The New York Times Magazine recently released its "1619 Project," an initiative marking the 400th anniversary of the first African slaves arriving in North America. The project is ambitious, aiming to "reframe the country’s history, understanding 1619 as our true founding." A collection of pundits have framed this project as an attempt to "delegitimize" the United States. Such commentary provides an opportunity to consider the state of American race relations and the role of slavery in American history.
Whether or not the foundation of the United States was legitimate is an interesting political, moral, and historical question. You can spend a career considering questions about when political violence is justified, what fair representation in a democracy looks like, how to measure and secure the consent of the governed, and what political system best secures natural rights. But these aren't the kinds of questions many 1619 Project critics have in mind when they accuse it of "delegimitizing" the United States. They're concerned that highlighting America's brutal history of slavery and its role in forming the United States undermines the American project; an experiment in self-government.
The relationship between black people and the white institutions that oppressed them is one of the most consequential features of American history. The most prominent of America's contradictions is that its Founding documents were written by white men who owned black human beings as farm equipment, yet they expressed a commitment to liberty.
Thomas Jefferson, the man who believed that it was "self-evident" that all men are created equal owned slaves. James Madison, the "Father of the Constitution" and author of many of The Federalist Papers, also owned slaves and was skeptical of free African Americans being a part of the American polity. After leaving the White House Madison served as the president of the American Colonization Society, which urged freed black people to move to Africa.
During the Revolutionary War, the British frigate HMS Savage sailed up the Potomac River, its troops burning houses in Maryland in view of Mt. Vernon, George Washington's Virginia estate. The Royal Governor of Virginia John Murray had earlier issued a proclamation, offering freedom to slaves who fought for Britain. A wartime necessity rather an endorsement of full-throated emancipation to be sure, but it's nonetheless telling that seventeen of Washington's slaves fled Mt. Vernon and boarded HMS Savage. To a Virginia slave, housing in a British warship was preferable to the slave quarters belonging to the man who would become the first president of the United States.
Bewilderment at slave owners proclaiming a devotion to liberty is hardly reserved to 21st century. In a 1775 essay on the American colonies the English writer Samuel Johnson asked not unreasonably, "how is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?" The Founding Father John Adams never owned slaves and opposed slavery, though favored gradual erosion of the institution rather than outright and immediate abolition. His wife Abigail understood the contradiction of the American Founding:
I have sometimes been ready to think that the passion for Liberty cannot be Equally Strong in the Breasts of those who have been accustomed to deprive their fellow Creatures of theirs. Of this I am certain that it is not founded upon that generous and Christian principal of doing to others as we would that others should do unto us. . . .
That the Founding generation included moral hypocrites is hardly surprising. Every collection of human beings has included flawed people. Anyone scouring history books in search of moral perfection will be left disappointed.
It's not clear that the moral hypocrisy of some of America's founders delegitimizes the United States per se. At worst such hypocrisy makes the founding of the United States far from perfect. Even those who think that it's a stretch to say that the United States was founded "on" racism can hardly deny that it was founded with racist institutions explicitly protected. The evils of slavery don't in and of themselves negate the colonists' complaints about a lack of representation in Parliament or the fact that British officials had subjected colonists to needless, intrusive searches and other abuses against their civil rights. But they shouldn’t be overlooked.
What is clear is that the United States has yet to fully come to terms with its history of racial violence and oppression. In large part this is because we're accustomed to measuring our race relations progress through the lenses of military, political, and legislative victories.
Hundreds of thousands of Americans died in the wake of an illegitimate attempt at secession predicated on the preservation of slavery. The Civil War amendments to the Constitution certainly improved the document, but they hardly erased a culture of violence and racism that made them a necessity.
The North won the Civil War, the South won Reconstruction. The explicit exemption of blacks from civil rights and political participation in the South as well as the emergence of a racist domestic terrorist organization are all evidence that wars and Constitutional amendments hardly erase cultures that took centuries to develop. A century after Robert E. Lee surrendered to General Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House, racists were murdering civil rights activists in the Jim Crow South. Thousands of black people had been lynched during those hundred years. Others were subjected to medical experiments. Segregation, bans on interracial marriage, and many other indignities were imposed by white-majority legislatures.
