The Quest of America’s Founders Has Always Been Unfulfilled

We get it that it is hard to for so many Americans to think of America as a story. Because the story of America is like the story of every other nation in that it is a mixture of the good and bad, happy and sad, horrifying and glorifying.

But that also means that, if Christianity is the story we are in, then the Quest of America’s Founders does fit with the story we are in.

Securing those unalienable rights would be a quest which humanity needs – given who we are in the story, the inciting incident in the story, and the unfolding drama which followed.

Of course, that quest of your Founders has never been fulfilled. But that doesn’t mean it still shouldn’t be pursued – if Christianity is the story we are in.

But — if Christianity is the story we are in, it never will be fulfilled in the story of the United States. America is a temporary political arrangement in the midst of this movement in the larger story.

Remember, this is our sense of the ending payoff in the story in the Bible…

Ending Payoff

Movement One

The King Suddenly Comes

Movement Two

The Gospel Spreads to the Ends of the Earth

Movement Three

The Return of the King

Our team thinks we would be in that second movement right now.

So now, let’s take a closer look at how the quest of America’s Founders has been unfulfilled.

The more our team works on this crazy assignment, the more grateful we are to Robert McKee — in so many ways.

As you know, our team is very interested in coming to understand what you Christians in America really want, here in the story.

And McKee helped us to see just how valuable that is…

More often than not, confusion in story is due to a confusion of desire. It’s when you do not understand what your character wants, that the story goes left and right, up and down, forward and backward and confuses you, because you cannot find that spin of action. You cannot find what it is the character wants, and therefore is constantly struggling to achieve it. And so it becomes confusing.

The same thing would be true of life. When you’re stifled in life, and feel stuck and you don’t feel like you’re living your life fully, the best answer I know, the best way I know to get back on track is to ask yourself the same question: What do I want? What do I really, really want? In the midnight of my soul, ask yourself that question and come up with the honest answer. And then have the courage to pursue that desire. And life becomes a lot more livable.

Doesn’t necessarily mean that your story’s going to have a happy ending. You may or may not get what you want out of life. But at least when you’re pursuing a desire that in your heart you really want, and not what other people want, not what you think you should want and all that. But when you’re pursuing a desire that you really, really want, then as I said, life becomes livable. And your life story comes to life.

Robert McKee, Q&A: How Do We Live a Better Story?


And Robert McKee’s insight also helped us change how we thought about the Quest of America’s Founders.

Notice what McKee had said…

You may or may not get what you want out of life.

And that sure fits with the story of America…

America’s founders, including Padre Serra, dreamed of a nation in which men and women from every race, religion, and national background could live in equality as brothers and sisters, children of the same God. Their vision helped make this a great nation, exceptional in human history—blessed with freedom and committed to sharing our blessings with the whole human race. Our history has not been pure. It has been filled with tragedy and violent betrayals of our deepest values.

A NEW STORY FOR A NEW AMERICA, by Jose Gomez, First Things, May 23, 2018

As is customary for U.S. presidents around this time of year, President Obama this week recognized Loyalty Day with a lofty proclamation extolling American democracy, freedom and shared national purpose. This year’s version spoke of how America is defined not by “similarities of origin or creed,” but by “our dedication to common ideals,” including “an overarching belief in the possibilities our shared future holds.”


We’re all for recognizing the strengths of American democracy, even during its ebbs (this presidential election may be one), and for highlighting the dreams and desires that undergird the Constitution. But it’s also important to recognize our full history and not gloss over those moments when we fell short of our aspirations, and those “common ideals” the president mentioned.

Not to be a downer, but here’s a reality check on ‘Loyalty Day’, By THE TIMES EDITORIAL BOARD, Los Angeles Times, April 29, 2016

The American escutcheon is indeed sullied by original sin, but that sin is largely one of omission rather than commission. Flawed as it is, the United States was not founded on inadequate or abominable or “racist” principles, but upon extraordinary, revolutionary, and unusually virtuous propositions that, tragically, have all too often been ignored. As written, there is not a great deal wrong with the central tenets of the Declaration of Independence; rather, the disgraces that pepper the history books derive from the selective manner in which those tenets have been applied. If one is so minded, one can reasonably propose that Revolution-era America was chock-full of hypocrites, and that the lofty ideals to which the Founders paid eloquent lip service were routinely disregarded when deemed inconvenient. But to conclude that those ideals themselves are rotten is to commit an elemental reasoning error. As one would not examine an incident of marital infidelity and presume that the wedding vows must necessarily have been defective, one should not infer from the Founders’ betrayals that their essential precepts were in some way unsound. They weren’t. Man, as ever, is imperfect.

