Throughout America’s history, American statesmen have been wrestling with a difficult task: namely, how to promote the widest possi­ble enjoyment of those rights which America’s Founders declared to be the self-evident posses­sion of all men. America’s Founders aimed high, and in so doing left themselves, and their posterity, open to the charge of insincerity and hypocrisy. How could the Founders have declared all men to be created equal, the refrain has often sounded, while sanctioning the continued existence of slavery within America’s own borders? How could subsequent generations have solemnly guaranteed to all citizens the “equal protection of the laws” only to do virtually nothing for one hundred years to ensure that they would actually enjoy that protection? More recently, critics have professed to find a similar discrepancy between America’s principles and its presumed tolerance of South Africa’s policy of apartheid. Is such criticism fair?

We should begin by noting that the first two questions, which pertain to America’s domestic policies, offer a somewhat, though not entirely, different problem than the third question, which pertains to America’s foreign policy. Whereas American statesmen have an unmistakable obli­gation to concern themselves with America’s domestic institutions—subject, of course, to the limitations imposed by America’s federal system—they have a far less obvious obligation to concern themselves with the domestic institutions of other nations. Indeed, it is one of the accepted strictures of international diplomacy—at least among civilized nations—that, barring a calamity on the order of, say, a holocaust, nations should refrain from interfering with the domestic affairs of their neighbors.

A useful example of the foregoing principle was provided by Abraham Lincoln, when, in January 1852, he helped draft a resolution on the subject of Hungarian freedom. Many of his political associates at the time—Lincoln was then a private citizen living in Illinois—strongly urged him to draft a message calling for direct American assistance to the Hungarian revolutionaries. Lincoln refused, opting instead to draft a milder message. While noting in article one of his draft resolution that “it is the right of any people, sufficiently numerous for national independence, to throw off, to revolutionize, their existing form of government, and to establish such other in its stead as they may choose,” Lincoln in article two explicitly rejected American interference in the process: “[I]t is the duty of our government to neither foment, nor assist, such revolutions in other governments.” Lincoln did, it is true, leave open the possibility of American intervention in the event that another foreign power, in this instance, Russia, intervened first. But even then such intervention was “purely a question of policy, to be determined when the exigency arrives.” Russia had, in fact, intervened in the Hungarian revolution, even to the point of crushing it, and for such action Lincoln condemned her, without at the same time recommending strong American countermeasures, which, in light of the great distance between the two countries and the manifest limitations of America’s armed forces at the time, would surely have been futile. Lincoln therefore contented himself merely in expressing sympathy for the cause of the Hungarian revo­lutionaries, and for the cause of all like them who were “struggling to be free.”

Whereas Lincoln’s policy toward Hungary was constrained by custom and by the dictates of prudence, his policy toward slavery in the United States was constrained by positive law and the dictates of prudence. Prior to the Civil War, Lincoln repeatedly declared that he had no intention of interfering with slavery in the places where it then existed. He said that the federal government had no authority over slavery in the existing slave states, and conceded further that it would be in the interest of no one—even the slaves—for slavery to be suddenly abolished. Instead he favored a policy of gradual, compen­sated emancipation, buttressed by federal policies which aimed at curtailing the expansion of slavery. Such policies, he thought, were certain to place slavery “in the course of its ultimate extinction” and would all the while be consistent with the Constitution, and just to all concerned. Lincoln embarked on the more radical policy embodied in his Emancipation Proclamation only when the slave states themselves rebelled against the Constitution, and when it became apparent that the suppression of that rebellion necessitated a policy of abolition—a policy, to be sure, that applied only to the states then in rebellion. From beginning to end, however, Lincoln’s stated hope was always the same: “that all men everywhere may be free.”

It is significant that in both his Hungarian resolution and his many speeches on slavery, Lincoln thought it essential to declare his detesta­tion of slavery and his love of freedom. He did so because, even though constrained by necessity to settle for less than a full realization of his hopes, he wished to declare his continued devotion to the principles that underlay them. To do thus was in no sense an idle exercise.

