America’s Exceptional Guilt

Editor’s Note: This essay is part of a Law & Liberty symposium on the 1619 Project.

In framing America’s national history as pro-slavery to its core, the Times follows, and intensifies, the critical narrative of the nation’s founding advanced by the 19th century abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison. Interpreting the Constitution through its clauses that directly addressed slavery, Garrison was the first American to denounce the Constitution as “pro-slavery.” He went so far as to burn a copy of the Constitution on stage on July 4, 1854.

A recent generation of historians—operating under the label of “neo-Garrisonian”—has tried to outdo even Garrison’s critique. William Wiecek claimed that at least nine of the Constitution’s clauses directly protected or referred to slavery. Paul Finkelman found eighteen clauses tainted by slavery. David Waldstreicher discovered pro-slavery intent not only in the Constitution’s text, but in its “contradictions, ambiguities, and silences…,” concluding, “The clauses that relate directly to slavery are not exceptions to the Constitution’s remarkable combination of precision and vagueness [regarding slavery]: they epitomize those qualities.” With this neo-Garrisonian critique dominating historical scholarship, it is no surprise that it has affected the broader public discourse; one of the 1619 Project’s lead editorials points directly to Waldstreicher in support of the Project’s somber affirmation, “Our democracy’s founding ideals were false when they were written.”

Yet Garrison’s critique of the American founding was so intense precisely because he believed the nation’s ideals to be true. He called the Declaration of Independence an “infallible instrument.” Though it was written by a “fallible man—a slaveholder,” and signed by “[f]ifty-six fallible men,” Garrison still declared his “faith in the unchangeable rectitude of its principles” which he saw reflected in the plain text of its commitment that “all men are created equal”—regardless of the intent of those who drafted or signed it.

Garrison and the Constitution

In his early effort to reform America’s practices according to its stated ideals, Garrison relied heavily on the Constitution’s promise of freedom of speech, press, and petition. He declared, “free discussion of every thing that concerns the constitution and government, is the indispensable condition, the conservative principle of every republic. The Constitution of our country has fully recognized this conservative principle, in ordaining that no law shall be enacted ‘abridging the freedom of speech or of the press.’” Still, Garrison’s exercise of free speech was challenged at every turn—through the “gag rule” by which Congress denied to hear abolitionist petitions, through Southern laws prohibiting abolitionist publications from circulating through the U.S. mail, and through mob violence designed to intimidate Garrison and other abolitionists into silence.

Where Garrison relied on the plain text of the Constitution (including its amendments) to advocate for the abolition of slavery, his opponents relied on claims about the intent of the Constitution’s framers. In addition to Southern arguments, even some of New England’s leading citizens approached the Constitution as an inviolable compact by which the framers intended for the free states to accept Southern slavery in silence. As Garrison’s movement grew stronger, Harrison Gray Otis—of the famous Otis family, who had served Massachusetts in the U.S. House and Senate and as mayor of Boston—insisted there was “no surprise, no misunderstanding, no concealment of facts or of claims” between North and South when they entered that compact. Former U.S. Senator from Maine, Peleg Sprague, concurred, declaring that the Constitution “does sanction, it does uphold Slavery….” Both shared the sentiment, articulated by Otis, that “the principles of the anti-slavery associations… conflict with the principles of this compact.”

One can understand how Garrison eventually lost his faith in his own interpretation of America’s principles and accepted the rival view that the framers intended for the Constitution to be pro-slavery. Still, it is a tragedy of history that Garrison came to employ his endless passion and unsurpassed rhetorical gifts to advocate for a now-obsolete view of the Constitution—and one held most notoriously by the actual architects of the pro-slavery Constitution, including Chief Justice Roger Taney and John C. Calhoun.

Not only has the view of America’s founding accepted by Taney, Calhoun, and Garrison been utterly discredited in the eyes of history, it was widely rejected even in Garrison’s day by most of his fellow abolitionists, most notably Frederick Douglass. Thus it is hard to understand the ongoing appeal of Garrison’s condemnation of the American founding. It seems the explanation of this appeal is to be found, again, in the continuing influence of Garrison.