We can and should applaud the progress that the U.S. has made since its founding while accepting that there is much work to be done. Such work requires an honest look at history that treats the Founding Fathers and America's founding documents as men and historical writings, not prophets and religious texts.
Although decades have passed since the civil rights movement American institutions continue to reflect America's racist history. Law enforcement and criminal justice are perhaps the most prominent and obvious examples, but we shouldn't ignore the impact racism has had on housing policy, education, and economic regulations. This history of course doesn't imply that everyone who works in law enforcement, housing, and education or advocates for minimum wage increases is a racist, but it should be considered when discussing the ongoing impact of race relations on American society.
We should also consider modern moral hypocrisies and racial language. Today, many people who claim to support "liberty" protest the removal of statues of Confederate generals who fought to preserve slavery. More than 150 years after the end of the Civil War, a city worker in New Orleans wore body armor and a face covering while removing a statue of Confederate leader Jefferson Davis.
Rep. Mark Meadows (R-NC), a member of the "Freedom Caucus," won re-election despite saying that President Obama should be sent "back home to Kenya or wherever" (he has since disowned the comments). The whole Obama presidency is full of examples of thinly veiled racial language being used against the president and his family. Rep. Steve King (R-IA) has used racist language and adorned his desk with a Confederate flag, which he displayed without any hint of irony alongside the American flag.
If initiatives like The 1619 Project can help Americans better understand their history and institutions then they should be applauded. I've yet to read the 1619 essay collection in full, and I'm sure that I'll have some disagreements with some of its contributors. The essay on the link between slavery and the "brutality of American capitalism" looks ripe for educated criticism.
It's important for an honest look at American institutions and history because the United States - unlike France and Greece - was founded on a set of principles. French and Greek identities have endured despite Greece and France being governed by a wide range of political regimes (republics, parliaments, monarchies, occupations, etc.). Yet there's a sense in which American identity is tied to the political commitment outlined in the Declaration: a government tasked to securing rights endowed to all people.
I am bound to that commitment. I took an oath to the Constitution when I became an American citizen ten years ago. I did so gladly, knowing that the document and the men who ratified it were imperfect. But such imperfections didn't dent my budding patriotism. Anyone with a family and friends knows that you can love something that isn't perfect. My relationship with my country is like my relationship with anyone: it improves with increased honesty, reflection, and candor.
In these days when liberalism is again under attack from some of its old enemies in new guises, one way to counter authoritarian threats is to educate ourselves on the fundamental ideas of liberalism. The Encyclopedia of Libertarianism, now available online, offers a wealth of information on the ideas, people, and history of liberalism and libertarianism. Historian David M. Hart, director of the Online Library of Liberty, says that the Encyclopedia "provides an excellent survey of the key movements, individuals, and events in the evolution of the classical liberal movement." And on his own website he outlines a course of study in classical liberalism that includes a curated list of articles in the Encyclopedia for someone who wants to learn about the ideas, movements, and people of liberalism.
