America, we have a racism problem. Can we just admit it, please? I’ve written about the founding of the Religious Right and how they came together as a political force to protect their segregationist school. Yesterday, 08/27/19, Newt Gingrich, former speaker of the house, wrote an opinion piece for Newsweek called Did Slavery Really Define America For All Time?

Newt says,  

The Left will assert that America is a terrible country whose defining moment was the introduction of slavery.

Most Americans will see that as a racist definition of history in its own right and will continue to believe in the exceptionalism created in 1776 by the Declaration of Independence and implemented in 1787 by the Constitution.

This debate is being created by The New York Times’ determination to replace its failed crusade about President Trump and Russia with a new effort to define President Trump as a racist—and racism as the greatest problem in America.

I’m surprised Gingrich makes these statements; he was a history professor at the University of West Georgia in the 1970s. As a historian, he should recognize that slavery was a defining moment for the Colonies that later became the United States.

American exceptionalism is defined by three closely related ideas. The first idea is that after the American Revolution our founding fathers created something unique from all other governments at the time. Supposedly we created a government based on liberty, egalitarianism, individualism, representative government, democracy, and laissez-faire economics. Some of these are true. However, there was no liberty, representation, or egalitarianism for slaves. This new “Americanism” wasn’t for slaves.

The second idea behind American exceptionalism is the belief that the United States has a unique mission to transform the world. This was originally meant to spread democracy throughout the world. As Abraham Lincoln said in the Gettysburg Address, Americans have a duty to ensure, “government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”  Later the idea was co-opted by the Religious Right to mean spreading their brand of Fundagelical beliefs to the world. Of course, slaves were not considered people.

The third belief is that America’s exceptionalism gives it superiority over other nations. While we may believe that our style of government is superior, we certainly can’t believe that our morality is superior when we are enslaving an entire race based on their skin color.

America was exceptional, in the sense of doing something new, when they changed indentured servitude into perpetual slavery. Throughout the Old Testament, the word often translated as “slave” meant indentured servant. People who found themselves in debt would sell themselves, or more precisely their labor, to the holder of debt until the debt was paid off. The maximum term of indentured servitude was six years.

People wishing to come to the colonies often sold themselves into indentured servanthood. They worked until their debt of transport to the colonies was paid off. However, perpetual slavery in America started in 1619, when a Dutch ship brought 20 African slaves ashore in the British colony of Jamestown, Virginia. As History.com points out, “Scholars note that the arrivals were technically sold as indentured servants. Indentured servants agreed, or in many cases were forced, to work with no pay for a set amount of time, often to pay off a debt and could legally expect to become free at the end of the contract. Many Europeans who arrived in the Americas came as indentured servants. Despite this classification—and records which indicate that some of them did eventually obtain their freedom—it is clear that the Africans arriving at Point Comfort in 1619 were forced into servitude and that they fit the Universal Declaration of Human Rights’ definition of enslaved peoples.

1861 — An illustration of a slave auction published in the , February 16, 1861. — Image by © CORBIS

So, was 1619 a turning point that defined America? Yes. We moved from the practice of indentured servanthood to owning slaves. This makes America not exceptional but just as backward in human rights as the slave-owning countries around them.

Newt mentions the exceptionalism created by the declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Neither document freed slaves. The Constitution acknowledged slavery and the ingrained racism of America by counting slaves as 3/5 of a person.

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Newt thinks the Liberal Left is bringing up America’s long-standing racism because we are trying to paint Donald Trump as a racist. The Left doesn’t need to do that. We have a President that uses racial slurs against his opponents, characterized all Mexicans as rapist, and told American citizens to “go back to their country” because of the color of their skin. Donald Trump is a racist. He has proved it himself. If you want the long history of his racism read the Vox article.

So, sorry Newt, 1619 was a defining point for America, it laid our racist foundations that continue today. Racism is part of the very fabric of America. Until we admit it and stop the attempts to cover up the truth, we will continue to have it. Newt Gingrich’s attempt to cover up the start of racism in America is an example of racism in action. Don’t whitewash history.

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