1619, 1776 and the United States of America

COMMENTARY: There’s no arguing it: The United States of America, as our founders conceived it, started in 1776.

Declaration of Independence signed July 4, 1776.
Declaration of Independence signed July 4, 1776. (photo: Mike Flippo / Shutterstock)

Many political and social progressives are eager to redefine America as starting not in 1776, which is truly and literally when the very title “United States of America” began, but in the year 1619, before Plymouth Rock and before John Winthrop and the Arbella arrived upon our shores. They instead want to define the nation by slavery and racism. So much so that The New York Times’ 1619 Project dates the United States that way, defining the country’s start by the year 1619, with the arrival of the first enslaved Africans in Virginia that year. 

Americans should look back at their founding as based on the principles of 1776 — that uniquely great achievement for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness that was the Declaration of Independence. That’s the heart of America. Those were principles for all of humanity, though they would indeed take decades to fully implement for all Americans, both Black and white. Their full achievement would lead to nothing less than a Civil War. 

Mobs today target statues of everyone from George Washington and Thomas Jefferson to (curiously) Union generals like Ulysses S. Grant, who defeated the Confederacy before battling the KKK, and even Abraham Lincoln and (most bizarrely of all) Frederick Douglass, the great abolitionist. Very often, the mob engages in bad history, targeting actual saints who sought to protect natives from persecution, such as St. Junípero Serra, whose statues are being torn down throughout California. Here is a saint — canonized by Pope Francis — that has been canceled. And St. Junípero is far from alone, with the likes of St. Louis IX and even the Blessed Virgin Mary targeted. And don’t even get started on Christopher Columbus. 

But let us not argue with this historical reality: The United States of America, as our founders conceived it, started in 1776. 

What about those same founders and the undeniable evil of slavery? Well, that is a subject that’s indeed far more troubling and complicated. 

A full accounting must acknowledge first what the American founders said about slavery, and what they did. Consider these testimonies: 

“Slavery is such an atrocious debasement of human nature,” said Benjamin Franklin in a November 1789 speech demanding its “very extirpation.” 

Franklin’s closest ally at the founding was John Adams. “Every measure of prudence, therefore, ought to be assumed for the eventual total extirpation of slavery from the United States,” he urged in a June 8, 1819, letter. “I have, throughout my life, held the practice of slavery in … abhorrence.” 

So many of the founders felt this way. In fact, arguably all of the most influential founders felt that way. Professor Thomas West put it categorically: “Every leading Founder acknowledged that slavery was wrong.” He noted that “even those who defended slavery knew well that blacks are human beings. Hardly anyone claimed that slavery is right in principle. Each of the leading Founders acknowledged its wrongness.”  

Indeed, as Alexander Hamilton put it, Blacks were “men, by the laws of God and nature.” Regardless that “laws of certain states … give an ownership in the service of Negroes as personal property.” The law might say one thing, but it did not supersede the eternal reality of the laws of nature and of nature’s God — i.e., natural law and biblical law. 

But what about the likes of George Washington, our nation’s first president, who owned slaves? Well, he likewise knew it was wrong.  

In an April 12, 1786, letter to Robert Morris, Washington said of slavery: “There is not a man living who wishes more sincerely than I do, to see a plan adopted for the abolition of it.” 

In an Aug. 4, 1797, letter to Lawrence Lewis, he affirmed: “I wish from my soul that the legislature of this State could see a policy of the gradual Abolition of Slavery.” 

And yet, in maintaining his farm and property, Washington relied on a mass of 316 slaves, of which 143 were in his possession entirely. Washington kept the slaves not because he felt it was right for one man to own another, but because he viewed them as a necessary evil to maintain his farm. It could not exist without them. Was this purely self-serving by Washington? Yes, most definitely. And he knew it. 

The situation tore at not only Washington’s wallet but his conscience. He knew that slavery was wrong, but like so many of the founders who owned slaves (including Thomas Jefferson), he felt he personally could not financially extricate himself from the situation. He plainly could not accept the catastrophic financial cost of setting them free. The devil had him by the tail. 

