Donald Trump says he is campaigning to Make America Great again. Democrats like former Attorney General Eric Holder say that we are an “already-great nation.” In politics, of course, both sides think it’s great when their team is in charge but not so great when the other team holds power.
The reality of American greatness is far more complicated. In the summer of 1619, two contradictory strands of our nation’s history began in Jamestown, Virginia. One strand was noble, the other was shameful.
On July 30, the first representative government in the American colonies was established. The House of Burgesses met “to establish one equal and uniform government over all Virginia.” As with many historical firsts, the event itself wasn’t all that great. The heat and humidity were so extreme that many of the 22 elected representatives were sick and one even died. Thus began America’s long and generally successful experiment with self-governance.
However, in a twist of fate worthy of a Greek tragedy, the first enslaved people arrived in Jamestown just a few weeks later. British pirates brought them in after raiding a Portuguese slave trading ship. Most of those sold into slavery that summer were probably literate and Christian. Thus began America’s great national sin, a sin that has haunted the nation for four centuries.
These two narratives — one positive and one negative — have competed and interacted to define America ever since. They are so intertwined that it is not possible to define our nation by looking at either historical narrative on its own.
America is both a nation striving to live up to the high ideals of freedom, equality and self-governance and a nation with a sordid history of racism. Right from the beginning, “American political culture acquired a contradictory quality that it has never entirely shed.” Professors Marc Landy and Sid Milkis note that “An exemplary democratic politics … came to coexist with toleration for the most thoroughgoing dehumanizing oppression and victimization of a large minority of the population.”
What’s especially shameful about all this is that the development of American slavery was a conscious choice made by democratically elected governments. Those first Africans brought to America were treated much like white-indentured servants. Significantly, they were able to earn their freedom after a term of service.
Unfortunately, crony capitalism also came to 17th century America.
About 40 years after those first slaves arrived, colonial legislatures made slavery something that black Americans were born into and could never escape. The new laws created a captive labor force for the colony’s wealthiest land owners. The slave trade never took off in the United States until after these laws were passed. By the time the first official census of the new nation was conducted, 697,624 slaves made up 18 percent of the total population.
That’s what happens when wealthy individuals and political elites use the power of government for their own selfish gains. They trample the rights of others. Electing the right politicians is never enough because democracy without freedom is a disaster waiting to happen.
America is a great nation whenever it lives up to its noble traditions of freedom, equality, and self-governance. Our challenge today is to keep striving to live out those positive values while bringing an end to the negative tradition that mocks our founding ideals.