No, Bernie, America Was Not Actually Founded ‘on Racist Principles’, By Charles C. W. Cooke, National Review, September 15, 2015

Admittedly, America’s devotion to its ideals has always been incomplete and imperfect; in its early years it tolerated slavery and in more recent times it has done deals with dictators. Nor have our ideals always translated into foreign policy success; sometimes, as in Vietnam or Iraq, they have led us astray. But, on the whole, the United States has been more generous and less self-interested than any other great power in history — and that approach has made it the most successful nation in the world over the past two centuries.

We Didn’t Kick Britain’s Ass to Be This Kind of Country, by Max Boot, Foreign Policy, July 3, 2017

The nation’s commitment to pluralism, egalitarianism, and unity around shared principles rather than cultural, tribal, or subnational bonds is what makes America unique among nations. It will never stop striving to achieve the ideals of its founding; ideals are, after all, often unattainable. But its shared creed is the North Star toward which the United States has looked for a quarter millennium.

Why America Is Great, By NOAH ROTHMAN, Commentary Magazine, August 16, 2018

The creed is relevant not just because it produces America’s divisions and aspirations, but because it provides a spare, elegant definition of what it means to be American. It is not about ethnic identity or religious faith, Huntington writes, but about political belief. “We hold these truths to be self-evident,” begins the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence, and Huntington uses the line to define us. “Who holds these truths? Americans hold these truths. Who are Americans? People who adhere to these truths. National identity and political principle were inseparable.”

In this telling, the American Dream matters most because it is never fulfilled, the reconciliation of liberty and inequality never complete. Even so, “American Politics” is not an entirely pessimistic book. “Critics say that America is a lie because its reality falls so short of its ideals,” Huntington writes in its final lines. “They are wrong. America is not a lie; it is a disappointment. But it can be a disappointment only because it is also a hope.

Samuel Huntington, a prophet for the Trump era, By Carlos Lozada, Washington Post, July 18, 2017

We are neither unum nor pluribus, but e pluribus unum — a diverse people held in tension by a common creed. And what is that creed? It is a belief in the inherent dignity of every human being enshrined in principles of freedom, equality, and justice. 

If this seems trite, it is only because these eternal truths have devolved into punchlines. One of the biggest weaknesses of the Right may be that it has lacked a compelling story of American history embodied by the American creed. The thousands of young people flocking to see “Hamilton” on stage are, in part, desiring a story of America’s Founding that is not blinded to its sins but redeems them in a way that gives fresh purpose to the American project. Our Founding is, just like us, imperfect and flawed but a precious miracle, too. 

Conservatism in the Age of Millennials, By Michael Hendrix, Real Clear Policy, July 24, 2018

Believing that America is a special country does not require us to ignore the sins of our past. On the contrary, how we overcame them is a testament to how special our nation truly is. Ending slavery, women’s suffrage, the civil rights movement –  every one of our great social causes has been an effort to bring us closer to fulfilling our powerful founding truth, that all men and women are children of God, born with rights given to them by their Creator, not their leaders or their government.

This is what made the American Revolution so unique. It did not seek to establish a home for a people bound together by a common blood or common soil, but rather a home for a people united in a quest to protect and preserve our God given rights. And so while we have never been completely true to our founding idea, it is a testament to America’s greatness that for over two centuries each generation has fought and succeeded to move us closer to it.

That is why pledging allegiance to our flag or standing for our national anthem is not about ignoring what our nation has gotten wrong. It is about honoring a 253 year-old revolution that continues to this day. Nothing is more American than the belief that all men are created equal. Nothing is more American than the belief that every human being is endowed by God with an inalienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Rubio Delivers Remarks at Faith & Freedom Coalition’s Road to Majority Conference, Marco Rubio US Senator for Florida, June 7 2018

But we do recognize that just like almost anyone’s personal story, the story of America is a mix…

LIFE IN AMERICA IS ALWAYS getting better and worse at the same time. Progress comes at a cost, even if it is often worth that cost. Misery beckons relief, so that our virtues often turn up where our vices have been. Decay and decadence almost always trail behind success, while renewal chases ruin. And in a vast society like ours, all of this is always happening at once. That means there are no simple stories to tell about the state of our country, and that upbeat and downcast social analyses are often just partial descriptions of one complex whole. 

Yuval Levin, The Fractured Republic

America’s story is a glorious adventure — not a grim catalogue of irredeemable sins. The sinners-in-the-hands-of-an-angry-progressive-god sermonizing that comes at us in endless, stultifying repetition from the press, Hollywood, and academia — today’s hysterical, bug-eyed, Puritan witch-burners — is the acid-bath dissolving our culture and our nation.

