Essay
09.03.2020

America must be refounded—again and again.

“The art of subversion, of revolution, is to dislodge established customs by probing down to their origins in order to show how they lack authority and justice.”—Blaise Pascal, Pensées

On May 4 of this year, Nikole Hannah-Jones was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in Commentary for her introductory essay to the New York Times Magazine’s 1619 Project. The purpose of the project, as conceived by Hannah-Jones, is “to reframe the country’s history by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of our national narrative.” The Pulitzer Center has reinvented itself as an explicitly identitarian institution and sponsored a 1619-inspired curriculum of agitprop. But one could certainly imagine a version of the project—had it been pursued with intellectual integrity—that might have had some validity. Even if you think Nikole Hannah-Jones is writing in good faith and making good points, however, her project is tragically self-defeating.

The title of Hannah-Jones’s essay is her thesis: “Our founding ideals were false when they were written. Black Americans have fought to make them true.” That thesis is played out in a sweeping overview of American history, beginning in 1619 with the first arrival of African slaves to Virginia, and culminating in the Civil Rights Era.

The second part of this thesis is simply true: black Americans have fought to make our nation’s ideals into reality. Hannah-Jones is at her most compelling when describing the abuse heaped on black veterans of WWII as they returned home from combat. One feels her deep personal connection to these stories, her empathy for these scorned men mediated by love for her veteran father. Likewise, her wistful description of Reconstruction, and its defeat by racial ressentiment, should make any person of goodwill pine for what might have been, what should have been.

But her first claim, that our founding ideals were never intended to be realized, is supported in many places by intentionally misleading or simply false history. Her charge that the American Revolution was fought in order to preserve the institution of slavery has been justly eviscerated by the ablest scholars of that era. The Times issued a (still misleading) correction, but only after historian Leslie M. Harris of Northwestern University revealed that she had pointed out the error during a pre-publication fact-check and was ignored by Hannah-Jones.

Their perseverance in this error is telling. The 1619 Project, for all its merits, is committed to a Manichaean vision of reality: everything base in American history originates with white people, while everything virtuous can be attributed to black people. This is a mimetic inversion of the noxious belief “that black people are the obstacle to national unity,” which Hannah-Jones takes pains to attribute even to Abraham Lincoln.

Hannah-Jones paints an uncharitable portrait in which Lincoln is just another racist—perhaps less so than many others, but still undeserving of sympathy, no matter his achievements, which in any case weren’t pursued with the proper motivations.

Here, the historiography is as tragically ironic as it is bankrupt. The 1619 Project is intended not just to “reframe” American history, but to refound the nation. Hannah-Jones writes that “black Americans, as much as those men cast in alabaster in the nation’s capital, are this nation’s true “founding fathers.”’

This desire to honor the achievements of black Americans cannot be fulfilled by refounding the nation in 1619. To do so would be to negate her true refounding, which occurred in 1863.

Bloodshed and a New Birth

President Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address on November 19, 1863 at the consecration ceremony for the Soldiers’ National Cemetery, nearly five months after the bloodiest episode of the Civil War. The Battle of Gettysburg had halted General Lee’s second and final push into the North—at the cost of as many as 51,000 casualties, roughly 8,000 of which were deaths.

The war was not yet won, but General Lee’s army was scattered and demoralized, and the Union’s victory seemed imminent. Already Lincoln was looking ahead to the impossible task of knitting together the nation’s wounds. The war—and the barbaric institution of chattel slavery that necessitated it—had called into question the very possibility of republican government.

Lincoln was convinced that the future of popular sovereignty the world over rested on not just the outcome of the war, but on what must follow it: the repair of those “mystic chords of memory,” and the restoration of faith in the Declaration of Independence. Lincoln knew he must refound the republic.

Blaise Pascal understood that all regimes are founded on violence: the strong establish themselves over the weak, and in time the usurpation is forgotten. “The truth about the usurpation must not be made apparent,” wrote Pascal: “it came about organically without reason and has become reasonable.” What was arbitrary in origin may be developed along rational lines—just as monarchic Rome matured into a republic.

