Ignatius Press has released a paperback expanded edition of Robert Reilly’s monumental book, America on Trial: A Defense of the Founding. I reviewed the first edition, most favorably, for The American Spectator this past December, opining that “Robert R. Reilly takes on all who would denigrate the American Founding in his penetrating, erudite new book … which explores, in detail, the ‘genealogy of ideas’ undergirding the thought and action of the Founders.”
The book engages critics from the Catholic Right and the Progressive Left alike who believe the Founding to be inherently flawed, the former blaming John Locke, the latter, slavery. In this edition, the author has added a new, concluding chapter entitled, “Is Slavery the Founding’s Fault?” rounding on leftist critiques, such as the New York Times Magazine’s 1619 Project, that claim racism, grounded in the history of slavery, “runs in the very DNA of this country.”
Nikole Hannah-Jones, the now-celebrated author of the 1619 Project, has written that “Our founding ideals of liberty and equality were false when they were written.” Further, “the United States is a nation founded on both an ideal and lie. Our Declaration of Independence … proclaims that ‘all men are created equal’ and ‘endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.’ But the white men who drafted those words did not believe them to be true for the hundreds of thousands of black people in their midst.”
“The most impressive thing about this view is how much one would have to not know in order to hold it,” responds Reilly. He proceeds to review the writings and words of such luminaries of the founding generation as Adams, Washington, Franklin, Hamilton, Madison, Otis, Mason, Sherman, Livingston, Jefferson, Morris, and Randolph, all of whom abhorred the barbarism of slavery.
But the most compelling witness “giving the lie to the claims of the 1619 Project is none other than the Confederate Vice President Alexander H. Stephens,” who, in 1861, described the Founders’ ideas as “fundamentally wrong” because “they rested upon the assumption of the equality of the races.” And there is Abraham Lincoln’s debating opponent, Sen. Stephen Douglas, who was of the same mind as the 1619 Project when he said, “The signers of the Declaration of Independence never dreamed of the Negro when they were writing that document. They referred to white men, to men of European birth and European descent, when they declared the equality of all men.… When you say that the Declaration of Independence includes the Negro, you charge the signers of it with hypocrisy.”
This distortion prompted Lincoln’s response that “from the date of the Declaration of Independence to within three years ago,” the record “may be searched in vain for one single affirmation, from one single man, that the Negro was not included in the Declaration of Independence.
“I think I may defy Judge Douglas to show that he [Jefferson] ever said so, that Washington ever said so, that any president ever said so, that any member of Congress ever said so … until the necessities of the present policy of the Democratic party, in regard to slavery, had to invent the affirmation,” said the Railsplitter. John Adams said essentially the same thing in a speech in 1837.
Reilly notes that between the Declaration and the Constitution, every state north of the Mason-Dixon Line, and north of the Ohio River, abolished slavery or passed measures leading to abolition by 1804. Congress passed the Northwest Ordinance in 1787, forbidding slavery in what would become Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, Illinois, and Wisconsin — all states that would sacrifice many of the 400,000 Union dead in the Civil War. Also, in 1780, according to the liberal historian Sean Wilentz, “the Pennsylvania assembly approved the first legislatively enacted emancipation law in modern history.” Little evidence of a national racist DNA here.
Slavery was the global norm, not the exception, until the American Founding. Indeed, one of the 1619 Project’s greatest calumnies is its claim that the American colonists declared independence from Britain to protect the institution of slavery. According to Wilentz, this “is simply untrue.” The British Empire was the leading slave trader in the world at the time. The British government gave special protection to the Royal African Company, which brought more slaves to the American colonies than any other entity. And, continually, when colonies such as Georgia, Maryland, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, and Virginia tried to curb the introduction of slaves by placing import taxes on them, the British government disallowed the measures as a drain on imperial wealth. Great Britain actually ended the slave trade after the United States, in 1807.
Robert Reilly does a good job of explaining the political realities of allowing the “infamous” slave clauses in the Constitution even though the word “slavery” appears nowhere in the document. They were, indeed, prudential compromises, necessary for there to be a country in the first place, an allowance of existing wrongs rather than a sanctioning of them. In fact, the “Three-Fifths Clause” (Article 1, Section 2) for apportionment of the House of Representatives was meant to lessen the power of the slave states so they could not include the slaves in “the whole Number of free Persons” and increase their number of representatives as determined by population.
As the great abolitionist and African American Frederick Douglass declared in 1863, “I hold that the Federal Government was never, in its essence, anything but an anti-slavery government.… It was purposely so framed as to give no claim, no sanction to the claim, of property in man. If in its origin slavery had any relation to the government, it was only as the scaffolding to the magnificent structure, to be removed as soon as the building was completed.”
Reilly asks and answers this question: “Would it have been better for the United States not to have existed or is it better that it was created — even with the ‘original sin’ of slavery besmirching it — based on a universal moral principle that necessitated slavery’s elimination?”
After relating his personal observations on the neighborliness of his multi-ethnic neighbors, his Spanish wife, and his Irish ancestry, Reilly offers his view that “We are all beneficiaries, not victims, of the American Founding. To fight racism today, the last thing anyone should try to do is tear down the nation premised on that principle [‘all men are created equal’]. It is to the Founding principles themselves that we can turn to recover from the great evils afflicting us. That should be a measure of the gratitude we owe to our Founding Fathers for their magnificent achievement.”