America’s Next Civil War Will Be Worse Than Our Last, H. W. CROCKER III, The American Spectator, July 26, 2018

But, if Christianity is the story we are in, we came to see there is something in your story which you cannot just push away.

One day, Paula Wong showed us this…

And so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.

I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.”

“I Have a Dream,” Speech Given by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Washington, D.C., August 28, 1963

That was his desire, expressed in what is now one of the most famous speeches in the story of humanity.

And it caught our attention in the first part of the speech how he expressed the reality that the Quest of the American Founders was not yet fulfilled…

Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation. This momentous decree came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice. It came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of their captivity.

But one hundred years later, the Negro still is not free. One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. One hundred years later, the Negro is still languished in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land. And so we’ve come here today to dramatize a shameful condition.

In a sense we’ve come to our nation’s capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the “unalienable Rights” of “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note, insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked “insufficient funds.”

But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. And so, we’ve come to cash this check, a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.

“I Have a Dream,” Speech Given by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Washington, D.C., August 28, 1963

So now we’re going to share with you how the simple story question, “Who are we, here in the story?”, helped open our eyes to the reality that the quest of America’s Founders has still not been fulfilled.

And that simple question also helped us to see how their unfulfilled quest has continued to shine a spotlight on the binary core value of loyal love/betrayal in the story of America.

When our team began to take a closer look at the story of America, we saw you that Americans have always been fighting among yourselves over the simple story question…

Who are we, here in the story?

So, we came to see that you can’t understand America’s story without recognizing this…

Frederick Douglass

What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer: a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciations of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade, and solemnity, are, to him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy — a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages.

Frederick Douglass, “What to the Slave is the 4th of July?” July 5, 1852

And by the way, there is something you should know about Douglass himself in relation to story…

One of the era’s greatest orators and a spellbinding storyteller, Douglass was easily the most famous black man in America. In a series of vivid and riveting autobiographies, he had described his hard-fought rise from slavery to freedom, suggesting that his story might one day be taken as a blueprint for black emancipation. Central to that narrative was his encounter, at age sixteen, with a “negro-breaker” named Edward Covey, who repeatedly beat and humiliated the young man until finally he “resolved to fight.” For Douglass, this battle “was the turning point in my career as a slave.” It structured his understanding of race relations in the United States, shaped his belief that slavery was a form of warfare enacted by one race upon another. Convinced that abolition could not be accomplished through moral suasion or legislative maneuvering alone, Douglass argued that life was struggle, that freedom had to be secured through resistance, conflict, and a fierce effort in which one’s very being was risked but in which the slave might achieve “manhood,” self-respect, and survival. 

Randall Fuller, The Book That Changed America

That has the attention of our team, because…

The story of the Negro in America is the story of America. It is not a pretty story.

James Baldwin, in I Am Not Your Negro

And now consider this…

SLAVERY! How much misery is comprehended in that single word. What mind is there that does not shrink from its direful effects! Unless the image of God is obliterated from the soul, all men cherish the love of Liberty. The nice discerning political economist does not regard the sacred right, more than the untutored African who roams in the wilds of Congo. Nor has the one more right to the full enjoyment of his freedom than the other. In every man’s mind the good seeds of Liberty are planted, and he who brings his fellow down so low, as to make him contented with a condition of slavery, commits the highest crime against God and man.

Brethren, your oppressors aim to do this. They endeavor to make you as much like brutes as possible. When they have blinded the eyes of your mind-when they have embittered the sweet waters of life – when they have shut out the light which shines from the word of God – then, and not till then has American slavery done its perfect work.

Henry Highland Garnet Urges Slaves to Resist, August 1843

“Speech by Henry Highland Garnet,” in The Black Abolitionist Papers, Vol. III, ed. C. Peter Ripley, Jeffrey S. Rossback, associate editor. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press (1985).

So, if Christianity is the story we are in, then Americans have a right to be critical of America’s Founders and those who followed after them for allowing the continuance of slavery in America.

No one had debated slavery as an issue publicly since the ratification of the Constitution in 1788 and 1789. On July 13, 1787, Congress unanimously passed the Northwest Ordinance, forbidding all slavery and involuntary servitude in the areas north and west of the Ohio River. The spirit of the law, if not the letter, seemed to suggest that slavery would never expand into the western territories. Congress, in 1787, met in New York. Only three weeks later, on August 8, 1787, the Constitutional Convention, meeting in Philadelphia, took up the issue of slavery. The issue deeply divided the authors of the Constitution. Men such as John Dickinson, Rufus King, and George Mason fought bitterly against any sanction of slavery, while Charles Pinkney and John Rutledge fought equally fiercely in favor of it. To suggest, as some conservatives have done as a way to explain slavery, that the Founders were simply men of their times is offensive not only to the Founders but to the free will of all human beings. Humans have been arguing about the merits and evils of slavery since slavery came into existence, and James Madison’s notes on the convention reveal that the Founders knew exactly what they were doing when they wrote the three compromises allowing slavery. To be sure, the issue was extremely complicated in 1787, but not a single Founder went along with the institution or attempted to retard it because he was merely a man of his times. The debates over slavery were, understandably, brutal, and the majority of delegates decided to vote for the institution rather than lose South Carolina and Georgia.

