We Need to Begin Again

In the midst of a moral reckoning, America needs a third founding.

Jim Heimann Collection / Getty / The Atlantic

The United States has confronted two crucial moments of moral reckoning where we faced the daunting challenge of beginning again; both times we failed. The first was during the Civil War and Reconstruction, which constituted a second founding for the country. The second was the Black-freedom struggle of the mid-20th century. What we need now is a third American founding. We need an America where “becoming white” is no longer the price of the ticket. Instead, we should set out to imagine the country in the full light of its diversity and with an honest recognition of our sins.

After the Civil War, the fabric of America was woven anew after fraying almost beyond its ability to hold. Reconstruction led to the formation of the modern U.S. nation-state. With expanded federal power, the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1866, and the Civil War amendments—the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth—Congress, led in many respects by the House Ways and Means Committee chairman and radical abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens, put forward an idea of citizenship untethered to the issue of race. Almost immediately, forces sought to undermine the promise of the second founding, but the point here is that Stevens and others sought to radically transform the country’s understanding of itself as they grappled with questions of equality, the right to vote, and the role of government in protecting the rights of all citizens.

On one level, what Stevens and others did was exactly what James Baldwin called on us to do a century later. “Not everything is lost,” Baldwin wrote after the collapse of the civil-rights movement. “Responsibility cannot be lost, it can only be abdicated. If one refuses abdication, one begins again.” Stevens and his colleagues went back to where we started. They understood that the three-fifths clause and the fugitive-slave clause had tilted the balance of power to the slaveholding states; that the Constitution did not live up to the Declaration of Independence’s promise of equality; that the actions of the states and the courts consolidated a view of Black people that mandated their inferior place in American society. With the Civil War amendments, they aimed to begin again. But the country turned its back. The Black-freedom struggle in the mid-20th century, what scholars call the Second Reconstruction, sought, among other things, to complete what was left of this “unfinished revolution,” as the historian Eric Foner describes it.

This post is excerpted form Glaude’s recent book.

Now we find ourselves facing a moral reckoning of the same magnitude. By now, we should have learned the lesson that changing laws or putting our faith in politicians to do the right thing is not enough. We have to rid ourselves, once and for all, of this belief that white people matter more than others, or we’re doomed to repeat the cycles of our ugly history over and over again. George Santayana, the Spanish-born American philosopher, was right to point out that “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” But what he didn’t say is that those who willfully refuse to remember become moral monsters.

We have to confront our national trauma honestly if we are to shake loose from the political frame of Reaganism and Trumpism, with its racial dog whistles and foghorns, its greed and selfishness, and its idealized version of America as “the shining city on the hill,” where the country’s sins are transformed into examples of its inherent goodness. This will demand of us a new American story, different symbols, and robust policies to repair what we have done. I don’t yet know what this will look like in its details—and my understanding of our history suggests that we will probably fail trying—but I do know that each element is important to any effort toward beginning again. As Samuel Beckett wrote in his 1983 novella, “Worstward Ho,” “Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

A new story doesn’t mean that we discard all the elements of the old story, nor does it mean that we dwell only on our sins. Instead, we narrate our national beginnings in light of our contradictions and our aspirations. Innocence is left aside. Who we aspire to be, without the safety of the lie, should always organize the stories we tell ourselves about who we are. I say this because our stories carry moral weight. Who and what we choose to exclude exposes the limits of our ideas of justice. Our stories can make some people the center of the plot and make others latecomers and objects of charity and goodwill or of scorn and derision. America’s should be a story that begins with those who sought to make real the promise of this democracy. Put aside the fairy tale of America as “the shining city on the hill” or “the redeemer nation,” and cast the idea of perfecting the union not as a guarantee of our goodness, but as a declaration of the ongoing work to address injustice in our midst.

In 2019, Nikole Hannah-Jones and The New York Times Magazine launched “The 1619 Project.” They set out to tell a different story of the country by focusing on Jamestown instead of Plymouth Rock. As they did so, the messiness of our national beginnings came into clearer view. Slavery became a central part of the story, as did our relationship with the land and with Native peoples, and the complicated pursuit of profits is seen as interwoven into the very texture of what would become America. Here, neat perfectionist tales are thrown to the wind, and out of that complex history we tell a consensus story that binds us one to the other, because we no longer have at the center of our national imagination the value gap—the belief that white lives matter more than others, an idea that has distorted and deformed our democracy from the start. With a different story, our national greatness will not reflect some grand lie that hides our evils and protects us from shame, but will be a consequence of our acknowledgment of what we have done and the ongoing work to do better.

