Editor’s Note: Five years ago, at Barack Obama’s church in Chicago, the Reverend Jeremiah Wright declared: “No, no, no, not God bless America, God damn America, that’s in the Bible, for killing innocent people, God damn America, for treating her citizens as less than human. God damn America for as long as she acts like she is God and she is supreme.” Shall we sing “God Bless America” or “God Damn America” then? Because Senator Barack Obama aspires to be America’s president, and because his spiritual mentor happens to be Rev. Wright, the senator was obliged to make a speech in answer to this question. The speech was properly ambitious. It attempted to relate God, the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, race, slavery, and the American cause. We offer here an alternative to the reverend’s diatribes and the senator’s speech.
The principles upon which this nation were founded are those upon which its survival, no less than its prosperity, depend. These are the principles upon which we believe our freedom and prosperity as individuals, and that of our children depend. These principles are simple and familiar enough for anyone to understand who wishes to understand. Selfish motives, miseducation, or ideological blindness may lead some to deny or disparage them. But nothing can obscure their shining truth.
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness. —That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.
Lincoln at Gettysburg said that the nation, at its birth, had been dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Earlier, Lincoln had said that the proposition of equality was the “central idea” of the founding, from which all its minor thoughts emanated.
The American Proposition
It just came to me within the past few weeks, y’all, why so many folks are hating on Barack Obama. He doesn’t fit the model. He ain’t white, he ain’t rich, and he ain’t privileged. Hillary fits the mold. Europeans fit the mold…. Rich white men fit the mold…. Barack knows what it means to be a black man living in a country and a culture that is controlled by rich white people.
—Reverend Jeremiah Wright
Trinity United Church of Christ,
Chicago, December 25, 2007
What exactly did these words, of both the Declaration of Independence and the Gettysburg Address, mean? They meant that there was no difference, between one human being, and another human being, that made one the master and the other the servant. As Jefferson once put it, some men are not born with saddles on their backs, nor are others born booted and spurred to ride them. That a man or woman rides a horse corresponds with the difference in their natures. No injustice is done to the horse! That an ox should pull a plow, while a man walks behind, is according to nature. In these cases, servitude follows from the laws of nature. But these same laws of nature tell us that when a human being is subjected to other human beings as if he were a horse or an ox, the laws of nature are violated. All human beings are accordingly equal in their right not to be enslaved, and in their right to be in secure possession of their lives, liberties, and property. To this end they have a right to be governed only by laws to which they have consented.
That all men are created equal does not mean that human beings are the same, or equal, in size, strength, beauty, virtue, or intelligence. There are obviously great differences in individual aptitudes and talents in sports, music, mathematics, speaking, and writing. They are also unequal in the virtues, among them courage, temperance, and justice. But as Jefferson once said, the fact that Sir Isaac Newton may be the most intelligent of living human beings does not give him any right whatever to my person or my property.
If there is no natural authority of any human being over any other—leaving aside the temporary authority of parents over children—how does lawful authority arise? In the words of the Massachusetts Constitution of 1780, “The body politic is formed by a voluntary association of individuals; it is a social compact by which the whole people covenants with each citizen and each citizen with the whole people that all shall be governed by certain laws for the common good.”
It cannot be too greatly emphasized that the political community is a voluntary association. In obeying the law, we are obeying ourselves. In obeying the law we seek to provide a greater security for the rights which we have from God and nature, but which rights we cannot provide for by ourselves alone. The “just powers of government” arise for no other purpose than the protection of those rights which are antecedent to government. Governments exist to protect these rights; the rights themselves do not come from government. In the protection of these rights, no citizen is entitled to greater, or to less protection, than any other. Here is the original meaning of the equal protection of the laws. No one is entitled to greater protection than any of his fellow citizens, because of his wealth, birth, or intelligence. Nor is any one entitled to exemption from taxation or from service in the common defense, because of any claim of superior personal worth.
Once the political community comes into being as a result of the unanimous consent of those who form it, this community must have a government capable of acting. It cannot, however, act by unanimous consent. Such government must, at first, be by majority rule. It must be understood, however, that the authority of the majority is bounded and limited by the purposes for which unanimous consent had originally been given. The majority represents the community in determining how the rights of everyone, minority no less than majority, are to be served. It is to spell out the boundaries of majority rule, and to assert the indefeasible rights of minorities, that constitutions are peculiarly necessary.