When most Northerners agreed to the three compromises in the Constitution, they saw them as a means for the South to wean itself from slavery gradually but certainly. It’s not as clear that Southerners saw it the same way, but no Southerner in 1787 would justify the institution as anything other than a shameful embarrassment.

As such, the country ignored the issue for the next thirty years. When 1819 came around, then, and Missouri applied for admission into the Union as a slave state, the country was in no shape to deal with such a crisis. Northerners, for the most part, had believed that the South was carefully ridding itself of the institution, but the South was, in fact, getting more and more used to it and dependent upon it. Given that news traveled slowly, as did people and goods, it’s not surprising that the two sections of the country could have evolved so radically away from one another in a sort of blissful ignorance over three decades.

When America Was Really Polarized, by Bradley J. Birzer, The Imaginative Conservative, October 17, 2018

That’s all a problem, of course, if Christianity is the story we are in.

But if we’re in our version of the story, then here in the story we’re ultimately nothing more than dust — and dust certainly has no unalienable rights.

And neither do animals.

But the unique formula of freedom which American Founders created was a result of a change in the direction of human thinking which had taken a very long time…

[F]rom their earliest days, Christians had argued for the fundamental equality of all people based on their creation in the image of God and Jesus’ sacrificial death for all. Thus early Christians worked to abolish slavery and over time developed the idea of civil equality to accompany spiritual and moral equality. No other civilization anywhere in history ever moved in this direction — only the West, under the influence of Christian principles.

Dr. Glenn Sunshine, Why You Think the Way You Do: The Story of Western Worldviews from Rome to Home

‘What is the West about?” asks Larry Siedentop, an emeritus fellow of Keble College, Oxford. Years of reflecting on the character of Western societies lead him to an answer that resembles the one given by most political thinkers: namely, that the West is about liberty, with official authority deriving from the people themselves and with official institutions having only a limited say in the conduct of the citizen and the course of society. But Mr. Siedentop’s full answer is unusual. In “Inventing the Individual,” he asks where the Western understanding of liberty comes from and finds—unlike most political thinkers—that its source is Christianity.

This part of the answer, as Mr. Siedentop notes, may prove irritating, because it flies in the face of the comfortable idea that democratic liberty, like modern science, grew out of the 18th-century Enlightenment and, in particular, out of the Enlightenment’s struggle against a reactionary and oppressive church. Not so, he says. Western freedom centers on the notion of the responsible individual endowed with a sovereign conscience and unalienable rights, and that notion emerged, in stages, during the centuries between Paul the Apostle and the churchmen of the Middle Ages.

Where ‘I’ Comes From, By David Gress, Wall Street Journal, Dec. 19, 2014

These truths are written on the human heart and might have been self-evident to the American Founders.  It still took hundreds of years of Europeans being told that all men are created in God’s image for that truth to become the cornerstone of a nation. And even the Founders didn’t apply it consistently.

James Robison and Jay W. Richards, Indivisible

And that last sentence is an understatement!

Because if Christianity is the story we are in, it’s not just inconsistency — it’s betrayal.

One way of helping you see this betrayal in America’s story is by considering…

…how racism, slavery, and the denial of civil rights in America flowed from…

a rejection of the belief human beings are made in the image and likeness of God, 


a corresponding denial that human beings who were members of certain races were actually human beings.

And this connects to the simple story questions which are dividing America…

Which story are we in?

Who are we, here in the story?

That simple question was very prominent in the struggle for freedom from slavery in America… 

Black churches’ defense of human dignity derived from their acceptance of the truth of man’s creation in the image of God. The inherent moral dignity of the black individual is one central theme consistent from plantation churches to the black churches of the 1950s.

New Leadership Needed for King’s Other Dreams, by Anthony Bradley, Acton Institute, January 12, 2005

The great civil rights crusades of the 1950s and 60s were led by Christians claiming the Scriptures and asserting the glory of the image of God in every human being regardless of race, religion, age or class.

The Manhattan Declaration

And if Christianity is the story we are in, what happened in America’s story was a betrayal.

But not just any kind of betrayal.