In affirming the natural rights doctrine of the Declaration of Independence, Lincoln construed the intentions of its authors in the following way:

They meant simply to declare the right [to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness], so that the enforcement of it might follow as fast as circumstances should permit. They meant to set up a standard maxim for a free society, which should be familiar to all, and revered by all; constantly looked to, constantly labored for, and even though never perfectly attained, constantly approximated, and there­fore constantly spreading and deepening its influence, and augmenting the happiness and value of life to all people of all colors everywhere. (Emphasis Lincoln’s)

Then, too, the mere proclamation of those rights would have the added benefit, as Lincoln else­where noted, of serving as a “rebuke and stumbling block to the very harbingers of reappearing tyranny and oppression.” Lest anyone doubt the power of such words and the power of free ideas generally, we should recall the words of Winston Churchill. In a speech to the people of the United States, on October 16, 1938, Churchill observed:

People say we ought not to allow ourselves to be drawn into a theoretical antagonism between Nazidom and democracy; but the antagonism is here now. It is this very conflict of spiritual and moral ideas which gives the free countries a great part of their strength. You see these dictators on their pedestals, sur­rounded by the bayonets of their soldiers and the truncheons of their police. On all sides they are guarded by masses of armed men, cannons, aeroplanes, fortifications, and the likethey boast and vaunt themselves before the world, yet in their hearts there is unspoken fear. They are afraid of words and thoughts: words spoken abroad, thoughts stirring at home-all the more powerful because forbidden-terrify them. A little mouse of thought appears in the room, and even the mightiest potentates are thrown into panic. They make frantic efforts to bar out thoughts and words; they are afraid of the workings of the human mind. Cannons, aeroplanes, they can manufacture in large quantities; but how are they to quell the natural promptings of human nature, which after all these centuries of trial and progress has inherited a whole armory of potent and indestructible knowledge?

If American statesmen should feel constrained not to interfere with the domestic institutions of other nations, beyond making clear to everyone concerned how we Americans regard particularly odious practices, what should American statesmen advise their counterparts in a place like South Africa? Or, put somewhat differently, what lessons should South Africans, both black and white, draw from the American political tradition and the universal precepts upon which it is based?

Here again we should note the expansiveness of American hopes for the spread of democracy. America’s ablest statesmen and theoreticians have always insisted on the widest possible enjoyment of democratic institutions by peoples throughout the world. Wrote Jefferson, in 1790,

Every man, and every body of men on earth, possess the right of self-government. They receive it with their being from the hand of nature. Individuals exercise it by their single will; collections of men by that of their major­ity; for the law of the majority is the natural law of every society of men. (Emphasis Jefferson’s)

And Lincoln was hardly less unequivocal when, in his Peoria address, he declared: “Allow all the governed an equal voice in the government, and that, and that only is self-government” (emphasis Lincoln’s). The universality of America’s political precepts may be further seen in this fact: Both Jefferson and Lincoln frequently stressed that America, in seeking to live in accordance with self-evident truths, would be performing a service to all mankind. Wrote Jefferson, again in 1790,

It is an animating thought, that, while we are securing the rights of ourselves and our posterity, we are pointing out the way of struggling nations who wish, like us, to emerge from their tyrannies also. Heaven help their struggles, and lead them, as it has done us, triumphantly thro’ them.

Similarly, Lincoln, in his speech at Independence Hall, in February 1861, having declared that he had “never had a feeling politically that did not spring from the sentiments embodied in the Declaration of Independence,” went on to observe that those principles were the unifying thread which had kept “this confederacy so long together,” and that, all the while, they had encouraged others elsewhere to aspire to self-government. “It was not,” he said,

the mere matter of the separation of the colonies from the mother land [that had unified the country); but something in that Declaration giving liberty, not alone to the people of this country, but hope to the world for all future time. It was that which gave promise that in due time the weights should be lifted from the shoulders of all men, and that all should have an equal chance. (Emphasis Lincoln’s)

Hence Lincoln’s declaration, in the months imme­diately following, when a civil war threatened to destroy the Union, and therewith presumably, the possibility of self-government for all mankind, that the Union’s cause was of interest to the “whole family of man.”

To say the foregoing, however, is not to say that either Jefferson or Lincoln would call for an immediate transfer of power from whites to blacks in South Africa. Jefferson, we recall, had expressed the hope that oppressed peoples would emerge “triumphantly” from their struggles. That is, he hoped that they, like us, would progress from living under despotic institutions to living under free ones; that they, like us, would not merely trade one form of despotism for another. Self-government, Jefferson noted, has its prerequisites, and not all peoples are able to satisfy those prerequisites at any given time. Jefferson makes this point with characteristic vigor in two of his letters to Lafayette on the subject of South American independence. In November 1813, he observed:

I join you sincerely, my friend, in wishes for the emancipation of South America. That they will be liberated from foreign subjection I have little doubt. But the result of my inquiries does not authorize me to hope they are capable of maintaining a free government. Their people are immersed in the darkest ignorance, and brutalised by bigotry & super­stition. Their priests make of them what they please, and tho’ they may have some capable leaders, yet nothing but intelligence in the people themselves can keep these faithful to their charge. Their efforts I fear therefore will end in establishing military despotisms in the several provinces. Among these there can be no confederacy. A republic of kings is impossible. But their future wars and quarrels among themselves will oblige them to bring the people into action, &into the exertion of their understandings. Light will at length beam in on their minds and the standing example we shall hold up, serving as an excitement as well as a model for their direction may in the long run qualify them for self-government. This is the most I am able to hope for them. For I lay it down as one of the impossibilities of nature that ignorance should maintain itself free against cunning, where any government has been once admitted.

