This past April, an undated photo of two slave children was found at a moving sale in Charlotte, North Carolina, accompanied by a document detailing the sale of “John” for $1,150 in 1854. (John is presumably one of the children). The photo was purchased by collector Keya Morgan for $30,000. As a father of a little boy, this photograph reaches out to me in a distinctly personal level for I cannot imagine ever being separated from my child and the unbearable anguish I would suffer having him literally sold out from under me and taken away never to be seen again…left always to wonder about the son I lost to the horrors that was American slavery. The two forlorn children in this photo stare back at us through the chasm of time. They are the ghosts of an ugly national past. The victims of a monstrous injustice that would take the violent deaths of 620,000 Americans to rectify.
Still, I am struck by the breathtakingly steep arc of moral ascendency we have seen in this great country since the horrible bloodlettings that occurred on the battlefields of Shiloh, Antietam, Gettysburg, Spotsylvania and over six thousand others to determine once and for all what kind of country we would become.
That we have gone from a nation in which three million fellow Americans were held as slaves literally in chains and shackles, with no more legal rights than a goat, to a country that elects a Black man to the highest and most powerful office in the land says much about who we are as a people.
There will be those on the left who will predictably use the upcoming Independence Day holiday to highlight the hypocrisy of the Declaration we celebrate. They will mock the document of a slave state that had the brazenness to announce to the world our vision of a better nation founded in the conviction that such basic human rights as life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness come not from governments or royals, but from a higher power than ourselves: Divine Providence.
But these cynics will miss the point.
The American experiment had to start somewhere. And without that incredibly courageous initial push of the flywheel, the great events that followed which would lead to the emancipation of hundreds of millions from slavery and tyranny, not just on this continent but throughout the world where our American presence has been felt, would never have happened. In the late eighteenth century, where tsars and kings and kaisers ruled Europe, shoguns and emperors the Far East, and slavery was universally practiced across the globe, our upending of the imperial order in favor of popular sovereignty was stunning in its audacity–and a great danger to the despots and lords who ruled the world.
Unique in the annals of history, the American Revolution which broke our allegiance to the British Crown was one led by learned, wealthy men who would have the most to lose should their treason be squashed. Indeed, many of these gentlemen revolutionaries would ultimately suffer privation and ruin even though a victory was won. Ours was not a revolution of the lows against the highs as was seen in bloody France in the 1790s, but rather it was led and prosecuted by the elites of colonial society. And it was a movement to advance an idea that a citizenry does not owe its servitude to a crown but rather each other.
And so our revolution was as ethereal as it was commercial–and that distinctive quality has been the source of strength behind our nation’s durability throughout its many trials and tests over the past 234 years. And it has been the key to our development as a people who can identify a terrible wrong or injustice as inconsistent with our ideals and terminate it–violently if need be.
As the haunting photograph of the two slave children reminds us, our revolution of 1776 was incomplete and fatally flawed in that “all men are created equal” only applied to Caucasians. For the three million Blacks living in slavery in the United States before Appomattox, it was “all midnight forever.” As an ex-slave once reflected, her elderly voice pressed on a crackly vinyl recording: “You know what I’d do if I ever had to be a slave again? I’d take a gun and end it. ‘Cause you ain’t nothin’ but a dog.”
But that was then. This nation has rolled over and been remade many times since the dark days of the triangle trade. As any visitor to Gettysburg will attest, many Americans paid the ultimate price to wash away our original sin. Today we Americans, all 300 million of us, can look back with pride at our history which relays the story of a new birth of freedom for mankind. And we can be comfortable with our exceptionalism as this nation has been an overall force for good in the world. Hundreds of millions live in liberty as beneficiaries of the ideals that our Founding Fathers so confidently announced to the world as truths, even as a massive British flotilla sat anchored in the waters off New York preparing to crush their rebellion.
We who dwell in this city on a hill are the beneficent custodians of the principles handed down to us by Jefferson, Adams, Franklin and Washington. And we are also tasked with carrying a reminder as seen through the eyes of those two slave children who have long since passed into history, of what can happen to our nation should we abandon those values that made us the great country we are today.