Harry V. Jaffa, riffing on Pascal in A New Birth of Freedom (2000), observes that Lincoln refused to arrogate to himself unconstitutional power during the war because doing so would undermine his authority to refound the nation. This is why Lincoln delayed so long in issuing the Emancipation Proclamation, which freed the slaves and allowed them to fight in the Union army.

“Military necessity had enabled the federal government to do lawfully what the Constitution hitherto had prevented it from doing,” writes Jaffa. “For that government to have acted against slavery in the states except under the exigencies of the war would … have meant usurping powers to which the people of the United States had not given their consent. It would thus, [Lincoln] thought, have defeated the very ends of human freedom.” The Gettysburg Address served as an apologia for the Proclamation and paved the way for the Thirteenth Amendment by recalling the nation to its founding ideals in the only context in which such a refounding was possible.

In his remarkable study The Dominion of the Dead (2003), Robert Pogue Harrison argues that all human habitation and culture—the home, the city, even the nation—are founded upon the marked grave. “It is not for nothing that the Greek word for ‘sign,’ sema, is also the word for ‘grave,” writes Harrison: the memorial to the dead is the wellspring and focal point of all meaning. Lincoln’s genius at Gettysburg was his recognition that the living are incapable of founding anything on their own. “We cannot consecrate—we cannot hallow—this ground,” he proclaimed. “The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract.”

According to Harrison, “Lincoln’s address is the sema, or grave marker. Its speech act makes of that ground a place or the place where the nation finds itself, on which it must found, or refound, its republic.”

The South’s secession was more than an insurrection. It was an apostasy from the founding faith of the Republic. The doctrine that “all men are created equal” had been ratified not by any legislative body but by the blood spilled in the Revolution. Lincoln understood that the nation could not experience a “new birth of freedom” without regrounding that doctrine in a new sacrifice.

Lincoln himself, at his assassination, would provide a seal for that sacrifice and become the last martyr of his own cause. The legacy of those martyred for cleaving to the idea that every human bears an irreducible divine dignity encompasses the entire history of man. The martyrdom of Martin Luther King, Jr. is in this sense no less salient than that of Lincoln.

It is fitting that Lincoln structured the logic and language of his address on the King James Bible. Scripture supplied not only the shared idiom of the nation, but the originary source—and final justification—of the idea that “all men are created equal.” The doctrine of the Imago Dei, unique to the Jewish and Christian faiths, provides the only coherent ground for the idea of human rights. Only if we are made in the image of God does our humanity make us inherently deserving of life and liberty.

In its trinitarian rendering, the Imago Dei means that no human is complete unto him- or herself. As God exists in tripartite self-relation, so we are human by virtue of our relationship with the other—other humans as well as God, who is wholly other. St. Paul wrote in Ephesians that Christ, by his blood, had made Jews and Gentiles into one people, and again in Galatians that “there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

The deaths of America’s soldiers, as well as Lincoln’s own death not long afterward, provided the Christlike sacrifice needed to break down our national barriers and sustain Lincoln’s refounding. It was not mere coincidence that Lincoln was assassinated on Good Friday.

The Game Plan

Any effort to “reframe” American history motivated by a genuine desire for equality and historical fidelity must take into account Lincoln’s “new birth of freedom,” even if only to judge it, at the last, stillborn. Of course, while de jure racism has been defeated, Americans disagree on the extent it should be blamed for lasting effects upon those living today. Clearly it is plausible to many that its legacy of traumas—shattered families, dysfunctional communities, brutalized bodies—might be experienced by some as “systemic.” Still, even if one deems this country to have failed utterly to honor the divine dignity of its black citizens, that very judgment entails an affirmation of the Imago and the Declaration of Independence. Why, then, does Nikole Hannah-Jones take such pains to discount it by speciously disparaging Lincoln?

The answer is that Hannah-Jones is interested not in securing equality, but in enforcing equity of outcome—an idea utterly foreign to the American project. Her claim that black Americans have fought to make our founding ideals true, while indisputable, is meant to provide false assurance that she believes those ideals are worth fighting for. But the ultimate effect of her work is to discredit those ideals by eroding their foundation.