Precisely because he believed in the absolute divine truth of America’s ideals as stated in the Declaration, Garrison believed the nation had a unique responsibility to uphold those ideals, and thus bore a unique guilt for the continuation of slavery. He held, “in the view of the civil and religious privileges of this nation, the guilt of its oppression is unequalled by any other on the face of the earth.” Only because Garrison believed America to be exceptional could he believe it to be exceptionally guilty.

American Exceptionalism Redefined

The 1619 Project wholly embraces this inverted view of American exceptionalism—but not necessarily because its creators believe its tendentious historical conclusions to be true. Instead, the Project’s authors play upon the notion of America’s exceptional guilt, which still packs considerable rhetorical power amongst a people who have been historically constituted by the belief that their national experience must both instruct and transform the rest of the world. This cross borne by Americans to ensure their political experience drives the progress of world history gives a powerful moral dimension to American national identity even as it renders us oblivious to any history outside our own. It can feel true to a people like the Americans that a decision made by adventurers in a struggling settlement at the far reaches of the British empire—more than a century before anything resembling an American “nation” had appeared—amounts to a “national sin” that may be unpardonable.

More, under an American national identity constituted as a morality tale, it can feel that we can only truly be seen as American if, and because, we express guilt about the sins of our ancestors. This is a form of national identity that can only be renewed by the continual reliving of those sins. Thus, rather than raising questions of historical interpretation, the 1619 Project should be seen as another ritual renewal of American national identity—a renewal by which many who were previously included in that identity are deemed morally unfit to remain within it.

Garrison viewed American national identity as idolatrous in light of the scriptural teaching, “In Christ Jesus there is neither Jew nor Greek, …neither bond nor free.” More, as he lost his faith in politics, Garrison grew enamored with the apocalyptic belief that “the kingdoms of this world are to become the kingdoms of our Lord and of his Christ; consequently, that they are all to be supplanted, …and he only who is King of kings, and Lord of lords, is to rule in righteousness. The kingdom of God is to be established IN ALL THE EARTH, and it shall never be destroyed, but it shall ‘BREAK IN PIECES AND CONSUME ALL OTHERS….’” His messianic vision of the withering away of the state, coupled with his conceit that he was somehow called to bring it about, have contributed to the common criticism of Garrison as a dangerous fanatic. Perhaps that Garrisonian spirit remains more with us than we think, in the guise of a cosmopolitan class that has arrogated to itself the moral authority to reject, as undemocratic, the results of democratic processes which have aimed to defend nation-states, with their cultural and historical particularities.

The Garrisonian Mandate

For the 1619 Project, though, even the Garrisonian solution—of demanding that Americans open their borders, and their national identity, and unite with the whole world under the banner of equality—is not enough. Instead, in the narrative created by the Times, African-Americans, “by virtue of our bondage… became the most American of all.” Here American national identity is recreated as a moral caste system, an inversion of the “white supremacy” which, as is now held, lurks deep in the hearts of any who decline to participate in the ritual reliving of the sins of our Fathers—even sins going back before most of our actual fathers arrived on these shores. It is difficult to believe the American nation can long endure, half condemned by an original sin that cannot be redeemed and half believing themselves without sin and in a position to cast stones.

America’s national narrative and identity will always be bound up with the notion of American exceptionalism. Some, following Garrison, hold that Americans are exceptional for their doctrine of equality—which all the world must accept, and by which America must accept all the world. Others, deepening Garrison’s critique, hold that (white) Americans are exceptionally guilty. By contrast, Publius held that Americans are exceptional for being the first to face the question, “whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice.” In this way, Publius framed America’s national narrative and identity in terms not racial or moral, but practical. Americans are people—of any race, creed, or origin—who honor the best of the American founding, and improve the worst, by engaging in the free discussion that Garrison, before his loss of faith in politics, called “the conservative principle of every republic.”

Reader Discussion

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on October 02, 2019 at 10:41:25 am

I don't think it's a matter of "continual reliving of those sins" rather than a matter of frankly and honestly addressing sins compounded by a "Racial Ideology" that left in its wake not only a Civil War but also the terrorism and brutality of Phillips County Arkansas, 1919 Chicago Race Riots, Rosewood Florida (1923), Tulsa Oklahoma, et al. The inclusion of these American atrocities (and numerous others) in a frank historical interpretation (and not outliers) is not seeking an American redefinition but an American sobering.

