This past August marked the 400th anniversary of the first arrival of enslaved persons in America. Some have claimed that this date is the true beginning of the real America and that the official beginning of America on 4 July 1776, which will have its quarter-millennial in six years, is a fraud meant to disguise the reality that America is a bigoted, exclusionary, murderous society. Both stories –freedom in 1776, and slavery in 1619– are false. Both are true.
The reality is that 1776 and 1619 have been in continual conflict for all of American history. We saw this in the abolition movement, the suffrage movement, the labor movement, the civil rights movement, the cultural conservative movement, and the current political debate. One side of this conflict defines America as a white, Anglo, Christian, property-owning state that, at most, tolerates other colors, cultures, creeds, and classes. The other side defines America as history’s greatest citadel of human equality and personal liberty, embracing all colors, all cultures, all creeds, and all classes. The 1776 side includes all. The 1619 side excludes most.
Throughout our history, one sees leaders who join one side and then the other. John Jay was one of the co-founders of the Society for the Manumission of Slaves. He was also a virulent anti-Catholic who sought to ban “Papists” from holding public office. Charles Pinckney “owned” enslaved persons, but he defended the Moroccan Muslim community in Charleston. Woodrow Wilson spoke in favor of racial segregation, but he supported Amendment XIX, and he appointed the first religious minority to the U.S. Supreme Court. In these contradictions, one sees 1619 at war with 1776.
The excuse for a man currently posing as a president is a living embodiment of 1619. His Democratic opponent must embody 1776. Every great conflict of American history has been settled, often belatedly, with a victory for freedom. The dark force of domination has always eventually lost.
If the advanced nations of the world unite to defeat the global ecological catastrophe, life without freedom will still not be worth living. The battle for freedom in America is as important as the battle for species survival around the world. It is the biggest issue.