The idea of equal, natural, individual rights—the idea that each and every human being has a rightful claim, by nature, to his own person, property, and natural freedom—is both true and the foundation for a free, self-governing society where citizens are equal under the laws. Period. Every opposing, alternative moral-political principle is both untrue and leads to some form of tribalism in practice.
That’s why we citizens of the United States of America, all of us, men and women of all colors, rich and poor, are fortunate: We live in a country founded upon the idea of equal, natural, individual rights. We don’t have to import the idea of freedom. It’s homegrown, born right here and enshrined forever in our own Declaration of Independence. Our challenge is simply to remember, and not forget.
It’s also why those of us who study the Declaration of Independence know that those who advance efforts to dismiss, denigrate, or discredit the idea of equal, natural, individual rights is no friend to freedom, or to self-government, or to equal justice under the laws.
The New York Times’s new 1619 Project is that kind of effort. Worse, it is public and highly-visible. How far will be the reach of the 1619 Project? When will it be arriving at a school near you, for example, in the form of lesson plans and teachers’ guides? No one knows for sure, but make no mistake, that is certainly among their goals.
My mentor, the late Professor Harry Jaffa, used to say often: “Those with interests to which they don’t want to admit make arguments they cannot defend.” That’s a good summary of the 1619 Project. How else does one account for the sloppy thinking of otherwise sophisticated, well-educated people about matters of foundational importance?
The opening essay of the 1619 Project, written by Nikole Hannah-Jones, asserts that the American Founding “ideals were false when then were written.” Ms. Hannah-Jones goes on to identify those “ideals” as the principles of the Declaration of Independence, the first being “all men are created equal” in the sense that every human being, by nature, possesses “certain unalienable rights, among which are life, liberty, & the pursuit of happiness.”
The idea of universal human equality was “false” in 1776 in the newly-founded United States of America because legalized slavery was present. “Black Americans fought to make [those ideals] true,” according to Ms. Hannah-Jones. To restate her argument in philosophic terms: The idea of natural human equality is not being, it is becoming.
The premise of the entire 1619 Project, including Ms. Hannah-Jones’s essays, seems to be that slavery must be abolished, first, before one can argue that slavery is wrong because “all men are created equal.” Apparently, a moral principle is untrue if anyone violates it. Perhaps someone might offer a seminar in moral philosophy for The New York Times’s staff and explain what a moral principle is?
The purpose of the 1619 Project is clear: To discredit in the mind of citizens the American Founding and all things connected to it, not least of which is the legal and moral authority of the United States Constitution. The people at the 1619 Project have an anti-Constitutional, “progressive” political agenda (probably one that includes reparations for slavery) and they are presenting and ignoring whatever they believe advances their political interests. That is what they don’t want to admit.
What, then, can we examine? Their indefensible arguments.
Consider the logic of morals that flows from the premise of the 1619 Project. Slavery is wrong precisely because the idea of natural human equality—the idea of equal natural individual rights—is right and true.
If the idea that “all men are created equal” was false in 1776, as the scribblers at The New York Times insist, are they suggesting that slavery was right in 1776? What moral principle remains for The New York Times to argue the immorality and injustice of slavery after they have denigrated the idea of universal natural human equality as untrue?
Furthermore, if slavery was right in 1776, or at least not wrong, then were the various abolitionist movements that emerged in the United States after 1776—and which were based upon the ideas of 1776—good or bad according to the 1619 Project? They’ve created quite a philosophic pickle for themselves.
AN ABSTRACT TRUTH
Contrary to The New York Times and its 1619 Project, including Ms. Hannah-Jones, Abraham Lincoln demonstrated that the idea that “all men are created equal” is “an abstract truth applicable to all men and all times.”
Lincoln understood (as Ms. Hannah-Jones seems to not) that the ideaof natural human equality—the ideathat every human being possesses equal individual rights—by nature—cuts across time and space, that it is timeless, unchanging, and universal, that it includes allhuman beings. Everywhere. Always. Without exception.
Following Lincoln’s logic of morals, which flowed directly from the premise of the Declaration of Independence, a black slave in 1776, in the newly-founded United States, had a natural right to his own person and property, to his own life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness, which is why it was wrong what the slaveowner was doing to him.
In some respects a black slave woman might not be his equal, Lincoln pointed out, “but in her natural right to eat the bread she earns with her own hands without asking leave of anyone else, she is my equal, and the equal of all others.”
The universal, timeless idea of equal natural rights enshrined in the Declaration of Independence is the very principle by which the human mind can know, objectively, that slavery (as well as theft, rape, and murder) was wrong 2500 years ago, 250 years ago, today, and throughout all future time.
Slavery was wrong when the Greeks enslaved barbarians and each other. Slavery was wrong when Africans enslaved fellow Africans and offered them for sale to the rest of the world. Slavery was wrong when the Declaration of Independence was written.
Slavery was wrong when Lincoln was explaining why slavery is wrong. Slavery is wrong today as the writers at the 1619 Project sip their lattes and bang out essays on their Apple computers. Slavery is wrong whether it is justified by race, religion, tradition, political ideology, or sheer power. Slavery will be wrong in the future, regardless of who is the enslaver and who is the slave.
To be clear: Some people long ago did not know that their unjust actions were unjust. They believed their wrongs were right. They were wrong. The same is true today. Some among us think their unjust actions are just. They’ve come to believe, or they’ve been taught, that their wrongs are right (especially if those wrongs aid a socialist agenda). They, too, are wrong.
Cultural relativism might be a fad in the colleges and universities where budding young journalists who become writers for The New York Times are educated. Yet, no academic theory can alter the immutable moral fact that every human being has a natural rightful claim to himself and his own liberty and private property. No academic theory can turn a wrong into a right.
The question, therefore, is not when was the idea of natural human equality untrue versus when did it become true, as Ms. Hannah-Jones assumes. The idea of natural human equality has always been true, a self-evident truth, discoverable at any time by any mind that took the time to study human nature.
The question is: When did human beings begin that study? When did large numbers human beings begin to understand the moral precepts that radiate from the idea of natural human equality, including the wrongness of slavery and rightness of freedom, and then take actions, and perhaps take risks as well, to align public policies with those precepts?
This latter question points to and illuminates what is truly exceptional, highly unusual, and gloriously beautiful, about the United States: The American revolutionaries were the first to found a particular sovereign political regime, at a particular point in time, and a particular place, upon the universal, timeless idea of equal natural rights. In doing so, they began the process of transforming public opinion regarding slavery from an old tradition to be continued into a problem to be solved.
The Americans of 1776 were revolutionary in their thinking no less than on the battlefield. And more: They took immediate steps, they adopted new polices and laws in the years following 1776, and eventually fought a terrible war, at a price in blood and destruction and suffering that most Americans today cannot imagine, to bring a swift end to the heinous, ancient institution of human slavery.
Lincoln’s reward, for his personal role in the elimination of slavery—which he thought was necessary because he understood the ideas of the Declaration to be true when they were written, as well as before and after—was a bullet blasted through his brain.
The story of the problem of slavery in the United States, the tragedy that made triumph possible, is a story all Americans ought to know and of which no Americans should be ashamed or embarrassed to discuss. In my opinion, we Americans ought to talk about it more than we do. The 1619 Project does not facilitate that conversation. Instead, it offers arguments it cannot defend because it has political interests and agendas to which it will not admit, and we ought never confuse political sophistry for moral clarity.
Note: Learn more about the proposed Speakeasy Ideas program, Tragedy & Triumph: The Story of Slavery in the United States, which will supply what the 1619 Project ignores and correct what the 1619 Project gets wrong.