This was a betrayal of both your God had who created them — and the fellow image bearers they had a responsibility to love and protect, according to the second greatest commandment.

When you step back far enough from it, you’ll recognize the astonishing nature of this betrayal.

But remember — our team doesn’t actually view this as a betrayal, because our version of the story we are in means that everything here in the story is ultimately meaningless.

We agree with Robert McKee…

But yes, to get to the heart of the question, because life is intrinsically meaningless, we are on this planet, no matter what people of faith may believe, from my point of view, as an accident of nature. The earth could have been lifeless, or it could have had life. That life could have remained unconscious and genetically driven or conscious the way it is for us, for human beings.

It’s an accident. And consequently, there’s no intrinsic meaning. …. There’s this statement, my statement, that there’s no intrinsic meaning to life.

Robert McKee, Storylogue, July 05, 2011

That’s what we believe too. It’s all ultimately meaningless. Sure, we can feel meaning in the here and now, but there is no ultimate meaning.

So if our version of the story is the one we are in, there was no ultimate meaning or betrayal happening with slavery.

There is no ultimate betrayal in life.

Unless, of course, you betray the Party!

That has real meaning right here in our story!

But remember, our crazy assignment is asking us to consider the possibility that Christianity is the story we are in.

So, we’ll let Jonathan Edwards, the preacher who played a pivotal role in the Black Swan origin story of America, remind you of just exactly who was being betrayed if Christianity is the story we are in…

There are no works of God that are so high and divine, and above the powers of nature, and out of reach of the power of all creatures, as those works of his Spirit, whereby he forms the creature in his own image, and makes it to be a partaker of the divine nature.

Jonathan Edwards, Religious Affections

The image bearers were being betrayed.

And remember, this is taking place in the story of America.

So, while America was founded upon a Judeo-Christian view of human identity which says human beings are made in the image and likeness of God, at the time of the founding and ever since, there has also existed in America a competing “confounding” identity which says the primary lens through which to view a human being is race and ethnicity.

If Christianity is the story we are in, that looks a lot like relational betrayal.

And keep in mind that decades later the all-wise Supreme Court of the United States affirmed that betrayal in the case of Dred Scott v. Sandford.

Dred Scott

But notice the ground for the dissenting opinion by Justice McLean… 

In this case, a majority of the court have said that a slave may be taken by his master into a Territory of the United States, the same as a horse, or any other kind of property. …. A slave is not a mere chattel. He bears the impress of his Maker, and is amenable to the laws of God and man; and he is destined to an endless existence.

Dred Scott v. Sandford, 60 U.S. (19 How.) 393 (1857), Dissenting Opinion by Justice McLean

And consider the similar argument from Justice Nathan Green in a case a decade earlier before the Tennessee Supreme Court…

A slave is not in the condition of a horse or an ox. His liberty is restrained, it is true, and his owner controls his actions and claims to his services. But he is made after the image of our Creator. He has mental capacities, and an immortal principle in his nature, that constitute him equal to his owner but for the accidental position in which fortune has placed him.

Justice Nathan Green, Tennessee Supreme Court, Ford v. Ford, 7 Hump 91, 95-96, 26 Tenn 71, 75 (1846)

And we got an even deeper sense for the profound nature of the betrayal involved with American slavery — if Christianity is the story we are in, of course — when we read the following, from … 

Henry Highland Garnet

SLAVERY! How much misery is comprehended in that single word. What mind is there that does not shrink from its direful effects! Unless the image of God is obliterated from the soul, all men cherish the love of Liberty. The nice discerning political economist does not regard the sacred right, more than the untutored African who roams in the wilds of Congo. Nor has the one more right to the full enjoyment of his freedom than the other. In every man’s mind the good seeds of Liberty are planted, and he who brings his fellow down so low, as to make him contented with a condition of slavery commits the highest crime against God and man. Brethren, your oppressors aim to do this. They endeavor to make you as much like brutes as possible. When they have blinded the eyes of your mind-when they have embittered the sweet waters of life – when they have shut out the light which shines from the word of God – then, and not till then has American slavery done its perfect work.

