The Cover-Up

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If the American idea was to subdue Native Americans and place them at the disposal of European settlers, to import several million Africans to the New World and subject them to a lifetime of slavery, to impose on Asian immigrants a lifetime of discrimination, then perhaps the American idea was not so admirable.

If the American idea, once the Civil War had concluded, was to sentence the freedmen to a lifetime of racial segregation, discrimination, and humiliation, then perhaps the American idea was not so praiseworthy.

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The American Idea
Scholars, novelists, politicians, artists, and others look ahead to the future of the American idea.

If the American idea, during and after Reconstruction, was to subject the freedmen to new levels of indignities, and new forms of so-called racial integrity by defining the nature of the blood in the veins of a so-called white person, and to sentence entire communities to race riots that rivaled the pogroms of Eastern Europe, then perhaps the American idea was not quite so attractive.

If the American idea was to fight every war from the beginning of colonization to the middle of the 20th century with Jim Crow armed forces, in the belief that this would promote the American idea of justice and equality, then the American idea was an unmitigated disaster and a denial of the very principles that this country claimed as its rightful heritage.

The American idea is the nation’s holiday garb, its festive dress, its Sunday best. It covers up an everyday practice of betraying the claims of equality, justice, and democracy. It calls for Thomas Jefferson to advise his young protégé Edward Coles to abandon his plan to emancipate his slaves and migrate to Illinois, and to reconcile himself to his country’s “unfortunate condition.” While Coles did not accept Jefferson’s advice, many of his contemporaries did, thus strengthening the American idea of inequality and injustice.

It is fairly late in the game, but one hopes that there is still time to grasp the reality of American life for those of different racial and national backgrounds and to embrace the country’s professed ideals of freedom, equality, and justice. As an Atlantic contributor wrote in the magazine’s second issue, in December 1857:

The ideal of a true republic, of a government of laws made and executed by the people, of which bards have sung and prophets dreamed, and for which martyrs have suffered and heroes died, may yet be possible to us, and the great experiment of the Western World be indeed a Model instead of a Warning to the nations.
John Hope Franklin, the James B. Duke Professor Emeritus of History at Duke University, is a past president of the American Historical Association and the recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor. His book From Slavery to Freedom has sold more than 4 million copies since its publication, in 1947.
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