As stated by Thomas Jefferson, “We have the wolf by the ears, and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go. Justice is in one scale, and self-preservation in the other.” And yet, said Jefferson, “Nothing is more certainly written in the book of fate than that these people are to be free.” The key — the overwhelming task — was how to make that happen, especially peacefully. That was the problem. And to be sure, it would never happen peacefully. 

It would take Abraham Lincoln — and an actual Civil War — to fully extend that equality principle to every single American, including Black Americans. It could not be extended in 1776, least of all because the entirety of the southern states would have refused to accede to the very American republic being conceived at the time. The founders would have found themselves in a civil war among themselves in July 1776 rather than a unified revolution to break free from the British. The abolition of slavery in 1776 was not possible. The very principles launched by 1776, and stated in the Declaration of Independence and the subsequent Constitution and Bill of Rights, would have never gotten off the ground to begin with. 

Abolishing slavery in America, as in every country, would not happen overnight. It took much time and pain. This was an evil, and eradicating the evil would not be simple. In America, it required blood to be spilled at a level (the Civil War) unprecedented in its history. No other war, including World War I and World War II combined, saw the loss of so many American lives. For its original sin, America would suffer terribly. 

How should we view this as American Catholics? Mercifully, our Church had a very different position on slavery. 

The Catholic Church condemned slavery long before the American founders did. In fact, the Church’s condemnation precedes not only 1776 or 1619, but even before Columbus discovered the New World in 1492 — we can point to papal pronouncements back to 1435. 

From the outset, the Church not only condemned all slavery of all people everywhere, but never hesitated to call out slavery against Black people specifically, first in the Canary Islands (1435) and then later in Africa as the practice was established there by colonial conquerors in the mid-1500s. For instance, there was the Church’s pronouncement in January 1435, Sicut Dudum, subtitled, “Against the Enslaving of Black Natives from the Canary Islands.” Regarding the activity in the Canaries, Pope Eugene IV stated: “They have deprived the natives of the property, or turned it to their own use, and have subjected some of the inhabitants of said islands to perpetual slavery, sold them to other persons, and committed other various illicit and evil deeds against them.” 

Hence the Church set forth to “rebuke each sinner about his sin” and exhorted “one and all, temporal princes, lords, captains, armed men, barons, soldiers, nobles, communities and all others of every kind among the Christian faithful of whatever state, grade or condition, that they themselves desist from the aforementioned deeds, cause those subject to them to desist from them, and restrain them rigorously.” Not wanting to tolerate any dissembling or excuses, the Pope ordered action right away, with a specific timeline. He commanded those responsible, under threat of excommunication: “If this is not done when the 15 days have passed, they incur the sentence of excommunication by the act itself.” 

That was 1435, some 400 years before America and Western European nations like Britain abolished slavery. And it was hardly the only example from the Church. 

In June 1537, Pope Paul III, in his bull Sublimis Deus, forbade the enslavement of “all other people who may later be discovered by Christians.” Whether Black or white or anything in between, Indian or non-Indian, native or non-native, European or non-European, Christian or non-Christian, they must not be deprived of liberty or property, he said. 

Many more papal statements like these followed in the centuries to come. As to why America did not follow these statements — well, for starters, America was not a nation until 1776. And besides, the American founders were not Catholic. 

Looking back at the Church this early on, as well as America in the 19th century, perhaps the most remarkable thing we can say about the Church and America and slavery was that they were farsighted and noble to oppose and ultimately seek to abolish the practice — a practice that had existed worldwide for thousands of years. 

And yet, that laudable reality seems lost to the modern mind, or at least resisted by those with an ideological agenda to reframe America and its founding as something that it was not — as something altogether sinister and misbegotten. 

To be sure, there is obvious ugliness in America’s historical record with race. This was, indeed, a nation where slavery was legal from its founding in 1776 until the ratification of the 13th Amendment in 1865. Slavery is really America’s original sin, though it is not original to America alone. As for America’s founders, they were torn about slavery and how to end it. That lack of clarity rent the nation, almost permanently ripping it asunder a century later. Fortunately, great men like Abraham Lincoln found a way to keep the nation together and end the abomination that was slavery, ensuring that this nation, conceived in liberty, should not perish from the earth.