Henry Highland Garnet Urges Slaves to Resist, August 1843

And consider the following…

Friday, June 2. Our worst fears are realized; the decision was against poor Burns, and he has been sent back to a bondage worse, a thousand times worse than death. Even an attempt at rescue was utterly impossible; the prisoner was completely surrounded by soldiers with bayonets fixed, a cannon loaded, ready to be fired at the slightest sign. To-day Massachusetts has again been disgraced; again has she shewed her submission to the Slave Power; and Oh! with what deep sorrow do we think of what will doubtless be the fate of that poor man, when he is again consigned to the horrors of Slavery. With what scorn must that government be regarded, which cowardly assembles thousands of soldiers to satisfy the demands of slaveholders; to deprive of his freedom a man, created in God’s own image, whose sole offense is the color of his skin! And if resistance is offered to this outrage, these soldiers are to shoot down American citizens without mercy; and this by the express orders of a government which proudly boasts of being the freeest [sic] in the world; this on the very soil where the Revolution of 1776 began; in sight of the battle-field, where thousands of brave men fought and died in opposing British tyranny, which was nothing compared with the American oppression of to-day. In looking over my diary, I perceive that I did not mention that there was on the Friday night after the man’s arrest, an attempt made to rescue him, but although it failed, on account of there not being men enough engaged in it, all honor should be given to those who bravely made the attempt. I can write no more. A cloud seems hanging over me, over all our persecuted race, which nothing can dispel.

A Free Negro in the Slave Era: The Journal of Charlotte L. Forten, ed. Ray Allen Billington

God will show the whites what we are, yet. I say, from the beginning, I do not think that we were natural enemies to each other. But the whites having made us so wretched, by subjecting us to slavery, and having murdered so many millions of us, in order to make us work for them, and out of devilishness–and they taking our wives, whom we love as we do ourselves–our mothers, who bore the pains of death to give us birth–our fathers and dear little children, and ourselves, and strip and beat us one before the other–chain, hand-cuff, and drag us about like rattle-snakes–shoot us down like wild bears, before each other’s faces, to make us submissive to, and work to support them and their families. They (the whites) know well, if we are men–and there is a secret monitor in their hearts which tells them we are– they know, I say, if we are men, and see them treating us in the manner they do, that there can be nothing in our hearts but death alone, for them, notwithstanding we may appear cheerful, when we see them murdering our dear mothers and wives, because we cannot help ourselves. Man, in all ages and all nations of the earth, is the same. Man is a peculiar creature– he is the image of his God, though he may be subjected to the most wretched condition upon earth, yet the spirit and feeling which constitute the creature, man, can never be entirely erased from his breast, because the God who made him after his own image, planted it in his heart; he cannot get rid of it. The whites knowing this, they do not know what to do; they know that they have done us so much injury, they are afraid that we, being men, and not brutes, will retaliate, and woe will be to them; therefore, that dreadful fear, together with an avaricious spirit, and the natural love in them, to be called masters, (which term will yet honour them with to their sorrow) bring them to the resolve that they will keep us in ignorance and wretchedness, as long as they possibly can,* and make the best of their time, while it lasts. Consequently they, themselves, (and not us) render themselves our natural enemies, by treating us so cruel. They keep us miserable now, and call us their property, but some of them will have enough of us by and by–their stomachs shall run over with us; they want us for their slaves, and shall have us to their fill. (We are all in the world together!!–I said above, because we cannot help ourselves, (viz. we cannot help the whites murdering our mothers and our wives) but this statement is incorrect–for we can help ourselves; for, if we lay aside abject servility, and be determined to act like men, and not brutes–the murders among the whites would be afraid to show their cruel heads.

* And still hold us up with indignity as being incapable of acquiring knowledge!!! See the inconsistency of the assertions of those wretches– they beat us inhumanely, sometimes almost to death, for attempting to inform ourselves, by reading the Word of our Maker, and at the same time tell us, that we are beings void of intellect!!!!How admirably their practices agree with their professions in this case. Let me cry shame upon you Americans, for such outrages upon human nature!!! If it were possible for the whites always to keep us ignorant and miserable, and make us work to enrich them and their children, and insult our feelings by representing us as talking Apes, what would they do? But glory, honour and praise to Heaven’s King, that the sons and daughters of Africa, will, in spite of all the opposition of their enemies, stand forth in all the dignity and glory that is granted by the Lord to his creature man.

David Walker, Walker’s Appeal, in Four Articles; Together with a Preamble, to the Coloured Citizens of the World, but in Particular, and Very Expressly, to Those of the United States of America, Written in Boston, State of Massachusetts, September 28, 1829

The slave is a man, “the image of God,” but “a little lower than the angels;” possessing a soul, eternal and indestructible; capable of endless happiness, or immeasurable woe; a creature of hopes and fears, of affections and passions, of joys and sorrows, and he is endowed with those mysterious powers by which man soars above the things of time and sense, and grasps, with undying tenacity, the elevating and sublimely glorious idea of a God. It is such a being that is smitten and blasted. The first work of slavery is to mar and deface those characteristics of its victims which distinguish men from things, and persons from property. Its first aim is to destroy all sense of high moral and religious responsibility. It reduces man to a mere machine. It cuts him off from his Maker, it hides from him the laws of God, and leaves him to grope his way from time to eternity in the dark, under the arbitrary and despotic control of a frail, depraved, and sinful fellow-man. As the serpent-charmer of India is compelled to extract the deadly teeth of his venomous prey before he is able to handle him with impunity, so the slaveholder must strike down the conscience of the slave before he can obtain the entire mastery over his victim.

