The Federalist Papers

John Jay:


It has often given me pleasure to observe that independent America was not composed of detached and distant territories, but that one connected, fertile, widespreading country was the portion of our western sons of liberty. Providence has in a particular manner blessed it with a variety of soils and productions, and watered it with innumerable streams, for the delight and accommodation of its inhabitants. A succession of navigable waters forms a kind of chain round its borders, as if to bind it together; while the most noble rivers in the world, running at convenient distances, present them with highways for the easy communication of friendly aids, and the mutual transportation and exchange of their various commodities. 

With equal pleasure I have as often taken notice that Providence has been pleased to give this one connected country to one united people--a people descended from the same ancestors, speaking the same language, professing the same religion, attached to the same principles of government, very similar in their manners and customs, and who, by their joint counsels, arms, and efforts, fighting side by side throughout a long and bloody war, have nobly established general liberty and independence. 

This country and this people seem to have been made for each other, and it appears as if it was the design of Providence, that an inheritance so proper and convenient for a band of brethren, united to each other by the strongest ties, should never be split into a number of unsocial, jealous, and alien sovereignties. Similar sentiments have hitherto prevailed among all orders and denominations of men among us. 

To all general purposes we have uniformly been one people each individual citizen everywhere enjoying the same national rights, privileges, and protection. As a nation we have made peace and war; as a nation we have vanquished our common enemies; as a nation we have formed alliances, and made treaties, and entered into various compacts and conventions with foreign states.

A few weeks ago, Kenyatta and I had dinner with another couple. They are old friends of ours, and like us, children of black consciousness. Kenyatta and the couple were talking about the beauty and wonder of Paris (I've never been.) They were contrasting that with all of the race critiques we came up on, some of which we still hold. And some point one of us said something to effect of, "You know you really gotta give it up. These white folks got done did something."

When you are a young intellectual black kid, you often find yourself in this desperate search for some sort of anti-Western tradition. That Saul Bellow quote--"Who is the Tolstoy of the Zululs"--really captures a lot of the dilemma for those of us looking for a "native" tradition. That search ends all kinds of ways for different people. But for us, I think it ended in the rejection of the premise, in the great Ralph Wiley riposte that "Tolstoy is the Tolstoy of the Zulus." 

That line was sorcery for me. It found me a black pathologist, and set me free by revealing that my own search for something "native" was an implicit acceptance of the very racism that I sought to counter. The way out was not to find my own, but to reject the notion of anyone's "own." If you reject the very premise of racism--the idea skin color directly contributes to genius or sloth--then all of humanity becomes "native" to you. And so empowered, I could--out of my own individual identity--create my own intellectual and artistic pedigree, and I was free to have it extend from Biggie to to Wharton to Melville to Hayden.


And yet of course, you still are "black." And reading these words from John Jay, I felt so much. They are beautiful and subject to so much interpretation. It must be said that "Providence" did not give this land to Jay's people, so much as guns, germs and steel did. It must be said that we were never...

a people descended from the same ancestors, speaking the same language, professing the same religion.

The Germans were here. The Jews were here. The German Jews were here. The Africans were here. The Cherokee were here. And so on...

And yet there was something horribly prophetic in Jay's words. We are descended from the same ancestors--just not the ancestors Jay meant. Our ancestors are survivors--be it of slavery or persecution. We do now speak the same language and practice the same religion. That language, that religion is of "improvement"--the idea that each of us has the right to make the best of ourselves. That sounds horribly cliche. But being immersed in the 19th and 18th century, it's clear that "individual improvement" was once a radical notion.

I don't want to overstate this country's unity, so please take this with all the obvious caveats of division that are daily exhibited on this blog and elsewhere. But reading Jay's words, I was struck by how he had touched on something core in the American identity--this notion of divine, almost evangelical, identity. It is not a universal and unfettered good. Indeed, I think it's a terrible, if essential, problem.

It also strikes me that this captures much of the Left's disenchantment with Obama. As a black president, Obama is far more rooted in the words of America's founding fathers than he is in the words of dissidents and intellectuals. But I'm not sure how it could be any other way.

Just some incoherent thoughts. I'll be clearer as I read more. It's a process.
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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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