Begin, he says, with the survey article by Steve Davies, “General Introduction” (pp. xxv-xxxvii in the print version). Then read any of the following articles. Or, for a logical and chronological course of study, read these articles in this order:
Key Ideas in the Classical Liberal Tradition
- Individual Liberty
- Private Property
Grounds for Belief:
- Natural Law and Natural Rights
Processes for Creating a Free Society:
- Idea of Spontaneous Order
- The Non-Aggression Principle
Political and Legal Freedoms:
- Limited Government
- Rule of Law
- Freedom of Speech & Religion, Toleration
- Right of Freedom of Movement
- Free Markets
- Free Trade
- Equality under the Law - “Equality” (of rights)
- Toleration of different Ideas and Behaviour (see Freedom of Speech & Religion above)
- Acts between Consenting Adults - “Presumption of Liberty”
Key Movements and People in the Classical Liberal Tradition
- The Ancient World
- Medieval Period
- Reformation & Renaissance
- The 17th Century
- The 18th Century
- 18thC Commonwealthmen - “ Cato's Letters”
- The Scottish Enlightenment; “ Enlightenment”; “Adam Smith”, “Adam Ferguson” & “David Hume”
- The French Enlightenment; “ Physiocracy”; “Turgot”; “Montesquieu” & “Voltaire”
- “American Revolution”; “ Declaration of Independence”; “Thomas Jefferson” & “Thomas Paine”; “ Constitution, U.S.”; “James Madison”; “ Bill of Rights, US”
- “ French Revolution”; “ Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen”
- The 19th Century
- “Classical Liberalism” - the English School; “ Philosophic Radicals”; “ Utilitarianism”; “Jeremy Bentham”; “Classical Economics”; “John Stuart Mill”
- “Classical Liberalism” - the French School; “Jean-Baptiste Say”; "Destutt de Tracy"; “Benjamin Constant”; “Charles Comte”; “Charles Dunoyer”; “Frédéric Bastiat”; “Gustave de Molinari”; "Tocqueville, Alexis de (1805-1859)"
- "German Classical Liberalism"; "Immanuel Kant"; "Wilhelm von Humboldt"
- Free Trade Movement; “ Anti-Corn Law League”; “John Bright”; “Richard Cobden”
- “ Feminism and Women's Rights”; “Mary Wollstonecraft”; “Condorcet”
- Abolition of Slavery - “Abolitionism”; “William Wilberforce”; “William Lloyd Garrison”; “John Brown”; “Frederick Douglass”; “Lysander Spooner”
- The Radical Individualists; “Thomas Hodgskin”, “Herbert Spencer”, “Auberon Herbert”
- The “Austrian School of Economics” I; 1st generation - “Carl Menger”, “Eugen von Böhm-Bawerk”; interwar years - “Ludwig von Mises”, “Friedrich Hayek”
- Post-World War 2 Renaissance of Classical Liberalism
- “ Mont Pelerin Society” - “Friedrich Hayek”, “Milton Friedman”, “Karl Popper”, “James Buchanan”
- Institute for Economic Affairs (IEA) & “Antony Fisher”
- Foundation for Economic Education (FEE) & “Leonard Read”
- Institute for Humane Studies (IHS) & “F.A. Harper”
- The Austrian School of Economics II; post-WW2 2nd generation - “Ludwig von Mises”, “Friedrich Hayek”, “Murray N. Rothbard”, “Israel Kirzner”
- “Chicago School of Economics” & “Milton Friedman”
- “Objectivism” & “Ayn Rand”
- “Public Choice Economics” & “James Buchanan”
- " Law and Economics"
I might add that Chapter 2 of The Libertarian Mind, "The Roots of Libertarianism," is a very short guide to many of these movements and people. And The Libertarian Reader collects and curates many of the key texts of liberalism and libertarianism.
Two hundred years ago today, on June 18, 1815, the forces of the self-proclaimed Emperor Napoleon were defeated near Waterloo by a multinational European army. The battle ended years of war in Europe and allowed the rising tide of liberalism to produce a century of relative peace and unprecedented economic and technological progress. As I wrote in The Libertarian Mind (do you have your copy?)
In both the United States and Europe, the century after the American Revolution was marked by the spread of liberalism. Written constitutions and bills of rights protected liberty and guaranteed the rule of law. Guilds and monopolies were largely eliminated, with all trades thrown open to competition on the basis of merit. Freedom of the press and of religion was greatly expanded, property rights were made more secure, international trade was freed....
After the turmoil of the French Revolution and the final defeat of Napoleon in 1815, and with the exception of the Crimean War and the wars of national unification, most of the people of Europe enjoyed a century of relative peace and progress....
