Re­mem­ber­ing the be­gin­ning of U.S. slav­ery

Antelope Valley Press (Sunday) - - Opinion -

The New York Times has be­gun a ma­jor ini­tia­tive, the “1619 Project,” to ob­serve the 400th anniversar­y of the be­gin­ning of Amer­i­can slav­ery. It aims to re­frame Amer­i­can his­tory so that slav­ery and the con­tri­bu­tions of black Amer­i­cans ex­plain who we are as a nation.

Nikole Han­nah-Jones, staff writer for The New York Times Mag­a­zine wrote the lead ar­ti­cle, “Amer­ica Wasn’t a Democ­racy, Un­til Black Amer­i­cans Made It One.” She writes, “With­out the ide­al­is­tic, stren­u­ous and pa­tri­otic ef­forts of black Amer­i­cans, our democ­racy today would most likely look very dif­fer­ent — it might not be a democ­racy at all.”

There are sev­eral chal­lenges one can make about Han­nah-Jones’ ar­ti­cle, but I’m go­ing to fo­cus on the ar­ti­cle’s

most se­ri­ous er­ror, namely that the nation’s founders in­tended for us to be a democ­racy. That er­ror is shared by too many Amer­i­cans. The word democ­racy ap­pears nowhere in the two most fun­da­men­tal found­ing doc­u­ments of our nation — the Dec­la­ra­tion of In­de­pen­dence and the U.S. Con­sti­tu­tion. In­stead of a democ­racy, the Con­sti­tu­tion’s Ar­ti­cle IV, Sec­tion 4, de­clares, “The United States shall guar­an­tee to every State in this Union a Repub­li­can Form of Gov­ern­ment.” Think about it and ask your­self whether our Pledge of Al­le­giance says to “the democ­racy for which it stands” or to “the republic for which it stands.” Is Julia Ward Howe’s pop­u­lar Civil War song ti­tled “The Bat­tle Hymn of the Democ­racy” or “The Bat­tle Hymn of the Republic”?

The founders had ut­ter con­tempt for democ­racy. James Madi­son, the ac­knowl­edged fa­ther of the Con­sti­tu­tion, wrote in Fed­er­al­ist Pa­per No. 10, that in a pure democ­racy “there is noth­ing to check the in­duce­ment to sac­ri­fice the weaker party or the ob­nox­ious in­di­vid­ual.” At the 1787 Con­sti­tu­tional Con­ven­tion, del­e­gate Edmund Ran­dolph said, “that in trac­ing these evils to their ori­gin every man had found it in the tur­bu­lence and fol­lies of democ­racy.” John Adams said: “Re­mem­ber, democ­racy never lasts long. It soon wastes, ex­hausts, and mur­ders it­self. There was never a democ­racy yet that did not com­mit sui­cide.” U.S. Supreme Court Chief Jus­tice John Mar­shall ob­served, “Be­tween a balanced republic and a democ­racy, the dif­fer­ence is like that be­tween or­der and chaos.”

The U.S. Con­sti­tu­tion is re­plete with anti-ma­jor­ity rule, un­demo­cratic pro­vi­sions. One pro­vi­sion, heav­ily crit­i­cized, is the Elec­toral Col­lege. In their wis­dom, the framers gave us the Elec­toral Col­lege so that in pres­i­den­tial elections, heav­ily pop­u­lated states could not run roughshod over sparsely pop­u­lated states. In or­der to amend the Con­sti­tu­tion, it re­quires a two-thirds vote of both Houses, or two-thirds of state leg­is­la­tures, to pro­pose an amend­ment, and re­quires three-fourths of state leg­is­la­tures for rat­i­fi­ca­tion.

Part of the rea­son for hav­ing a bi­cam­eral Congress is that it places an­other ob­sta­cle to ma­jor­ity rule. Fifty-one sen­a­tors can block the wishes of 435 rep­re­sen­ta­tives and 49 sen­a­tors. The pres­i­dent, with a veto, can thwart the will of all 535 mem­bers of Congress. It takes a two-thirds vote, not just a ma­jor­ity, of both houses of Congress to over­ride a pres­i­den­tial veto.

In ad­di­tion to not un­der­stand­ing our Con­sti­tu­tion, Han­nahJones’ ar­ti­cle, like in most dis­cus­sions of black his­tory, fails to ac­knowl­edge that black Amer­i­cans have made the great­est gains, over some of the high­est hur­dles in the short­est span of time than any other ra­cial group in mankind’s his­tory. The ev­i­dence: If black Amer­i­cans were thought of as a nation with our own gross do­mes­tic prod­uct, we’d rank among the 20 wealth­i­est na­tions. It was a black Amer­i­can, Gen. Colin Pow­ell, who headed the world’s might­i­est mil­i­tary. A few black Amer­i­cans are among the world’s wealth­i­est. Black Amer­i­cans are among the world’s most fa­mous per­son­al­i­ties.

The sig­nif­i­cance of this is that in 1865, nei­ther a slave nor a slave owner would have be­lieved that such progress would be pos­si­ble in less than a cen­tury and a half, if ever. As such, it speaks to the in­testi­nal for­ti­tude of a peo­ple.

Just as im­por­tantly, it speaks to the greatness of a nation within which such progress was pos­si­ble, progress that would have been im­pos­si­ble any­where else.

The chal­lenge be­fore us is how those gains can be ex­tended to a large per­cent­age of black peo­ple for whom they ap­pear elu­sive.

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