It is, then, the first business of the enslaver of men to blunt, deaden, and destroy the central principle of human responsibility. Conscience is, to the individual soul, and to society, what the law of gravitation is to the universe. It holds society together; it is the basis of all trust and confidence; it is the pillar of all moral rectitude. Without it, suspicion would take the place of trust; vice would be more than a match for virtue; men would prey upon each other, like the wild beasts of the desert; and earth would become a hell.

Nor is slavery more adverse to the conscience than it is to the mind. This is shown by the fact, that in every state of the American Union, where slavery exists, except the state of Kentucky, there are laws absolutely prohibitory of education among the slaves. The crime of teaching a slave to read is punishable with severe fines and imprisonment, and, in some instances, with death itself.


I have shown that slavery is wicked — wicked, in that it violates the great law of liberty, written on every human heart—wicked, in that it violates the first command of the decalogue—wicked, in that it fosters the most disgusting licentiousness—wicked, in that it mars and defaces the image of God by cruel and barbarous inflictions—wicked, in that it contravenes the laws of eternal justice, and tramples in the dust all the humane and heavenly precepts of the New Testament.

Frederick Douglass, My Bondage and My Freedom

This Narrative contains many affecting incidents, many passages of great eloquence and power; but I think the most thrilling one of them all is the description DOUGLASS gives of his feelings, as he stood soliloquizing respecting his fate, and the chances of his one day being a freeman, on the banks of the Chesapeake Bay—viewing the receding vessels as they flew with their white wings before the breeze, and apostrophizing them as animated by the living spirit of freedom. Who can read that passage, and be insensible to its pathos and sublimity? Compressed into it is a whole Alexandrian library of thought, feeling, and sentiment—all that can, all that need be urged, in the form of expostulation, entreaty, rebuke, against that crime of crimes,—making man the property of his fellow-man! O, how accursed is that system, which entombs the godlike mind of man, defaces the divine image, reduces those who by creation were crowned with glory and honor to a level with four-footed beasts, and exalts the dealer in human flesh above all that is called God! Why should its existence be prolonged one hour? Is it not evil, only evil, and that continually? What does its presence imply but the absence of all fear of God, all regard for man, on the part of the people of the United States? Heaven speed its eternal overthrow!

William Lloyd Garrison, Preface to The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass

This is all disturbing for us.

Because, if you knew the story of the Party — well, anyway. We are trying to erase that from the memories of our population.

Abraham Lincoln and the Simple Story Question

Abraham Lincoln sure has our attention in relation to the simple but astonishingly powerful question, “Who are we, here in the story?”

Now, if slavery had been a good thing, would the Fathers of the Republic have taken a step calculated to diminish its beneficent influences among themselves, and snatch the boon wholly from their posterity? These communities, by their representatives in old Independence Hall, said to the whole world of men: ‘We hold these truths to be self evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.’ This was their majestic interpretation of the economy of the Universe. This was their lofty, and wise, and noble understanding of the justice of the Creator to His creatures. [Applause.] Yes, gentlemen, to all His creatures, to the whole great family of man. In their enlightened belief, nothing stamped with the Divine image and likeness was sent into the world to be trodden on, and degraded, and imbruted by its fellows.

Abraham Lincoln, Lewiston, Illinois, 1858

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.
Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and dedicated, can long endure.

Abraham Lincoln, Address Delivered at the Dedication of the Cemetery at Gettysburg, November 19, 1863

And we’re not the only ones…

The story of American identity that I find most compelling is one first told by opponents of slavery like Frederick Douglass in the antebellum era. Its most influential narrator was Abraham Lincoln. These leaders understood America as dedicated to a project of achieving, over time, with difficulties and setbacks, meaningful enjoyment by all of the basic rights in the Declaration of Independence — the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. As Lincoln put it, the Declaration had established a “maxim” that should be “constantly looked to, constantly labored for, and even though never perfectly attained, constantly approximated,” thereby “constantly spreading and deepening its influence” and “augmenting the happiness and value of life to all people, of all colors, everywhere.” Lincoln saw the U.S. Constitution and the political system it created as the “silver frame” for this “apple of gold,” the fruit toward which free governments should aim.

