Liberty Matters

Perspective and Finality

Before getting into this second post, I very much want to thank Liberty Fund for inviting me to participate, Phil for his excellent original contribution, and Michael and Rachel for their equally excellent responses. As I look back over all three responses, I realize that I was rather proudly being “very Hillsdale” in my own, especially with my emphasis on Abraham Lincoln as nineteenth-century exemplar.
In Michael’s response, I was very taken with the discussion of language as it has evolved—profoundly—over the past decade or so, with those in elite positions defining what terms can and cannot mean, what they should and should not mean. As Michael rightly notes, language naturally evolves, but it has evolved recently for mostly political reasons.
In Rachel’s response, I was quite taken with the discussion of the disadvantages—to individuals as well as to societies—of oppression. As she so eloquently puts it, “Very few of us have benefitted from past oppression, because oppression isn’t particularly beneficial in general.” To this, I would like to give a rousing “Amen.”
As I tried to mention in my original response, I believe that the New Historians of Capitalism and the consequent 1619 Project are deeply flawed. With Michael, I agree that they bring up some interesting ideas and questions, but they also distort much.
First, the history of America is not simply the story of whites and blacks. Or, perhaps more narrowly it is not merely the story of Protestant whites and oppressed peoples from Africa. This is a vital component of America’s history, to be sure, but if taken in exaggerated isolation, it ignores or slights so many other peoples, and especially Native Americans, Asians, and a whole mix of immigrants who have come to this country over the centuries.
Second, as my colleague and friend Miles Smith likes to remind me, the history of America is also a history of abolitionism and anti-slavery movements.
A year or so ago, I listed some of these at The Imaginative Conservative:
“Perhaps, rather than a 1619 Project, we need the 1776 Project, or perhaps a 1861 Project, or, let’s hear it for Silent Cal, a 1926 Project. On a serious note—what we really need is good moral history. And, what would good moral history tell us?
  • That racial slavery was always and everywhere an evil.
  • That no people should be ripped from their homelands and made property.
  • That free labor always outcompetes slave labor, and that, as Tocqueville so wisely observed, the Ohio River separated not just the free from the unfree, but the productive versus the unproductive.
  • That abolitionist societies first sprang up in Philadelphia in 1776.
  • That northern states systematically uprooted slavery as an institution.
  • That the common law forbade slavery.
  • That the Declaration of Independence, especially in its first draft but always in its intent, condemned slavery.
  • That for every pro-slavery man in the Constitutional Convention, there was an anti-slavery man as well.
  • That Congress, unanimously, prohibited slavery in the Northwest Territories, 1787.
  • That Congress ended America’s participation in the international slave trade as early as January 1, 1808.
  • That, as late as the Missouri Compromise of 1820, Founding Father Rufus King, though advanced in age, continued to fight the good fight against slavery.
  • That colleges—such as Hillsdale, founded in 1844—were abolitionist.
  • That northern states, throughout the 1830s and 1840s, passed Personal Liberty Laws, disallowing the use of state personnel or property to aid slave catchers.
  • That, the Civil War and the 13th Amendment forever ended slavery and slave holding.
While none of the above is written—in any way, shape, or form—to justify America’s slave history, it should be clear that the history itself was deeply divisive and extremely complicated. Yet, if we have to sum it all up, I would go back, happily, to the speech of President Coolidge. There is, after all, a finality to the subject. In the end, we abolished slavery, ending the scourge forever in this country.”
It's well worth remembering, too, what Coolidge so wisely said on the 150th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence.
About the Declaration there is a finality that is exceedingly restful. It is often asserted that the world has made a great deal of progress since 1776, that we have had new thoughts and new experiences which have given us a great advance over the people of that day, and that we may therefore very well discard their conclusions for something more modern. But that reasoning cannot be applied to this great charter. If all men are created equal, that is final. If they are endowed with inalienable rights, that is final. If governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed, that is final. No advance, no progress can be made beyond these propositions. If anyone wishes to deny their truth or their soundness, the only direction in which he can proceed historically is not forward, but backward toward the time when there was no equality, no rights of the individual, no rule of the people. Those who wish to proceed in that direction cannot lay claim to progress. They are reactionary. Their ideas are not more modern, but more ancient, than those of the Revolutionary fathers.
As with Rachel’s statement quoted above, I want again to yell “Amen.”