of it? Are we going to criticize the nation’s flaws, or are we loyal Americans?
That’s what rhetoricians call the either/or fallacy. It’s a sloppy way of thinking and a deceptive way of writing.
As a historian who has written about the founding and slavery, and who also happens to be a Democrat, I can report to Mr. Lowry that we love the Constitution. It is the greatest political document ever devised, the greatest guarantor of liberty and equality. Though compromised by slavery, the Founding Fathers wrote the blank check that MLK and so many brave civil rights activists presented for redemption in the 1960s. “Would it be considered better,” Lowry asks, “if, in the absence of such a compromise [in the Constitution], the slave states had possibly gone their own way to create a rump nation state wholly devoted to slavery and not yoked to a North that became more anti-slavery over time?”
Well, yes, actually it would have been better. Not every “slave” state would have joined the rump. Only South Carolina and Georgia threatened to go it alone. Virginia’s sentiment was largely anti-slavery in 1787, and Virginians did not really associate themselves with the interests of South Carolina’s slave-ocracy.
South Carolina probably was bluffing. African Americans greatly outnumbered whites here and could have toppled our mini-republic, as they toppled the French regime in Hispaniola a decade later. The United States did not need South Carolina. South Carolina needed the United States.
We must place blame exactly where it belongs: not on the whole Constitutional Convention, but on South Carolina’s delegation. By wrangling compromise from the 11 other states, Charles Pinckney, Charles Cotesworth Pinckney and John Rutledge wove slavery into the nation’s fabric. Even so, slavery might have died out naturally, as most Founding Fathers expected, except for the machinations of men like John C. Calhoun. Rutledge would refuse the Union before he would part with slavery; Calhoun would quit it. These are the folks who threw America under the bus.
I admit, there’s something alluring about Lowry’s attitude, which says one must perfectly embrace the Founding Fathers. My country, right or wrong. Love it or leave it. That’s the ardor of youth, with all its charm and dopiness.
Deeper love endures the flaws. We acknowledge the craven men who loved money more than justice. We regret that anyone compromised with them. And still we love this nation.
Who’s the real patriot? The man who makes such a big show of hugging the flag on stage under the bright lights? When asked to sacrifice, he wriggled and evaded and dodged.
Better to put our trust in those who acknowledge that our flaws need mending. Abraham Lincoln was this type. The greatest patriot in the history of the Republican Party, the man who called the United States the last, best hope of Earth, was so conscious of the founders’ flaws that he called for a new birth of freedom.
South Carolinians like John Laurens and Angelina Grimké started this work before Lincoln did. In Lincoln’s own lifetime, the work was shared by patriots like James Louis Petigru and Robert Smalls. But racial injustice did not end with slavery in 1865. And people like Millicent Brown and Cleveland Sellers carried on the work. Nor was it finished in the 1960s. The legacy of slavery still is not eradicated. We might not need a new birth of freedom today. But racism grows like cancer. Malignant tumors spread, and we could use a lumpectomy.
Joseph Kelly is a local author whose most recent book is “Marooned: Jamestown, Shipwreck, and a New History of America’s Origin.”