America’s Exceptional Guilt

Jason Ross

Editor’s Note: This essay is republished with permission from Law & Liberty and is part of the National Association of Scholar’s 1620 Project.

In framing America’s national history as pro-slavery to its core, the Times follows, and intensifies, the critical narrative of the nation’s founding advanced by the 19th century abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison. Interpreting the Constitution through its clauses that directly addressed slavery, Garrison was the first American to denounce the Constitution as “pro-slavery.” He went so far as to burn a copy of the Constitution on stage on July 4, 1854.

A recent generation of historians—operating under the label of “neo-Garrisonian”—has tried to outdo even Garrison’s critique. William Wiecek claimed that at least nine of the Constitution’s clauses directly protected or referred to slavery. Paul Finkelman found eighteen clauses tainted by slavery. David Waldstreicher discovered pro-slavery intent not only in the Constitution’s text, but in its “contradictions, ambiguities, and silences…,” concluding, “The clauses that relate directly to slavery are not exceptions to the Constitution’s remarkable combination of precision and vagueness [regarding slavery]: they epitomize those qualities.” With this neo-Garrisonian critique dominating historical scholarship, it is no surprise that it has affected the broader public discourse; one of the 1619 Project’s lead editorials points directly to Waldstreicher in support of the Project’s somber affirmation, “Our democracy’s founding ideals were false when they were written.”

Yet Garrison’s critique of the American founding was so intense precisely because he believed the nation’s ideals to be true. He called the Declaration of Independence an “infallible instrument.” Though it was written by a “fallible man—a slaveholder,” and signed by “[f]ifty-six fallible men,” Garrison still declared his “faith in the unchangeable rectitude of its principles” which he saw reflected in the plain text of its commitment that “all men are created equal”—regardless of the intent of those who drafted or signed it.

Garrison and the Constitution

In his early effort to reform America’s practices according to its stated ideals, Garrison relied heavily on the Constitution’s promise of freedom of speech, press, and petition. He declared, “free discussion of every thing that concerns the constitution and government, is the indispensable condition, the conservative principle of every republic. The Constitution of our country has fully recognized this conservative principle, in ordaining that no law shall be enacted ‘abridging the freedom of speech or of the press.’” Still, Garrison’s exercise of free speech was challenged at every turn—through the “gag rule” by which Congress denied to hear abolitionist petitions, through Southern laws prohibiting abolitionist publications from circulating through the U.S. mail, and through mob violence designed to intimidate Garrison and other abolitionists into silence.

Where Garrison relied on the plain text of the Constitution (including its amendments) to advocate for the abolition of slavery, his opponents relied on claims about the intent of the Constitution’s framers. In addition to Southern arguments, even some of New England’s leading citizens approached the Constitution as an inviolable compact by which the framers intended for the free states to accept Southern slavery in silence. As Garrison’s movement grew stronger, Harrison Gray Otis—of the famous Otis family, who had served Massachusetts in the U.S. House and Senate and as mayor of Boston—insisted there was “no surprise, no misunderstanding, no concealment of facts or of claims” between North and South when they entered that compact. Former U.S. Senator from Maine, Peleg Sprague, concurred, declaring that the Constitution “does sanction, it does uphold Slavery….” Both shared the sentiment, articulated by Otis, that “the principles of the anti-slavery associations… conflict with the principles of this compact.”

One can understand how Garrison eventually lost his faith in his own interpretation of America’s principles and accepted the rival view that the framers intended for the Constitution to be pro-slavery. Still, it is a tragedy of history that Garrison came to employ his endless passion and unsurpassed rhetorical gifts to advocate for a now-obsolete view of the Constitution—and one held most notoriously by the actual architects of the pro-slavery Constitution, including Chief Justice Roger Taney and John C. Calhoun.

Not only has the view of America’s founding accepted by Taney, Calhoun, and Garrison been utterly discredited in the eyes of history, it was widely rejected even in Garrison’s day by most of his fellow abolitionists, most notably Frederick Douglass. Thus it is hard to understand the ongoing appeal of Garrison’s condemnation of the American founding. It seems the explanation of this appeal is to be found, again, in the continuing influence of Garrison.