This liberation of human creativity unleashed astounding scientific and material progress. The Nation magazine, which was then a truly liberal journal, looking back in 1900, wrote, “Freed from the vexatious meddling of governments, men devoted themselves to their natural task, the bettering of their condition, with the wonderful results which surround us.” The technological advances of the liberal nineteenth century are innumerable: the steam engine, the railroad, the telegraph, the telephone, electricity, the internal combustion engine. Thanks to the accumulation of capital and “the miracle of compound interest,” in Europe and America the great masses of people began to be liberated from the backbreaking toil that had been the natural condition of mankind since time immemorial. Infant mortality fell and life expectancy began to rise to unprecedented levels. A person looking back from 1800 would see a world that for most people had changed little in thousands of years; by 1900, the world was unrecognizable....
Toward the end of the nineteenth century, classical liberalism began to give way to new forms of collectivism and state power....
By the turn of the century the remaining liberals despaired of the future. The Nation editorialized that “material comfort has blinded the eyes of the present generation to the cause which made it possible” and worried that “before [statism] is again repudiated there must be international struggles on a terrific scale.” Herbert Spencer published The Coming Slavery and mourned at his death in 1903 that the world was returning to war and barbarism.
Indeed, as the liberals had feared, the century of European peace that began in 1815 came crashing down in 1914, with the First World War. The replacement of liberalism by statism and nationalism was in large part to blame, and the war itself may have delivered the death blow to liberalism. In the United States and Europe, governments enlarged their scope and power in response to the war. Exorbitant taxation, conscription, censorship, nationalization, and central planning—not to mention the 10 million deaths at Flanders fields and Verdun and elsewhere—signaled that the era of liberalism, which had so recently supplanted the old order, was now itself supplanted by the era of the megastate.
Simon & Schuster has just published The Libertarian Reader: Classic & Contemporary Writings from Lao-Tzu to Milton Friedman, which I edited. Buy it now from any good bookseller!
Just look at some of the great thinkers included in The Libertarian Reader:
- Richard Overton
- John Locke
- Adam Smith
- David Hume
- Thomas Paine
- Thomas Jefferson
- Mary Wollstonecraft
- Alexis de Tocqueville
- Frederic Bastiat
- John Stuart Mill
- Frederick Douglass
- Angelina Grimke
- Herbert Spencer
- Ludwig von Mises
- F. A. Hayek
- Ayn Rand
- Murray Rothbard
- Milton Friedman
- Robert Nozick
- Richard Epstein
- Mario Vargas Llosa
When the first edition was published in 1997, Laissez Faire Books called it “The most magnificent collection of libertarian writings ever published." In this edition, Tom G. Palmer's magisterial guide to "The Literature of Liberty" has been updated to include important libertarian books published in the 21st century. That essay alone is worth the price of the book!
Buy it together with The Libertarian Mind at an incredible discount.
Classical liberals and libertarians have always sought a world in which people are judged as individuals, not as members of groups. Over the centuries most societies have been arranged as hierarchies, with people assigned to classes by birth. The great liberal historian Henry Sumner Maine wrote that the history of civilization was a movement from a society of status to a society of contract — that is, from a society in which each person was born into his place and was defined by his status to one in which the relationships among individuals are determined by free consent and agreement. Liberals argued for “la carrière ouverte aux talents” (“opportunity to the talented”).
Individuals may also be classified by race, religion, sexual orientation, or other characteristics. One of the great achievements of American society has been the progressive extension of the promises of the Declaration of Independence -- life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness -- to people who had been excluded from them. That process has included the abolition of slavery, the civil rights revolution, the women's liberation movement, more recently the gay rights movement.
Lately some people have proclaimed victory in the battle for equal treatment of gays and lesbians. Last month a group of gay marriage supporters urged their allies to be magnanimous in the final period of the "hard-won victory over a social order in which LGBT people were fired, harassed, and socially marginalized" and not to seek to punish remaining dissenters from the new perspective.