Under the logic of the Declaration, enforced equity would constitute a form of tyranny and an abrogation of equal dignity. Equity can only be achieved by enforcing a uniformity of opinions, passions, and interests among a populace. But “the diversity in the faculties of men,” as Madison wrote in Federalist #10, is “an insuperable obstacle to a uniformity of interests.” Any effort to replace equality with equity as the nation’s tēlos requires denying the Declaration, and by extension natural law.

Lincoln’s refounding of America, then, must be discredited, a task Hannah-Jones can only accomplish by convincing her readers that Lincoln did not really believe in the full humanity of black people. To this end she cites his repeated assurance to white voters that he would not countenance black people becoming “politically and socially our equals,” along with his support for the proposal that freed slaves be shipped as colonists to another country.

Naturally, she ignores the mountain of evidence that Lincoln was employing a double-script, telling whites what he believed they needed to hear in the present in order for full equality to be achieved in the future (he even called the colonization proposal a “barbarous humbug”). Nor does she acknowledge the inconvenient fact that Lincoln was assassinated by a white supremacist because he sought full citizenship, including voting rights, for black Americans.

Hannah-Jones has honed her craft and public ethos as a writer and intellectual since her college days, but she has maintained her Manichaean worldview, so much so that she considered it “an honor” when Charles Kesler suggested that the recent “uprisings” be called the “1619 riots” for their destruction of historical memory. She has even justified the violence and wanton destruction of those riots as a necessary tool to make white people pay attention to black suffering.

Contemporary progressives are historicists: they understand history as a moral trajectory toward justice in which essentialized ethnic and sexual minorities struggle against white, heterosexual bearers of privilege. And indeed, conditions are presently favorable for those who desire, as one regional leader of BLM put it, to “burn down this system and replace it.”

But a full measure of revolutionary violence may be unnecessary to achieve the ends Hannah-Jones and BLM have in mind.

If “equality” loses its meaning as traditionally understood according to the Declaration, then the word can be made to mean anything those with institutional power choose, including “equity.” Because even the conservative legal establishment largely rejects the Declaration’s authority, revolution is likely overkill. “Substantive” due process, untethered to natural law, has thus far proved an effective device for contorting the Constitution to advance our elites’ will to power. Perhaps in time it will be used to enforce the uniformity of thought necessary to bring about equity.

The cruel irony is that Hannah-Jones and her allies are in fact advancing the same “ingenious sophism” John C. Calhoun employed to defend the institution of slavery and pave the way for secession. The protection of absolute state rights, and thus of slavery, from a hostile legislative majority required severing those rights from natural law.

As Jaffa summarizes, nature for Calhoun was only “a record of cause and effect” and not “a source of moral principles.” Only in the domain of pure immanence could the mere fact of slavery’s existence suffice to justify its continuance; nothing must be allowed to threaten the identification of “is” with “ought.” Underlying Calhoun’s thought “are the premises of historicism, positivism, relativism, and nihilism—premises that have become the conventional wisdom of our time.”

These are also the premises of Hegel’s “cunning of history” and Marx’s dialectic, Hitler’s National Socialism and Stalin’s purges, as well as Taney’s jurisprudence in Dred Scott and Blackmun’s in Roe v. Wade. When such premises lead to just outcomes, it is merely an accident of arbitrary human will.

Hannah-Jones sees clearly the injustice wrought by the belief that “might makes right,” and yet she is unable to recognize that so much of the movement to which she belongs has embraced the nihilistic historicism on which that ideology depends. She is not truly anti-Calhoun, but merely Calhoun turned upside-down. This blindness, if it persists, will ensure that whatever is gained in this current season of activism will be secured on unstable ground, and thus easily lost or subverted when history changes sides.

An inevitable consequence of Hannah-Jones’s Manichaean worldview is her own cooptation by the system she decries. If all of America’s institutions are irredeemably corrupted by the legacy of slavery, then what of the New York Times and the Pulitzer Center? At the very least, the “anti-racist” efforts of legacy institutions must be considered suspect.

And in fact, from its inception, the 1619 Project has served the interests of the predominately white professional-managerial class. Despite the prominence of black activists like Hannah-Jones, white people are significantly more “woke” on race than non-white people. White elites drive the discourse and promote an endlessly broadening definition of racism, which requires education and training to understand, thereby distinguishing themselves from the white working class.

