Democratic presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke a few months ago claimed, “This country was founded on white supremacy.” In 2017, Minnesota Democratic congresswoman Ilhan Omar asserted, “We must confront that our nation was founded by genocide.” These comments reflect a broader historical narrative common on the Left that views American history as defined primarily by racism, sexism, and oppression.
This narrative is beyond ironic. O’Rourke’s ancestors were Irish Catholics—two adjectives that were synonymous with persecuted minority status in an earlier period of American history. Omar is a black, female, first-generation Somali American, an emblem of “intersectionality.” Yet both frequently make national headlines. They are widely respected (within their party) and widely quoted (if only for their gaffes!). Neither will ever have to worry about having enough money in their bank accounts to provide for themselves and their families. As the old Brooks & Dunn song goes, “Only in America.”
Land of Hope: An Invitation to the Great American Story, by University of Oklahoma professor of history Wilfred M. McClay, a new textbook of American history, presents an even more fundamental, wide-reaching rebuttal to this cynical, Zinnian perspective. One theme consistent throughout McClay’s story is what is classically understood as the idea of the tragic hero. Such an individual invests tremendous, laudable energies in seeking the good. He or she is courageous, intelligent, and virtuous—yet imperfect. Indeed, the flaws that haunt the hero may be so dangerous that they not only restrain but even undermine his or her goals and legacy. Nevertheless, this person deserves our sympathy and even honor.
Thus, says McClay, in reference to the allowance for slavery by the Founders, a remarkably talented, intelligent set of men who, albeit imperfectly, exemplified the classical virtues of courage, prudence, temperance, and justice:
Each of us is born into a world that we did not make, and it is only with the greatest effort, and often at very great cost, that we are ever able to change that world for the better. Moral sensibilities are not static; they develop and deepen over time, and general moral progress is very slow. Part of the study of history involves a training of the imagination, learning to see historical actors as speaking and acting in their own times rather than ours and learning to see even our heroes as an all-too-human mixture of admirable and unadmirable qualities, people like us who may, like us, be constrained by circumstances beyond their control.
This wisdom identifies a fatal error in the Left’s castigation of previous American generations. It is what C.S. Lewis called “chronological snobbery,” the mistaken belief that one’s current generation is morally superior to those that have gone before it, which prompts arrogant (and errant) judgments on the past. Quite amusingly, those engaged in such ideological stone-throwing not only live in glass houses, but have achieved markedly little to bequeath to future generations. Our descendants will undoubtedly be talking about “old white men” like Columbus, Jefferson, and Lincoln, if only to find some way to explain away their great contributions to the American experiment. Will O’Rourke or Omar even garner a footnote?
What, then, is this land founded by tragic heroes based upon, if not genocide, racism, and sexism? McClay identifies one principal theme in his third chapter, “The Revolution of Self-Rule.” This emphasis on self-rule was born out of several historical developments. For one, England’s traditions of common law and parliamentary government sought to restrain absolutist tendencies and fostered a deep strain of independent political life. Another was the Protestant Reformation, which encouraged a more decentralized, self-driven form of religious practice. The nature of English colonial life was yet another, as English citizens separated from their native land by an ocean were free to pursue their own forms of self-government, while relying largely on themselves for security against both other colonial powers (France, Spain) and some belligerent native peoples. This resulted in a paradigm whereby “a greater proportion of the American population could participate in elections and have a role in selecting their representatives than anyplace else on the planet.”
One could perhaps call this “radical,” but one might just as justifiably call it a natural development out of the colonists’ English political inheritance. Moreover, other elements of that core individualist American identity were profoundly traditional. Religious faith, especially in light of the Great Awakening of the 1730s, united Americans around a common spiritual experience centered on an independent, emotional, revivalist form of Christianity. Even those Founders who were outside the scope of more “orthodox” Christian forms (Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson) still recognized the importance of God and religious practice in forming a moral, conscientious people able to productively contribute to civic life.
Speaking of Jefferson, McClay notes that he and the other Framers of the Constitution were not ideological revolutionaries, but sought to incorporate the very best of the Western political tradition while being true to the identity of the American people. In 1826, Jefferson explained, “I did not consider it any part of my charge to invent new ideas.” The purpose of the Declaration of Independence was “not to find out new principles,” but to “place before mankind the common sense of the subject” and capture “an expression of the American mind… harmonizing sentiments of the day.” Thus did one Captain Levi Preston, a colonial soldier who fought the British at Concord in 1775, tell an interviewer in 1843 that “what we meant in going for those red-coats was this: we always had governed ourselves, and we always meant to. They didn’t mean we should.”
The Framers also evinced a healthy skepticism of utopianism—one learned from a number of failed utopian experiments in the colonies’ early years—as well as an honest appraisal of the weaknesses of human nature. These men, observes McClay, understood that “conflict is part of the human condition and can never be eliminated.” Likely stemming, once again, from a Christian conception of original sin, the Constitution rejects “soaring rhetoric and lists of high-sounding principles” in favor of a
somewhat dry and functional document laying out a complex system of markers, boundaries, and rules of engagement, careful divisions of function and power that provide the means by which conflicts that are endemic and inevitable to us, and to all human societies, can be both expressed and contained; tamed; rendered harmless, even beneficial.
As Aristotle and the authors of the Hebrew Bible understood—and contra certain trends in contemporary libertarianism—government can and should contribute to the common good. In order to do this, it must be viewed not as a panacea to man’s problems but as an institution, certainly essential but with powers that must be carefully and doggedly restrained by both law and the brilliantly conceived separation of powers. In our era of executive orders and legislative surrenders of power, this is a lesson America must relearn, or become something fundamentally different than what she was intended to be.
Thus if we are going to talk about what America was “founded on,” a far better answer than the tired tropes of progressivist ideology would be a self-reliant conservatism and traditionalism, one informed by a Christian worldview and understanding of the human person. McClay argues:
It would be profoundly wrong to contend, as some do, that the United States was “founded on” slavery. No, it was founded on other principles entirely, on principles of liberty and self-rule that had been discovered and defined and refined and enshrined through the tempering effects of several turbulent centuries of European and British and American history.
America succeeded as a nation because its first citizens learned invaluable lessons from their shared history and applied them to a political reality that was both something new and an organic development from their common inheritance. It was for them a land of hope, based not on fanciful idealizations but the trials of experience. For that civic experiment to survive, we would do well to familiarize ourselves with histories like that offered by McClay.
Casey Chalk is a student at the Notre Dame Graduate School of Theology at Christendom College. He covers religion and other issues for The American Conservative.