But this past weekend has reminded us that we haven't quite achieved "opportunity to the talented." Michael Sam was the Co-Defensive Player of the Year in the country's strongest football conference, yet many people wondered if any NFL team would draft the league's first openly gay player. Turns out they were right to wonder. Here's a revealing chart published in yesterday's Washington Post (based on data from pro-football-reference.com and published alongside this article in the print edition but apparently not online).
Every other SEC Defensive Player of the Year in the past decade, including the athlete who shared the award this year with Michael Sam, was among the top 33 picks in the draft, and only one was below number 17. Does that mean that being gay cost Michael Sam 232 places in the draft, compared to his Co-Defensive Player of the Year? Maybe not. There are doubts about Sam's abilities at the professional level. But there are doubts about many of the players who were drafted ahead of him, in the first 248 picks this year. Looking at this chart, I think it's hard to escape the conclusion that Sam paid a price for being openly gay. That's why classical liberals -- which in this broad sense should encompass most American libertarians, liberals, and conservatives -- should continue to press for a society in which the careers are truly open to the talents. That doesn't mean we need laws, regulations, or mandates. It means that we want to live in a society that is open to talent wherever it appears. As Scott Shackford writes at Reason, Sam's drafting is "a significant cultural development toward a country that actually doesn't care about individual sexual orientation. The apathetic should celebrate this development, as it is a harbinger of a future where such revelations become less and less of a big deal." Let's continue to look forward to a society in which it's not news that a Jewish, Catholic, African-American, Mormon, redneck, or gay person achieves a personal goal.
George H. Smith is one of the best-read, most insightful libertarians living today. He is the author of most of the Cato University Home Study Course, which you should definitely download. He writes a weekly article for Libertarianism.org titled “Excursions into the History of Libertarian Thought.” He is the author of Atheism: The Case Against God (1974), Atheism, Ayn Rand, and Other Heresies (1991), and audio series on “Great Political Thinkers,” “The Meaning of the U.S. Constitution,” and “The Ideas of Liberty.” And finally -- finally -- he has been persuaded to write down much of what he knows about the history of classical liberal thought in a new book from the Cato Institute and the Cambridge University Press, The System of Liberty: Themes in the History of Classical Liberalism.
It's a great study of classical liberalism and the relations among such liberal ideas as individualism, natural rights, utilitarianism, self-sovereignty, and what Lord Acton called “the polar star of liberty.” Along the way he answers such criticisms of liberalism as “atomistic individualism” and “social Darwinism.” It’s a college course in political philosophy in just 217 very readable pages. Buy it now for the low low price of $24.95.
The October, 2011 issue of Cato Unbound tackles some of the foundational questions of political theory: how do we recognize justice? If it's not utopia, is it still good enough to command our respect? Or allegiance? How do we know? Who are the members of the political community? How are they chosen? What counts as a "reason" for political action?
If all of this sounds abstract, rest assured that lead essayist Gerald Gaus is both lucid and engaging. He writes:
Liberalism’s founding insight was the recognition in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries that controversial religious truths could not be the basis of coercive laws and public policies. The task is now to apply this insight to philosophizing about justice itself. This is an extraordinarily difficult lesson for many. Can it really be that I should not endeavor to ensure that my society conforms to my “knowledge” of justice? (Compare: can it really be that my “knowledge” of God’s will should not structure the social order?)
Gaus argues for a "range of justice"—a range of theories that, while perhaps not perfect by anyone's standards, are still close enough to demand our respect, especially given the large benefits that come from freely engaged social cooperation.
Discussing with him this month are a panel of three other prominent social theorists. Richard Arneson argues that we tolerate one another not because we're all pretty close to rational (clearly a lot of us aren't!)—but because intolerance breeds atrocity. Eric Mack argues that classical liberalism is no mere contending sect; it is the right approach to politics, because it offers the greatest leeway for individuals to choose their own ends in life. And Peter J. Boettke argues that any social system that neglects private property will fail to produce a cooperative society in any sense; without market exchange, individuals will fall into strife over scarce resources.
Obviously I won't be able to do justice to their arguments here, so please do check out Cato Unbound, where discussion will continue through the end of the month.