A year after Donald Trump’s election to the presidency, the country is in the throes of an identity crisis.
Trump’s having welcomed to the table—and into the White House—hate groups and others who were formerly relegated to the cultural fringe, and having himself, from the Oval Office, voiced opinions that we used to think of as extremist, has confounded our sense of our shared values. To combat what we feel to be an outrageous assault on our identity requires reasserting that identity. But what is it? Are there truly such things as American values?
The answer lies at the nation’s founding. Everyone knows that the American project was launched on the idea of “freedom,” but processing that amorphous concept has always been a challenge. Liberals have long faulted the founders for failing to live up to the ideal of freedom, and there are good reasons for that. Many of the men who led the freedom charge were slave owners and, in our terms, racists. After the war of independence, leaders of the new nation deliberately constricted the definition of American freedom by embedding the institution of slavery in the Constitution. At the same time, they set about systematically swindling native tribes out of their land. And the freedom of most ordinary citizens was curtailed by virtue of the fact that generally only white male property owners were entitled to vote. Only a small percentage of the population was able to participate in the system at the beginning of America’s experiment with freedom.
But Trump’s violation of our political discourse and sense of decency, his continually baiting, demeaning, and trying to bar or diminish blacks, Hispanics, Muslims, Jews, and women, not to mention his threats to undermine freedoms of speech, religion, and the press, are encouraging people to take a more nuanced view of the people who forged the nation. In the face of the visceral threat to values that Trump embodies, liberals lately seem disposed to think that it was wrong to conclude that the United States was established on a foundation of racism and deception.
Indeed, the nation was founded on something much broader and more universal even than the doctrine of political freedom with which we typically associate it. In 1776, Americans of all classes believed in and were a part of a broad ideology of freedom that had been expanding for well over a century. In the early 1600s Europeans who had been peering into microscopes and telescopes developed a new approach to understanding the natural world. This led thinkers like Rene Descartes to fashion a theory of knowledge based not on received wisdom but on human reason. Writers like Baruch Spinoza then argued that the universality of reason meant that every mind, and thus every person, was equally valuable. From that came a whole tumble of insights that together formed what we call the Enlightenment. We think of that as an 18th century movement, but as early as the 1640s there were arguments that girls had as much of a right to education as boys. Calls to abolish slavery started coming even before the slave trade had ramped up, and were founded on the same conviction of the fundamental equality of all.
In the 1770s, the leaders of the American Revolution focused on one particular aspect of this evolving ideology as justification for their cause, that of political freedom, but the very phrase “all men are created equal” points to the fact that they were self-consciously part of this broader stream of thought. Our longstanding focus on the elite of that era, the men in the powdered wigs who wielded the quill pens, and our ignorance of most everyone else in society, has perhaps blinded us to how much this wider notion of freedom was in the air. The Constitution was vehemently opposed by antifederalists—many of whom were ordinary farmers and tradesmen—in part out of their commitment to the wider notion of individual freedom, which they believed a strong federal government would threaten. Even the addition of a Bill of Rights was not enough for some. Men like Albany, New York, antifederalist Abraham Yates, a former shoemaker who mistrusted all elites, American as well as British, worried that an unprincipled president who could cajole the Senate into siding with him could become an outright tyrant, and would be in a position to crush those rights and freedoms of individuals, whether or not they were guaranteed.
Other aspects of the wider current of freedom were in the air as well at the time of the nation’s founding. It would be an anachronism to speak of a women’s movement in the 18th century, but it was stirring. In 1792 the English writer Mary Wollstonecraft wrote the proto-feminist manifesto A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, declaring that women were treated as “slaves,” and arguing that an “enlightened nation” should allow them equal participation in government. In the midst of the Revolutionary War, Margaret Moncrieffe, the teenaged daughter of a military officer who chose to fight with the British, found herself ordered by her father to marry a man she detested. Forced marriage was at that moment the front line on which women’s freedom was being fought. In the 1770s, plays and newspaper articles encouraged young women to marry for love. Margaret Moncrieffe followed the advice: she resisted. But the combined force of her father and suitor was too much. She relented, suffered greatly, but got some revenge when she wrote a devastating tell-all memoir.
