How Has the United States Met Its Major Challenges Since 1945?

Commentary, November 1985.


Things were different in America and always had been. Our aristocrats, our Tories, were dispatched in 1776, at the beginning, at the time we became Americans. They went back to England or fled to Canada where a few of their descendants even today congregate under the banner of United Empire Loyalists. Unlike England or Tocqueville’s France, this country has never experienced or had reason to fear an attempt to restore the monarchy; there have been no American Bourbons or, more to the point, American Jacobites or “Georgians.” In this respect, we were lucky; we were, as Tocqueville said, “born equal instead of becoming so.”

In saying this, Tocqueville was of course ignoring the condition of black Americans. They constituted about 20 percent of the population in 1780—and about 15 percent at the time he was writing—and, as he knew very well, they could certainly not be said to have been born equal or to be living as equals. With few exceptions, they were slaves, not citizens; strictly speaking, not even Americans (“What Country have I?” asked the young Frederick Douglass in 1847). Americans became a people in 1776 with an appeal to the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God according to which all men are created equal and endowed with certain rights, chiefly the right not to be governed except with their consent. How could a slave be an American? Better, how could an American be a slave? As a group, blacks did not become Americans until they became citizens with the Fourteenth Amendment, and they could not have become citizens without having first been freed by the Thirteenth.