In the government of the political community, officers in all its branches will have lawful powers, by which they can give lawful orders. The president as commander-in-chief of the armed services has unique authority to command the use of force in the execution of the laws. We do not however suppose his person to be endowed with rights greater than those of anyone else. We the people have endowed him with powers necessary for our protection. The powers which he enjoys under the Constitution are for our benefit, not his. Thus civic or political inequality arises necessarily from original equality and is consistent with it.
A free society, so far as possible, has a level playing field. But within the human family, there is a great variety of talents, and of energy, and of ambition. Equality of opportunity leads necessarily to inequality of results. Equality of rights leads necessarily to inequality of wealth. A war against wealth is a denial of the equality of rights. James Madison, in the tenth Federalist, observed that there is a “diversity in the faculties of men from which the rights of property originate.” The equal protection of unequal faculties of acquiring property is “the first object of government.” As Abraham Lincoln wrote: “that some should be rich shows that others may become rich, and hence is just encouragement to industry and enterprise.” It is the encouragement to industry and enterprise, arising from the recognition of human equality, which makes a free society more productive, with more wealth, more widely distributed, than any other form of human society.
Slavery and the Human Story
Racism is how this country was founded and how this country is still run! …We [in the U.S.] believe in white supremacy and black inferiority and believe it more than we believe in God.
—Reverend Jeremiah Wright
sermon at Howard University’s Andrew Rankin Memorial Chapel,
Washington, D.C., January 15, 2006
But one may ask, how is it that slavery, or any other form of invidious discrimination, has played so great a role in American history? How could a nation, dedicated at its birth to the proposition that all men are created equal, have tolerated slavery and its effects so long? If we look to the long history of mankind, however, we will ask a different question. Slavery was lawful in every one of the original thirteen states. There was accordingly nothing remarkable in the fact that slavery was not abolished immediately on independence. What is remarkable is that a slave-owning nation would declare that all men are created equal, and thereby make the abolition of slavery a moral and political necessity. To accomplish that task would not be easy. We need to see the dimensions of that task to appreciate its difficulty.
Let us contemplate two epochal events in the long human story. One is the annunciation of the unity of God at Mt. Sinai. That same God was said to have made man, alone among living beings, in His image. Implicit in the unity of God was the corresponding unity of the human race. But it was only after more than three thousand years, that the Declaration of this unity was made in Philadelphia. One need not believe in direct divine intervention to think that it has been the peculiar mission of the American people to testify to the unity on earth of God, and of man. Such testimony could take no more evident form than in the denunciation of chattel slavery in the founding itself. That denunciation is prominent beyond doubt or denial, in the documents of the founding. Men of reason can agree with men of faith, that neither God nor man could have devised a more dramatic event than our founding to demonstrate to the world the meaning inherent in this unity.
Slavery in the British colonies of North America was more than a century-and-a-half old before independence. It was roundly condemned, at one time or another, by nearly all the important political personages of the Revolution. I know of no instance in which any of these personages contradicted the doctrine of the Declaration, or maintained that slavery was a positive good. We must recognize, however, that slavery next to the family was perhaps the oldest institution of civilized mankind. Its origin in the ancient world came with the discovery that it was more profitable to enslave an enemy defeated in war than to kill him. The ancient law of the ancient city may be seen in the Bible. When the Israelites conquered Jericho, they put to the sword everyone in the city—men and women, young and old, sheep, oxen, and asses. Only Rahab the harlot and her family were spared, since they had given shelter to the Israelite spies. Later, in the custom of ancient warfare, the males of a defeated people would all be killed, but the women and children would be carried into slavery. Eventually the entire population of a defeated people would be enslaved. Such are the steps in the human story. That defeat in war meant slavery was the rule for many thousands of years.
Slavery came to the English colonies in North America in the 17th century because the colonists found themselves in possession of a vast continent, needing only cultivation to make it the homes of millions of free, prosperous, God-fearing human beings. Those who came from Europe would be refugees from the tyranny and oppression of feudalism, divine right monarchy, and religious intolerance. But converting this vast wilderness into cultivated lands required labor. It was nearly inevitable that someone would turn to tribal Africa for some, at least, of this labor. It is paradoxical but true that a large measure of the labor that turned America into a sanctuary for freedom came from slavery. The slave trade that developed between North America and the west coast of Africa is one of the great horror stories of Western civilization. It resulted also from the unlimited greed of the African chiefs who enslaved their brother Africans, and then sold them to white slave traders. They in turn sold them, for vast profits, into the new world.