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Image of Anthony
on October 02, 2019 at 17:08:22 pm

As Stephen Stills wrote in 1969: Don’t let the past remind us of what we are not now.

There is entirely too much scholastic rumination about the US, its founding and development. All that is water that has long past under the bridge and over the dam.

What we are facing is the collapse of the idea of popular government and appeals to popular myth and ancient propaganda are what got us this point. It’s time to let all that go.

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Image of EK
on October 03, 2019 at 09:46:39 am

Below EK has an apt quote from Steven Stills.
Here is one from Jackson Browne:

"Don;t remind me of my failures, I have not forgotten them."

Rather sobering, one could say.
And if sobriety is good for both the psyche and the polity, one wonders when certain other groups may be able to reap the benefits of such a sobriety?
Perhaps, Meso-Americans may benefit from a (repeated) recitation of their practice /custom of "child sacrifice", mass slaughter (of up to 20,000 people in one day) before their temples, the enslavement of other tribes and even of their own fellow tribesmen.
Yet now, they are portrayed as nothing but victims of the European and it's vile progeny, the American.

Name one people who a) have not at one time or another been enslaved and b) at one time or another had not enslaved others. Apparently, ONLY the SINS of America are unforgivable.

Do not pretend that this effort is an attempt at "sobering"; it is, and has been for the past 60 years, nothing more than an attempt to REDEFINE what America was, is and will be.

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Image of gabe
on October 04, 2019 at 02:34:09 am

One need only ask, "Exceptional guilt compared to whom?"

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Image of Watt Bradshaw
Watt Bradshaw
on October 04, 2019 at 12:44:40 pm

There is nothing sinful about slavery, per se. One who thinks slavery is a sin is either uneducated or that's his personal view --or most likely, propounded by Black folks with an agenda. There were many slaves who had a style of life far more enjoyable than the life they led in their African tribe and from which they were kidnapped by other Africans and bartered for European goods that supported the "transatlantic slave-trade". No wonder they have no desire to be repatriated to Africa.

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Image of Martin Kessler
Martin Kessler
on October 05, 2019 at 19:22:32 pm

Even a cursory review of American history reveals that the compromise with slavery enshrined in the Constitution did not wear well. Much of the work of the Congress from 1793 to 1861 concerned the admission of new states as "slave" or "free". I do not believe (I could be wrong) that the Constitution required a new state to be one or the other, but Congress somehow made it so.

One alternative in 1792 would have been to create 2 new republics, one slave, one free. The option of a new slavery-free united nation was not an option. The Founders saw slavery in part of the new US as less of a risk to the new Constitutional republic than the prospect of two new republics that would vie with each other for new territory and immigrants, and likely become entangled in foreign alliances to fulfill their ambitions.

Call the dual republics idea "Plan B". We of course will never know how "Plan B" would have worked out. Would it have been worse than Plan A, which lead to the Civil War & Reconstruction, Jim Crow, freedom from foreign entanglements, and produced one nation stretching from "sea to shining sea"?

As for Garrison, once slavery was made Constitutionally illegal throughout the US and former slaves were granted the rights of citizenship (on paper at least), he quickly turned his attention to other social causes like women's suffrage. He ceased publication of The Liberator in December 1865, his work done.

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Image of Brian
on October 06, 2019 at 15:02:38 pm

How would you like to be my slave? I mean since it's neither sinful or all that bad...

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Image of OH Anarcho-Capitalist
OH Anarcho-Capitalist
on October 06, 2019 at 20:37:33 pm

Explain how Trump was elected president for constantly claiming Obama was an illegitimate president because he could not possibly be a US citizen.

Electing a white skinned liar president is certainly Amrrican exceptionalism.

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Image of mulp
on August 10, 2020 at 13:59:20 pm

[…] in his essay for the symposium, Jason Ross explains that the Times’ supposition that America was racist […]

Law & Liberty welcomes civil and lively discussion of its articles. Abusive comments will not be tolerated. We reserve the right to delete comments - or ban users - without notification or explanation.