Is America Great?

Every Independence Day, there are people who go on Twitter to tweet about how the United States really has nothing to be proud of. We’re a sucky country because of poverty and racism and sexism, all of which other countries have apparently managed to do away with. Obviously, I support the right of people to express their stupid opinions, but the opinions are still stupid. E.g.:

As I see it, there are two varieties of anti-Americanism on display here. First is the bland liberalism of people who think we should be living in some kind of socialistic utopia. Second is the anger of black Americans who rightly recognize the extent to which our country’s history is drenched in institutionalized racism, but refuse to acknowledge that such racism is a direct violation of our country’s founding principles.

The bland liberalism in the first tweet is less of a concern to me, because I think there’s not much to it. Of course we have people in poverty. Of course we have people that are hungry. But our poverty line is a heck of a lot higher than what counts as poverty in the rest of the world. And should our greatness as a nation even be based upon our material wealth? I’d rather live modestly in a free country than live lavishly in one where individual rights are routinely violated. To be sure, reducing poverty is a good goal for us to have. But the fundamental role of government is not to reduce poverty, but to preserve liberty.

Which relates to a broader point I want to make: America should be judged on its principles more than on the outcomes of adhering to those principles. The right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness means that not all of us will be equally wealthy. But it also means that no one can be another man’s slave (sadly, it took our country a long while to bring itself to admit this). Due process of law means that the guilty will sometimes go free. But it also means that the innocent are less likely to be punished for crimes they did not commit. Should we discard these principles because they sometimes lead to outcomes that we don’t like? Of course not. Likewise, our adherence to the founding principles of America will not make this country into a utopia, but rejecting them would be far worse.

But what about slavery, you may ask? The angry tweets from black Americans above seem to be focused more on racism than on the unavoidable inequities that characterize a world in which not everyone is equally talented or intelligent. Some inequality is natural. Racial inequality is not. How, then, do I explain the racist history of the United States in light of our founding principles?

Put simply, we’re hypocrites, and we’ve always been hypocrites. It is obviously impossible to justify slavery in light of the statements made in the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.” The racial injustice of slavery, as well as all the injustices that followed its abolition, are a result of rejecting the founding principles of America, not adhering to them. Slavery, lynchings, ethnic cleansing, segregation—can anyone doubt that each of these violates at least one of the fundamental rights referred to in the Declaration?

Of course, racial injustice did not end on July 4, 1776, so it makes sense to question why we should dedicate this day to celebrating our freedom. As Frederick Douglass famously asked, “What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July?” He supplied his own answer to the question: “[A] day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim.” In the face of persistent injustice and tyranny, it is cruel to behave as if we have achieved freedom or equality. We had not adhered to our founding ideals, and that was obvious to Douglass.

But still, insofar as those ideals have become realized, we should celebrate the day on which we enshrined them in the Declaration. We have done away with slavery. Both legally and socially, equality of the races has been almost universally accepted in America. To be sure, we’re not a post-racial society. We still have significant problems. But racism is no longer a fundamental feature of our national existence—our Congress does not pass laws protecting the slave interest, and our state legislatures do not mandate or permit racial segregation. The seed planted on July 4, 1776 took far too long to bear fruit, but borne fruit it has, and we who enjoy it today should recognize where it came from.

The greatness of America lies in the greatness of its founding principles as set forth in the Declaration of Independence. Insofar as we adhere to them, our nation is great. But when we reject them, we debase ourselves and make ourselves contemptible in the highest degree. The Fourth of July is a day to remember and celebrate our founding principles, to consider how we have implemented them and how we have failed to do so. To some degree it requires that we mourn our country’s many egregious failures at guaranteeing liberty and equality to all. But even more, it demands that we recognize that liberty and equality are the bedrock on which our nation is built, and that whatever rotten structures may have been built upon them before, the foundation is firm. It is our task to continue building a just and virtuous republic on the foundations of liberty and equality. To reject the foundation is to reject the task, and that is not something we are free to do.

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