I want schoolchildren to learn all about how many of the Founding Fathers owned slaves, and I want them to learn all about exactly how morally awful and physically brutal a system of race-based chattel slavery ours was.
I do not want that to be the only thing they learn about the Founders, though: I want them also to learn about how the men and women of the founding generation – and of the half-dozen generations before that – loved and cherished their rights and their liberties, and honored those among them who served the public interest honorably.
I want them to learn all about how we casually cheated, bamboozled, and murdered Native Americans, but I do not want that to be the only thing they learn either about Native Americans or about the “White Man’s” dealings with them, past and present.
I want schoolchildren to learn about the terrible religious bigotry that stained the souls and the honor of our forefathers in nationhood, and I want them to learn about how they struggled to find a way to order their lives so that each man could worship and advocate for truth according to conscience, and at the same time fully participate in society and in the public counsels – and how, in the main, they succeeded in so ordering their lives after much effort.
If I reject the tendency to deify the Founders, I repudiate the tendency to demonize them: they were human, just as we are; and just as we have, so did they have, feet of clay.
I want schoolchildren to know the awful things the men we revere did (and the women, too), even as they believed – not wrongly – that they were basically good people about a worthy business and even a truly noble cause.
I want them to remember how hard it was for our forefathers to recognize the humanity in others – wasn’t it obvious to them? – and how deeply that failure to recognize the full and equal measure of humanity they shared with those others (who should have been fellows) wounded their own.
I want them to remember how the Civil War was and was not “over slavery”.
I want them to remember, because I want them to realize how much the ways in which which our forebears did and did not struggle with each other in peace tell us about the real and genuine importance of the causes for which the parties to that terrible conflict contended in war, and I want them to be capable of thinking about the limits to the moral vision of even the best of men, even and especially those with the best of intentions, and about the strictures societies place on the moral imagination of their members, and about why those strictures exist, and about what it costs to adjust those strictures, and about what we get for an adjustment of them, whether well or poorly done.
I want them to be mindful of the consequences of our failure as a society to recognize the humanity of others – whether they be the gay couple, the snake-handling Pentecostal, the immigrant family from Honduras, the Catholics with ten children or with two, the Muslim refugee with four mouths to feed (he was a promising young lawyer back home before the war), or the young man with the mullet and the penchant for playing Merle Haggard records and the perpetual sunburn and three-beer buzz (he’d be happy to turn the music down and even happier to tell you why your engine rattles like that at low revs) – because, simply and shortly put, those others are people, too.
I want them to know all about the men and women in the founding generation and in every generation after that, who – in the main – loved public spirit, honesty, fairness, industry, kindness, and charity, but did not always practice them or even try to. The Founders knew that being good citizens meant first and foremost being good neighbors, and they believed that America was exceptional precisely because in America people worked until they found the way to order their lives together (except when they didn’t, and remember what happened then?). They knew the world was dangerous, and they did not let it scare them (except when they did, and what happened then?). They understood how lucky they were, and tried to be worthy of their good fortune (except when they didn’t, and what happened then?). They were happy when their neighbors did well and they were there to help when times were tough (except when they weren’t, and what happened then?).
I do not know whether we are still – or ever were – the kind of people the Founders believed themselves and tried to be.
In the depth of my soul I know that such a people is the only kind of people it is worth trying to be.
Let’s each of us make a go of it.
Charleston, SC slave auction