Precisely because he believed in the absolute divine truth of America’s ideals as stated in the Declaration, Garrison believed the nation had a unique responsibility to uphold those ideals, and thus bore a unique guilt for the continuation of slavery. He held, “in the view of the civil and religious privileges of this nation, the guilt of its oppression is unequalled by any other on the face of the earth.” Only because Garrison believed America to be exceptional could he believe it to be exceptionally guilty.

American Exceptionalism Redefined

The 1619 Project wholly embraces this inverted view of American exceptionalism—but not necessarily because its creators believe its tendentious historical conclusions to be true. Instead, the Project’s authors play upon the notion of America’s exceptional guilt, which still packs considerable rhetorical power amongst a people who have been historically constituted by the belief that their national experience must both instruct and transform the rest of the world. This cross borne by Americans to ensure their political experience drives the progress of world history gives a powerful moral dimension to American national identity even as it renders us oblivious to any history outside our own. It can feel true to a people like the Americans that a decision made by adventurers in a struggling settlement at the far reaches of the British empire—more than a century before anything resembling an American “nation” had appeared—amounts to a “national sin” that may be unpardonable.

More, under an American national identity constituted as a morality tale, it can feel that we can only truly be seen as American if, and because, we express guilt about the sins of our ancestors. This is a form of national identity that can only be renewed by the continual reliving of those sins. Thus, rather than raising questions of historical interpretation, the 1619 Project should be seen as another ritual renewal of American national identity—a renewal by which many who were previously included in that identity are deemed morally unfit to remain within it.

Garrison viewed American national identity as idolatrous in light of the scriptural teaching, “In Christ Jesus there is neither Jew nor Greek, …neither bond nor free.” More, as he lost his faith in politics, Garrison grew enamored with the apocalyptic belief that “the kingdoms of this world are to become the kingdoms of our Lord and of his Christ; consequently, that they are all to be supplanted, …and he only who is King of kings, and Lord of lords, is to rule in righteousness. The kingdom of God is to be established IN ALL THE EARTH, and it shall never be destroyed, but it shall ‘BREAK IN PIECES AND CONSUME ALL OTHERS….’” His messianic vision of the withering away of the state, coupled with his conceit that he was somehow called to bring it about, have contributed to the common criticism of Garrison as a dangerous fanatic. Perhaps that Garrisonian spirit remains more with us than we think, in the guise of a cosmopolitan class that has arrogated to itself the moral authority to reject, as undemocratic, the results of democratic processes which have aimed to defend nation-states, with their cultural and historical particularities.

The Garrisonian Mandate

For the 1619 Project, though, even the Garrisonian solution—of demanding that Americans open their borders, and their national identity, and unite with the whole world under the banner of equality—is not enough. Instead, in the narrative created by the Times, African-Americans, “by virtue of our bondage… became the most American of all.” Here American national identity is recreated as a moral caste system, an inversion of the “white supremacy” which, as is now held, lurks deep in the hearts of any who decline to participate in the ritual reliving of the sins of our Fathers—even sins going back before most of our actual fathers arrived on these shores. It is difficult to believe the American nation can long endure, half condemned by an original sin that cannot be redeemed and half believing themselves without sin and in a position to cast stones.

America’s national narrative and identity will always be bound up with the notion of American exceptionalism. Some, following Garrison, hold that Americans are exceptional for their doctrine of equality—which all the world must accept, and by which America must accept all the world. Others, deepening Garrison’s critique, hold that (white) Americans are exceptionally guilty. By contrast, Publius held that Americans are exceptional for being the first to face the question, “whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice.” In this way, Publius framed America’s national narrative and identity in terms not racial or moral, but practical. Americans are people—of any race, creed, or origin—who honor the best of the American founding, and improve the worst, by engaging in the free discussion that Garrison, before his loss of faith in politics, called “the conservative principle of every republic.”

Jason Ross is an Instructor at Liberty University. He is currently at work (with Gordon Lloyd) on Slavery and the Well Constructed Union: Use, Misuse, and Neglect of “The Madison Papers”.

Image: By John R. Perry, Public Domain

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