This story requires a different symbolic landscape. In moments of profound national transition, the symbols of the old order have to be removed. In our case, the statues of the Confederacy have to be torn down and some placed in museums. They do not represent who we are and who we aspire to be. Our built environment should reflect the brilliant diversity of the people who make up this country. But the shift in our symbolic landscape must go beyond statues. The value gap is experienced and lived as we move about in this country. It is evident in the spatial organization of towns, villages, and cities. The monuments of ghettos, housing projects, and highways that cut off and isolate communities all reflect an age shaped by the lie. We have to build a different America.

All of this—the stories and the symbols—presuppose the importance of policies. For generations, we have lived according to the lie, and it has had tangible, material consequences for the lives of so many Americans. We have to begin a serious conversation about what form and shape repair will take. That can start with something really basic: passing H.R. 40, which establishes a commission “to study and consider a national apology and proposal for reparations for the institution of slavery, its subsequent de jure and de facto racial and economic discrimination against African-Americans, and the impact of these forces on living African-Americans, to make recommendations to the Congress on appropriate remedies, and for other purposes.” Such a commission could function as our truth and reconciliation commission. We could finally get out in the open all of that gunk that rests in our national cellar. Hearings in open sessions, town-hall meetings across the country, an organized effort to tell a different story about who we are (something along the lines of a Constitution Day that can become a moment of collective reflection about the past), and scholarly study of the policy impacts of repair would position the country to take that bold step toward beginning anew. Then we must take courageous steps to change how we live and govern: What is clear to me is that we have to end, no matter the costs, the policies that breathe life into the lie.

This third American founding must happen in the context of a political transformation. It must involve a complete rejection of the way we have conducted politics up to now. Otherwise we will succumb to the temptation of safety and find ourselves trapped once again. It is worrisome that there is deep sentiment in some quarters of this country for nothing more than a return to American life before Donald Trump. I find this feeling dangerous, because often it is not merely a response to the damage that Trump has wrought on the country—and on the American psyche—but also, more subtly, a reaction to all the long-standing and difficult questions Trump’s presidency has brought into view. The way he treats Black people prompts open discussion of the way Black people are treated in America generally; it makes the painful confrontation with the value gap unavoidable. The horror he visits on immigrants at the border necessitates a broader conversation about the role of immigrants in American life. Trump makes it impossible to turn away. And for as many people who find his conduct abhorrent, there may be just as many who simply do not want to experience daily reminders of suffering and injustice. That explains the seductive appeal of Democrats whose sole promise is to steer toward calmer waters.

Trumpism presents us with a choice. We can double down on the lie and reelect him, we can find comfort in reaching back to an idea of normalcy and settle for safety, or we can decide to untether our politics from the insidious assumptions of race that have guided our choices for generations.  If we now choose Trump, or if we choose Biden just because he is safe, we should prepare ourselves for even darker days ahead.  But if we decide to be others, as difficult as that my be, we will push Biden to embrace a bold, transformative vision and we finally make possible the birth of a New America.

Baldwin did not call for a third American founding. Instead, he worked tirelessly for what he called the New Jerusalem. To my mind, there is little difference between the two. Both call for a world and a society that reflect the value that all human life—no matter the color of your skin, your zip code, your gender, or who you love—is sacred. In his aftertimes, Baldwin understood that something new was desperately trying to be born, but that the old ghosts had the baby by the throat. He wrote in the epilogue to No Name in the Street: “An old world is dying, and a new one, kicking in the belly of its mother, time, announces that it is ready to be born. This birth will not be easy, and many of us are doomed to discover that we are exceedingly clumsy midwives. No matter, so long as we accept that our responsibility is to the newborn: the acceptance of responsibility contains the key.” That was in 1972. The labor has been long and hard, and the new world has yet to be born. We are now in our aftertimes, but responsibility has not been lost. Whatever happens next is up to us.

This post is excerpted from Glaude’s recent book Begin Again: James Baldwin's America and Its Urgent Lessons for Our Own.