The events of this story are morally indefensible. But the greed that motivated the human actors—excluding of course the slaves themselves—was so overwhelming as to be irresistible. It is impossible for us today who condemn the slave trade to imagine any effective opposition to it in the 17th century. A parallel in our time would be the unstoppable trade in narcotics. We can’t stop the supply because we can’t stop the demand. To the limitless demand for labor in the new world the slave trade was a limitless response. Like drugs today, laws against it were powerless, because the profits were so great. Opposition to the slave trade did come in time, in the principles of the American Revolution, but not before slavery had formed deep roots in the economy and polity of the United States. The foreign slave trade was outlawed by the United States in 1808, and it was made a capital crime in 1820, but the trade continued right up until the Civil War. It is good however to remind ourselves that no black slave was sold to a white slave trader, on the west coast of Africa, who had not already been enslaved by a black African. Slavery was an equal opportunity employer!
Slavery and the American Cause
The profound mistake of Reverend Wright’s sermons is not that he spoke about racism in our society. It’s that he spoke as if our society was static; as if no progress has been made…. But what we know—what we have seen—is that America can change. That is the true genius of this nation. What we have already achieved gives us hope—the audacity to hope—for what we can and must achieve tomorrow.
—Senator Barack Obama
speech at the National Constitution Center,
Philadelphia, March 18, 2008
The “declaration of the causes and Necessity of Taking up Arms,” on July 6, 1775, was the very first occasion for the American people to speak to the world with a single voice. In its first sentence, the Second Continental Congress affirmed without equivocation that the idea of the ownership of some human beings by other human beings was an utter absurdity, and that to think otherwise was incompatible with reason or revelation. Thus from the outset—a year before the Declaration of Independence—the American people were committed to the antislavery cause, and to the inseparability of personal freedom and free government. The American people knew from the outset that the cause of their own freedom and that of the slaves was inseparable. This would become the message that Abraham Lincoln would bring to the American people, and to the world, for all time. In the decade from the Declaration to the Constitution every state north of the Mason Dixon line, and north of the Ohio River, either abolished slavery or adopted measures leading to abolition. But in 1793 the cotton gin was invented, shortly after the power loom in England. This was the onset of the industrial revolution. Almost overnight, a new industry or rather a series of new industries, proliferating worldwide, was born. It began with the growing of cotton but was followed by its manufacture into a wide variety of products, especially cotton cloth and cotton clothing. Suddenly, slave labor became vastly more profitable. In the decade before the Civil War, the value of slaves doubled. Once again, greed overwhelmed all other motives. From being regarded as a temporary evil, as it was at the founding, slavery came to be regarded as a positive—and permanent—good.
This changed attitude toward slavery was, however, part of a changed attitude toward morality in general that was sweeping over Western civilization. This change was marked by the apotheosis of “change” itself. What had heretofore been regarded as moral absolutes came to be regarded as merely relative to a particular time and place—to History or Progress—with no enduring claim upon our consciences. Lincoln praised Jefferson for embodying in the Declaration “an abstract truth applicable to all men and all times.” But the idea of such truth, and of the correlation of such truth with justice, was increasingly repudiated by the most educated and influential minds in the Western world. Representative of this triumph of historicism and moral relativism was historian Carl Becker’s assertion in a landmark 20th-century work that “To ask whether the natural rights philosophy of the Declaration of Independence is true or false is essentially a meaningless question.”
To ask whether what the American people in the Declaration of Independence had affirmed as truth was in fact truth, was now said to be meaningless. But if History or Progress or “change” is to be our guide, if the truth of relativism is to replace the truth of the Declaration, then the cause for which the nation fought at its birth, and in the Civil War, was meaningless, too. White power, black power, the Nazis, the Ku Klux Klan, Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, are as justifiable as Jefferson, Lincoln, or the doctrine of the equal natural rights of all human beings. We may understand how the Rev. Jeremiah Wright could so awfully misunderstand the American political tradition, inasmuch as it has been so very misunderstood for so long in circles from whom a better understanding could be expected. But this misunderstanding is a cancer which can in the end prove fatal, not only to a political campaign but to our country.
If we are to have a foundation upon which to continue to build a more perfect union, we must return unequivocally, as Lincoln returned, to the source of our greatness in the American Founding.