The United States of America is a nation founded not on the basis of geography, race or religion, but rather on the radical idea that all men are created equal and endowed with certain inalienable rights. These rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are protected by the U.S. Constitution and underpin our nation’s political and economic systems. The acknowledgment that these rights are endowed to us by our Creator has caused the United States to assume a role as a global leader in the protection of basic human liberties, and many have given their own lives to protect these precious rights both at home and abroad.
Why was this idea radical?
The notion that “all men are created equal” was, in spite of its self-evident truth, a radical concept in the years leading up to our nation’s founding. The history of human rights abuses, specifically slavery, spans time immemorial and has involved people among virtually all nations, religions and ethnicities. The history of slavery is certainly not limited to the trans-Atlantic slave trade that brought African slaves to our nation’s shores, and sadly, millions continue to be enslaved around the world today. In America, the first written document protesting slavery arose in 1688 in the Christian Mennonite community of Germantown, Pennsylvania. Nearly 100 years later, Thomas Jefferson’s thoughts contained in a draft of the Declaration of Independence described King George’s “… cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating and carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither.” These statements were bold in their time and the abolitionist movement both here and abroad represented a great shift in attitudes about the dignity of humanity.
Why didn’t the Founders abolish slavery at our nation’s conception?
The Founders of America were certainly divided on the morality of slavery. Many of them owned slaves, although it appears that at least a few of the ones who did own slaves, like Jefferson, were conflicted regarding the morality of the institution in which they were involved. However, even had the Founders sought to abolish slavery from the beginning, they could not have done so while simultaneously honoring the principles of our burgeoning government (namely, the principles of representation and federalism). In order to maintain a government “Of the people, by the people and for the people,” it would be impossible to simply outlaw slavery when, at the time, a majority of citizens believed slavery to be justifiable. In light of the obvious cognitive dissonance, the Founders realized that if slavery was ever going to be outlawed in a nation governed by the people, they had to build the nation first. Thankfully they did.
The three-fifths compromise
In 1787 during the writing of the U.S. Constitution, which replaced the original Articles of Confederation, there was great debate over slaves and their political influence. The “three-fifths compromise” is commonly cited as proof that America was founded as a racist nation because, institutionally, slaves were considered three-fifths of a person. It was, in fact, the racist, slave-owning, Southern state delegates who argued that their slaves should be counted as whole persons, and it’s easy to see why: a higher population in the Southern states meant each of those states received greater representation in the federal legislature. The abolitionist Northern state delegates argued that if slaves were property, they shouldn’t be counted as persons and conversely, if they were to be counted as persons, then they shouldn’t be property. They also recognized that forcing this issue would have caused the fledgling nation to pull apart at the seams. The three-fifths compromise was the only way to preserve the Union, and set forth a pathway for the institution of slavery to be abolished in the future.
The story of America is an imperfect one, but we were founded on the greatest idea in history. We have not always lived up to our principles, and our flawed leaders have not always applied the law equally to all citizens. Our story is one of continually moving toward that founding idea of being created equal. We must not allow ourselves to be convinced that the failure of our historical leaders to apply our founding principles is a failure of the principles themselves. Divisive class and racial warfare seek only to distract us from pursuing our commonly held goals. The American idea is great. Faced with the choice between continuing to move toward our ideal and tearing it all down, we must choose to move toward it together.