My Country, Wrong and Right

On this Fourth of July, Americans are polarized even on the merits of the nation’s Independence. As Nike pulls a sneaker with the patriotic Betsy Ross flag, it does so in response to Colin Kaepernick’s criticism that the flag and Independence Day are offensive to the descendants of slaves. In contrast to Kaepernick, past civil rights champions extolled a strain of anti-racism that we very much need today: criticism of America with a deep appreciation for the principles we share in common.

The great figures in America’s civil rights tradition fought for racial justice without abandoning love for America and the principles embodied by the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Today, when Americans divide themselves into conservative and radical factions, it helps to remember that many great champions of civil rights were conservative radicals. Thus, the great lion of civil rights, Frederick Douglass, aligned patriotism with civil rights: his Fourth of July speech was a jeremiad tearing down America’s racial wrongs while ending with hope and the fervent belief that the Constitution was a “glorious liberty document” then and a buttress to civil rights in the future. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Dream” speech, with its radical demand for America to make good on a “promissory note” to African Americans, was wrapped in patriotism as well. Conservatives are wrong to claim Douglass and King as conservatives, just as the Left is wrong to emphasize only their radicalism; in truth, both men were conservative radicals. Their view was not the conservative “My country, right or wrong” or the radical “My country, more wrong than right”; the views of Douglass and King might be characterized as “My Country, Wrong and Right.”

Throughout our history, less well-known figures kept the spirit of conservative radicalism alive. In 1813, the African American businessman James Forten denounced racist legislation that, if passed, would have required all blacks in Pennsylvania to register with the police to prove that they were not fugitive slaves. (The measure did not pass). In the same document, Forten noted that Independence Day was a dangerous day for blacks to be in public when they would be assaulted by drunken whites “celebrating” the holiday. Yet, Forten’s fury was directed against those racist whites who asserted that America was not the home of African Americans. Like other “conservative radicals,” Forten believed Independence Day belonged to all Americans. Thus, he opened his petition:

“We hold this truth to be self-evident, that God created all men equal, and [it] is one of the most prominent features in the Declaration of Independence, and in that glorious fabrick of collected wisdom, our noble Constitution. This idea embraces the Indian and the European, the Savage and the Saint, the Peruvian and the Laplander, the white Man and the African, and whatever measures are adopted subversive of this inestimable privilege, are in direct violation of the letter and spirit of our Constitution. . . .”

In the 1870s and 1880s, when white Americans demanded the exclusion of Chinese from immigration to the United States (passed by Congress in 1882), conservative radicals drew upon the Declaration of Independence to fight the odious law that ended the era of free immigration. Senator Joseph Hawley said of the Chinese Exclusion Act:

“A few words in this proposed law may be quoted for a century, not as the opening lines of the Declaration of Independence are quoted, as a comfort, a prophecy, a battle-cry, but on the same page with the edict of Nantes, the innumerable decrees tormenting and banishing and excluding the Jews . . .”

With this and other wrongs done to them, Chinese Americans might have felt offended by the idea that the promise of America had anything to offer them. But they, too, used the Declaration as a “comfort, a prophecy, a battle cry” against racist treatment. In a letter to a newspaper editor, Norman Asing responded to those calling for Chinese Exclusion by stating “The declaration of your independence, and all the acts of your government, your people, and your history are against you.” He was right. Of course, the acts of the U.S. government were wrong in 1882 and future generations of activists drew on the founding principles to finally defeat race-exclusionary immigration laws.

In the twentieth century and beyond, the Declaration and Constitution continued to be a “comfort, a prophecy, a battle cry” for many successful civil rights activists. Whether it was Thurgood Marshall in the nation’s courts, Branch Rickey desegregating baseball diamonds, or Barack Obama breaking the color barrier in the White House, they drew upon those founding documents not as window dressing but as something Americans across the spectrum shared in common.

Racism abounds in American history, but the tradition of patriotic anti-racism has been a powerful force for progress. Whether out of conviction or virtue signaling, today there are many who advertise their anti-racism. But anti-racism that misunderstands the past does little good for achieving real progress in the present. As Mr. Obama declared not so long ago, denying the essential unity of Americans—e pluribus unum—breaks with the philosophy and tactics used in the past to make this a nation worth celebrating on the Fourth of July, and every other day of the year.

Jonathan Bean is a Research Fellow at the Independent Institute and editor of the Independent book, Race & Liberty in America: The Essential Reader.
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