And, four years later, Jefferson’s hopes for their prospects had not measurably improved:

I wish I could give better hopes of our southern brethren. The achievement of their independence of Spain is no longer a question. But it is a very serious one, what will then become of them? Ignorance and bigotry, like other insanities, are incapable of self-government. They will fall under military despotism, and become the murderous tools of the ambition of their respective Bonapartes; and whether this will be for their greater happiness, the rule of one only has taught you to judge. No one, I hope, can doubt my wish to see them and all mankind exercising self-government, and capa­ble of exercising it. But the question is not what we wish, but what is practicable? As their sincere friend and brother then, I do believe the best thing for them, would be for themselves to come to an accord with Spain, under the guarantee of France, Russia, Hol­land, and the United States, allowing to Spain a nominal supremacy, with authority only to keep the peace among them, leaving them otherwise all the powers of self-government, until their experience in them, their emancipa­tion from their priests, and advancement in information shall prepare them for complete independence.

Who today can doubt the truth of Jefferson’s reluctant words as they apply, if not to all of South America, at least to many countries in the developing world? In Central America, democracy has had an especially difficult time taking root. Honduras, to cite one example, has endured, by one estimate, 126 changes of government since winning independence in 1821. And across the ocean, in Africa, democracy has fared even more poorly, especially in nations governed by a black majority. Of the more than three dozen nations fitting that description, at least three quarters are one-party states, and more than a few of those states have abominable human rights records. (In Uganda alone over 600,000 blacks have died, since 1970, at the hands of a series of black-run governments.) And in almost all those instances, democracy has fared poorly for the very reasons Jefferson described: the ancient, and highly interrelated, plagues of poverty, ignor­ance, and martial ambition.

In light of the many failures of majority rule in Africa and elsewhere in the developing world, it is only prudent that we be wary of those who today are calling for an immediate transfer of power from the whites to the blacks in South Africa. While it is doubtless true that black South Africans have made enormous strides in recent years, there remains also much evidence of their continuing attachment to primitive ways. In the township of Soweto alone, according to Donald McAlvany, there are over 1,500 witch doctors, and throughout South Africa blacks continue to place great emphasis on their tribal affiliation. This latter fact is of crucial significance to majority rule’s prospects in South Africa. If, as McAlvany says, the ten major tribes which compose South Africa’s black majority are as unwilling to be ruled by one another as they are to be ruled by the white minority, then majority rule, by blacks, under current conditions, is entirely unfeasible.

That majority rule may be currently unfeasible is not, however, reason enough for some people to forbear recommending it. Many who oppose the current regime are naive reformers who are willing to forgive any radical movement’s failings so long as those failings appear to them to have been well-intentioned; and still others are devoted Marxists who are perfectly willing to foment chaos in hopes that they may later exploit it. Indeed, few people have expressed a more fervent desire to see the current regime overthrown than the Soviets, and their solicitude hardly springs from considerations of disinterested philanthropy.

The Soviets have been nothing if not cynical in their efforts to exploit the yearnings of black South Africans. They realize, even if many in the West do not, that the strategic value of South Africa, in the larger struggle between East and West, and between tyranny and freedom, is enormous: South Africa holds a large store of strategic minerals not easily obtainable elsewhere, and its territory sits adjacent to some of the world’s most important shipping lanes. The importance of the shipping lanes, in particular, can hardly be overestimated: In the event that the Suez Canal is closed, ships bound for the West from the Indian Ocean would have no choice but to travel around South Africa’s Cape; and given the steadily expanding size of ships these days—especially oil tankers—and the antiquated state of the Suez Canal, many ships have no choice but to sail around the Cape even now. Should the Cape fall into Soviet hands, world shipping, both commercial and military, would be greatly imperiled. The true friends of freedom in Africa must therefore caution black South Africans against being duped by their putative liberators. Indeed, that Soviet assistance is more apt to produce misery than felicity is a truism to all except those who, for whatever reason, are blind to evidence. Ask any Cambodian who has survived his nation’s death marches, or any Afghan who has labored beneath a chemical cloud, or any Ethiopian who yet has strength enough to speak.