To Secure the Blessings of Liberty: Sharing Stories of American Civic Purposes, by ROGERS SMITH, APRIL 3, 2018

Yet it is not the 20th century that enshrined the great political men of 1776, and particularly the words of July 4, as the most significant in our country’s history. Abraham Lincoln did it at Gettysburg: “Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”

Lincoln, the greatest of war presidents even though he (like Adams) never served in a war, invoked the Spirit of ’76 again and again as he strove to fulfill for all Americans the unmet promise of the Declaration. “I have never had a feeling politically that did not spring from the sentiments embodied in the Declaration of Independence,” he said at Independence Hall on February 22, 1861.

I have often pondered over the dangers which were incurred by the men who assembled here and adopted the Declaration of Independence—I have pondered over the toils that were endured by the officers and soldiers of the army, who achieved that Independence. I have often inquired of myself, what great principle or idea it was that kept the Confederacy so long together. It was not the mere matter of the separation of the colonies from the mother land; but something in that Declaration giving liberty, not alone to the people of this country, but hope to the world for all future time. It was that which gave promise that in due time the weights should be lifted from the shoulders of all men, and that all should have an equal chance. This is the sentiment embodied in that Declaration of Independence.

These momentous words honor Jefferson’s momentous words, embodying the “great principle or idea” that united the states for so long.

The Spirit of ’75?, by Algis Valiunas, Commentary Magazine, May 1, 2013

Notice in the following excerpt how Lincoln scholar Harry Jaffa points out that Abraham Lincoln understood the central issue of his time and was able to focus on it…

But while slavery in the territories was the single practical issue, it was in large measure subordinated in the course of the debates. For Lincoln there was, indeed, “only one issue,” but that issue was whether or not the American people should believe that “all men are created equal” in the full extent and true significance of that proposition. Lincoln did not believe that in concentrating upon this sole and single question he was in any sense narrowing and limiting the range of the discussion. “Our government,” Lincoln said before the Dred Scott decision, “rests in public opinion. Whoever can change public opinion, can change the government, practically just so much.” But public opinion, according to Lincoln, was not essentially or primarily opinion on a long list of individual topics, such as Professor Randall has enumerated, nor was it the kind of thing that the Gallup poll attempts to measure. “Public opinion, on any subject,” said Lincoln, “always has a ‘central idea’ from which all its minor thoughts radiate.” And the “’central idea’ in our political public opinion, at the beginning was, and until recently has continued to be ‘the equality of men.’” For Lincoln, then, to debate public-lands policy, or the condition of factory workers, when the question of the equality of rights of all the people was in dispute would have been utterly inconsequential. Whether the land would be tilled by freeholders or slaves, and whether factory workers might be permitted to strike, would be vitally affected by a decision concerning that “central idea.” Until the matter of that central idea was settled, all peripheral questions were required, by the logic of the situation, to be held in abeyance.

Harry Jaffa, Crisis of the House Divided

You see that? For Lincoln the central issue had to do with the simple story question of human identity…

Who are we, here in the story?

Lincoln’s stubborn embrace of that central issue became extremely important for America. If he hadn’t grasped it firmly, your country would have probably come apart.

Now consider another example of the importance of grasping a central issue. Notice how General Creighton Abrams, commander of American forces in Vietnam during the second half of that conflict, understood the central issue:

The appropriate measure of merit in such a conflict was, Abrams thought, not “body count,” but “population security” – security from coercion and terrorism for the people in South Vietnam’s villages and hamlets.


Abrams moved to deemphasize the body count in two ways: he focused his own interest on other measures of merit and progress; and his shift in tactics to concentrate on population security made that, rather than killing the enemy per se, the most important determinant of success. And he very explicitly stated that body count was far less important than some other measures of how well things were going, a message he delivered in person, in cables, and in the campaign plans and planning documents issued by his headquarters. “I know body count has something about it,” said Abrams in a typical comment on the matter, “but it’s really a long way from what is involved in this war. Yeah, you have to do that, I know that, but the mistake is to think that’s the central issue.” Amplifying, he added, “I don’t think it makes any difference how many losses he [the enemy] takes. I don’t think that makes any difference.”


Roger Hilsman, a former Assistant Secretary of State then teaching at Columbia, recalled going out to Vietnam in the fall of 1967 and coming back convinced of two things. “First, it was perfectly true that there had been major military victories. But second of all, they were irrelevant. The political infrastructure was intact.” Later Abrams, expressing a confirmatory view, told a regional conference of American ambassadors that “in the whole picture of the war, the battles don’t really mean much.”


“I know body count, you know – it has something about it, but it’s really a l-o-o-n-g way from what’s involved in this war. Yeah, you have to do that, I know that, but the mistake is to think that’s the central issue.” – General Creighton Abrams

Lewis Sorley, A Better War