Mainstream anti-racist discourse, for which the 1619 Project is meant to provide an intellectual framework, is thus a technology of social control that sustains and reproduces the managerial class. Even the social chaos caused by the discourse redounds to the benefit of the managerial elite. The police may very well be abolished, but only to be replaced by battalions of social workers, administrators, and “community police”—that is, ideological adepts with truncheons and firearms.

This was inevitable. Lacking a stable grounding in natural law, Marxism (and let us not pretend that critical race theory isn’t of Marxist vintage) could not prevent devolving into its opposite. One nihilism opened the way for another, more persuasive, nihilism. Because the 1619 Project implicitly rejects natural law, it will only ever be a servant of power, and not necessarily the power of its authors. Its refounding of America in 1619 is nothing other than a refounding in neoliberalism.

The Hope of all Nations

This is a tragedy. An honest reckoning with our nation’s past is necessary if the best in that past is to be handed down to future generations. And what is that best if not the recognition that humans are created equal, “stamped with the Divine image and likeness,” in Lincoln’s words, and thus the bearers of intrinsic, rational dignity, of natural rights and responsibilities? And whose legacy is more deserving of honor and preservation than those who, like Lincoln and Martin Luther King, Jr., gave the full measure of sacrifice in defense of that truth? As Christ said, “True love has no one greater than this: that he lay down his life for his friends.”

The most heartbreaking of Hannah-Jones’s failures is that her assault on the Declaration of Independence required her to elide entirely the role black Christians have played in shaping what is most beautiful about America. The closest she comes to discussing black faith is in dismissing it as imposed by slaveowners in place of their ancestral faiths.

This both denies black agency in matters of faith and ignores the profound creative legacy of black spirituality on the Christian world more broadly. Black Christians have been instrumental in raising the social consciousness of American Christianity and in catalyzing its eschatological longing. For example, the final verse of “Amazing Grace”—

when we’ve been there ten thousand years
bright shining as the sun
we’ve no less days to sing God’s praise
than when we’d first begun

—was written by black slaves. Hannah-Jones ignores an entire world of beauty because giving that world its due would undermine her goal of marginalizing the Declaration in America’s historical consciousness.

Moreover, it is Christianity itself—which transcends race and makes one brotherhood of all men—that gave Americans of every generation reason to believe in the equality of all. Were we to identify a seventeenth-century origin point for America, it would be not 1619 but 1620, when the Puritans of the Mayflower dropped anchor near the tip of Cape Cod. To erase those Christian origins is to destroy the basis for anti-racism of all kinds, in America and beyond her borders.

Of course, if America is ever to realize the Puritan John Winthrop’s vision of a “city on a hill”—a true sema that reorients the wider world to a recognition of the Imago Dei—her Christians must learn from the long-suffering Christlikeness of their brothers and sisters, including those who have suffered racial injustice. For Christians, our work is not done unless each of us is able to see the image of God in every American, and every human face. This is the true underpinning—human beings, created equal—of the American notion of equality under the law.

As terrible as our current national crises are, they also offer another opportunity for refounding. Carolyn Marvin and David Ingle write that “what constitutes the nation in any moment is the memory of the last successful blood sacrifice that counts for living group members. In the United States this is World War II, fast receding in its effect as a national unifier…. Lacking that memory, we must search for new sacrifices.” A refounding consonant with Lincoln’s is now necessary if America is to have a recognizable future.

I’ll conclude with a quote from an 1831 statement issued by black leaders in New York who were opposed to that “barbarous humbug” of colonization. Hannah-Jones quotes from the same document in her 1619 introduction as part of her attempt to discredit Lincoln. Unsurprisingly, she whittles away the leaders’ references to God and the Declaration and their fathers’ willingness to die for its ideals. But in full it is more fitting a conclusion to this essay than anything I could write myself:

We do not believe that things will always continue the same. The time must come when the Declaration of Independence will be felt in the heart as well as uttered from the mouth, and when the rights of all shall be properly acknowledged and appreciated. God hasten that time. This is our home, and this is our country. Beneath its sod lie the bones of our fathers; for it, some of them fought, bled and died. Here we were born, and here we will die.

is an associate editor at Arc Digital and teaches writing at the University of California, Irvine.

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