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Presidential Issues: American Exceptionalism

American Exceptionalism

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No, Bernie, America Was Not Actually Founded ‘on Racist Principles’

September 15, 2015

By Charles Cooke

The United States, Senator Bernie Sanders declared before a few thousand college students yesterday, was founded “from way back on racist principles.” “That,” he added, after briefly apologizing for bringing the topic up in the first instance, “is a fact — we have come a long way as a nation.”

The latter of these two asseverations is not in doubt. Time was when a black American would be beaten, broken, and even skinned alive on the flimsiest of pretexts, while his tormenters were let free without charge. Conservatives occasionally like to wonder aloud what might happen if this nation — or some part of it — were to be taken over by a monstrous and unflinching tyranny. They do not need to treat the question as a hypothetical: To read Ida B. Wells or Victoria Earle Matthews is to know the answer all too well. That Sanders should remind voters of this truth is admirable and necessary. That he should do so in the middle of an ideologically hostile crowd is even more so. One cannot enjoy redemption without guilt, and, on occasion at least, that guilt must be given a name. America has indeed “come a long way.”

It is unfortunate, however, that Sanders felt the need to attach his reminder to a dangerous falsehood. 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.

Read the full article at National Review Online: No, Bernie, America Was Not Actually Founded ‘on Racist Principles’