It is a commonplace that being an American is a matter neither of blood nor of cultural connections forged over time. It is, instead, a commitment to a set of ideals famously laid down by the country’s founders, and refined over generations with a notion of progress as a guiding principle. The Declaration of Independence, with Thomas Jefferson’s soaring language about the equality of mankind and the right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” is the most powerful statement of those ideals. It is sometimes called America’s “creed.”
Of course, what it means to be an American is not—has never been—so simple a proposition. Seeing the men most typically described as the “founders” of the United States as sources of inspired ideals equally available to all conflicts with our knowledge of the way most of them saw and treated Native Americans and African-Americans during the founding period. Indeed, for decades now, much of the historiography of the founding has presented a complex story, exploring the many ways in which the Revolution, and the people who made it, fell far short of sharing with all people the Spirit of 1776’s indictment of tyranny and calls for liberty and equality. A good number of the most famous revolutionaries enslaved people, and the ones who did not own slaves chose not to work actively against the institution—even when they recognized that slavery was a great injustice. Some of those same men, eager for westward expansion, talked of removal of Indians whose land would then be taken by white settlers.
Balancing the tragic aspects of the country’s origins against the triumphant is a tricky business. And some may even question whether a balance should be struck, thinking that either tragedy or triumph so obviously predominates that it is unnecessary, if not foolish or immoral, to do any weighing. But it appears that the more complicated narrative, which now includes blacks and Native Americans, has heightened interest in the founding of the United States. People who may have been frustrated reading histories that failed to acknowledge how the past had worked upon their ancestors—or avoided reading them at all—feel part of a searching conversation. That inquiry almost invariably touches on the extent to which the past influences the present on matters of race, for there is every reason to believe that the basic contours of the country’s treacherous racial landscape were fashioned early on in our history.
There have been many occasions of late to think about these matters. A series of widely reported events involving black people and law enforcement has raised anew the question of exactly what type of citizenship African-Americans possess. That the United States has a race…
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