The abolition of slavery was being called for as well. Washington and many other leaders of the American cause were slaveowners, and as such were economically and psychologically unable to tolerate the idea of abolition. But during the war three of Washington’s closest aides, Alexander Hamilton, John Laurens, and the Marquis de Lafayette, believed that the fight for liberty should extend to freeing slaves, which would set the new country fully in line with Enlightenment principles. After the war, and when it was clear that slavery would only be strengthened as an institution, Lafayette famously wrote, “I would never have drawn my sword in the cause of America if I could have conceived that thereby I was founding a land of slavery.”
Americans of African descent seem not to have been surprised at the paradox that the new United States would maintain the institution of slavery alongside its commitment to freedom. Venture Smith, who lived as a slave in Connecticut in the revolutionary era, ignored white people’s incessant talk of freedom as he worked doggedly to save money, and eventually bought his freedom and that of his family. He seemed to know that whatever freedom would come with nationhood and a new system of government would not apply to Africans. He eventually set himself up as a property owner and man of substance, then published a narrative of his life of struggle, seemingly in an effort to show the work yet to be done on America’s road to freedom.
The existence of Native Americans in the equation, meanwhile, confounded the American settlers, and in a sense continues to confound us today. For the original inhabitants of the continent had their own quite evolved idea of freedom. Not only did different tribes of the Iroquois Confederacy have the freedom to choose how they would deal with the Revolutionary War, each village had autonomy, and ultimately each individual. What Americans took as shiftlessness the Iroquois saw as living as a whole human being, with full personal responsibility. The Seneca leader Cornplanter tried to get that point across in negotiations with American representatives, including with President Washington, as he maneuvered for land and a future for his people. But the Americans, leaders and settlers alike, focused as they were on westward expansion, were uninterested in such finer points of Iroquois philosophy.
The failings of the founders of the American system are undeniable. But their failure to live up to the ideals of the broader freedom project does not erase the success of the founding of the American system. George Washington ought not to be lambasted for being a man of his time. It is our duty, in looking at the past, to hold two conflicting ideas in our minds at the same time. We all wear the blinders of our era. Washington was a freedom fighter. He and the other founders of the nation achieved something profound. And in many respects, they understood their failures.
How, then, do we process the 45th president’s racism, bigotry, and threats to undermine the Bill of Rights, and the fact that, in spite or because of such behavior, millions of Americans voted for him a year ago? After all, the first president chose as well to narrow the notion of who would be a true American. Given the opportunity to grant slaves their freedom in exchange for fighting in the American cause, George Washington chose not to do so. As someone who had lived among Africans all his life, and experienced their smoldering hatred of their captivity, he feared what would come of handing them weapons. “The policy of our arming Slaves is in my opinion a moot point,” he concluded, ending debate on the topic. The decision was one of many in which he curtailed the very freedom he was working toward.
But there is a vast difference between Washington’s diminishment of American freedom and Trump’s: 240 years vast, to be precise. All of American history since that time might be seen as one long effort to both build on the achievement of the founding era and to overcome its failures, to continue broadening the landscape of freedom. The Civil War, the civil rights movement, women’s rights, workers’ rights, consumer rights: all of these have been expansions of the landscape of freedom. Most of us recognize that. We still take the Revolutionary era as our foundation, and we have tried to improve on it.
This is why, over this past long year since Donald Trump was awarded the honor he has repeatedly shown he does not deserve, people have reacted with outrage at his efforts to trash and otherwise deny full status as Americans to one group after another. The outrage is appropriate. It ought to transcend political partisanship. It springs not only from the president’s lack of civility but from the fact that we as a society have long since moved beyond this. History itself, we feel, is against it.