And yet, some cautionary words are also due South Africa’s white minority government. The continued domination of South Africa’s affairs by whites, notwithstanding their minority status, can be justified only if they are faithful stewards of the entire nation’s interests; that is, of the interests of blacks as well as of whites. Those who would quote John Stuart Mill’s famous dictum that ”’Despotism is a legitimate mode of government in dealing with barbarians” should remember Mill’s added proviso that such despo­tism must be dedicated to the subjects’ “improve­ment, and the means justified by actually effecting that end.” If a regime says that it will take years for it to prepare a group to participate in self-government but, after a reasonable period, no progress has been made toward that goal, and no greater liberties granted its presumed bene­ficiaries, then we must begin to question that regime’s fitness to serve as a tutor to that people. (One cannot, of course, question the fitness of a given people ever to participate in self-government, under any conditions, without call­ing radically into question the self-evident truth that all men are created equal.) When a regime purposely degrades a people, or thwarts their advancement at every step along the way, and then cites their degraded condition as evidence of why they are unfit to rule, then we are tempted to lash out indignantly at its presumption. We begin to suspect that that regime’s narrow interests militate against the enjoyment of rights by the entire population; that, in other words, to quote Lincoln, it recognizes “no right principle of action but self-interest.” In responding to such presumption we should recall Lincoln’s words of reproof for those who would bar forever the advancement of a people:

Most governments have been based, prac­tically, on the denial of equal rights of men, as I have, in part, stated them;ours began by affirming those rights. They said, some men are too ignorant, and vicious, to share in government. Possibly so, said we; and, by your system, you would always keep them ignorant, and vicious. We proposed to give them all a chance; and we expected the weak to grow stronger, the ignorant wiser; and all better and happier together. (Emphasis Lincoln’s)

The true American tradition-one that we should be proud to export to all the world-encompasses Lincoln’s hope for the betterment “of all men everywhere.” Such a tradition is informed throughout by a desire to promote both the moral and the material well-being of as many people as we can. Jefferson, we recall, had taken great pride in his labors to promote the cause of civil and religious liberty, and had taken hardly less pride in his efforts to improve the material condition of his fellows. As he wrote to Lafayette, reflecting on his journeys through the countryside of France:

You must ferret the people out of their hovels, as I have done; look into their kettles, eat their bread, loll on their beds under the pretence of resting yourself, but in fact to find if they are soft. You will feel a sublime pleasure in the course of this investigation, and a sublime one hereafter, when you shall be able to apply your knowledge to the softening of their beds or the throwing a morsel of meal into their kettle of vegetables. . . .

For America, therefore, to turn its back entirely on this worthy tradition, and to insist only that South Africa assist us in the pursuit of our common defense needs, is to reflect poorly on our heritage, and such conduct is apt only to earn us the justified reproach of persons who might otherwise have been our friends.

The situation in South Africa, as one can see, is most perplexing. It is not apt to be resolved instantly, or painlessly, or without lingering mistrust among all parties. Those who pretend otherwise, and who clamor for the immediate transformation of an admittedly regrettable regime, forget the timeless counsel of prudence: namely, that even a bad regime is preferable to one that is still worse, and that bad regimes tend to degenerate into worse ones when their reforma­tion is attempted hastily, clumsily, or without due regard for the quirks of human nature.

Then, too, we Americans, of all people, should know just how intractable a problem racial antagonism can be. Our history, after all, has not exactly been bereft of it. And yet for that very reason, we should take heart that South Africans are now turning to us for guidance, and that many Americans are eager to give it. Whereas Aristotle, in his discussion of deliberation in Book III of the Ethics, had noted that no Spartan deliberates over the best form of government for the Scythians, we Americans, to our credit, tend incessantly to engage in such deliberation. And even if we recognize that there are proper limits to the extent to which we can influence other nations, we never shy from seeking to influence them by our example. Surely that is one of our nobler attributes, and one that testifies to our enduring commitment to our ancient faith.

South Africans, whether black or white, who today doubt that their racial antagonisms can ever be mitigated, much less resolved, might be heartened to visit Selma, Alabama. That Southern city, which a quarter-century ago was filled with hatred no less intense than that which today convulses Soweto and Cape Town, is now a placid, racially integrated city. At the entrance to the city there is posted a sign that is at once common­ place and extraordinary. It says simply: “Welcome to Historic Selma.” The townfathers, in one felicitous gesture, thereby acknowledged their city’s former notoriety while clearly consigning the causes of that notoriety to a never-to-be-repeated past. We can only hope that in the South Africa of the not too distant future, citizens, both black and white, will have cause to look similarly on their former ways, and that perhaps they will commemorate their country’s transformation with more than a few well-placed signs.