We Are Americans
Michael P. Farris | 2020 Commencement Address at Patrick Henry College
There was a day—and it hasn't been that long ago, but there was a day—when a political or civic leader would extol the genius of the American founding as the beacon of liberty that has not only made this nation great but has changed the trajectory of the whole world.
Such speeches were to be expected. Almost trite. Audiences would think, Why don't you tell us something that we don't know?
But that day is gone. There is an open challenge to this view of America's founding.
We are now told that America was born as an illegitimate state. It was founded by white men for white men. People of color were not included in the plans for the American dream. Women were left out of our founding documents and quietly ushered out of the corridors of power.
America was born in shame, and it must all be torn asunder so that a new society, a new government, a new culture can rise in its place.
That's why we are seeing far more than the removal of Confederate monuments—which, in my humble view, should never have been erected in the first place.
Thomas Jefferson in bronze was destroyed in Portland, Oregon.
A statue of George Washington was lit on fire and then pulled to the ground—again in Portland.
Abraham Lincoln, who led the nation in an effort to drive slavery from our shores, has seen his memorial on the National Mall defaced with graffiti.
A statue of Ulysses S. Grant, the General who successfully defeated the Confederacy, was toppled in San Francisco.
Even abolitionists who were memorialized in bronze were defaced in Philadelphia.
If that wasn't a sufficient mix of irony and evil, the first all-volunteer black unit of Union Troops, the Shaw 54th Regiment, had its memorial defaced and damaged in Boston.
But the efforts to destroy the story of America's greatness didn't stop there.
The memorial to the Greatest Generation—the brave men and women who fought WWII and defeated Nazi Germany and the other national socialist powers of Italy and Japan—that stunningly beautiful sight on the Capital Mall, was defaced by protestors.
These incidents cannot be explained as attacks on racism. The incidents we have before us today are attacks not merely on American history, they are attacks on the legitimacy of America itself.
The forces of Antifa and their radical comrades see themselves as the people who are doing the equivalent of tearing down the Berlin Wall. They see themselves as revolutionary liberators ushering in a new era.
The profound irony, of course, and I know I am getting a little ahead of myself in this story, is that they are seeking to build a new regime on American soil that most closely resembles the views, goals, and methodology of the Soviet Bloc. In reality, they are tearing down the symbols of freedom so that they can fence us all behind a new Berlin Wall.
My goal today is to analyze their claim that America was born as an illegitimate, repressive nation.
I begin with an important observation. America was not born as a perfect nation. It is not a perfect nation today. There is much that must be done.
And I want to briefly mention a very personal application of some of that needed work.
I have 27 grandchildren. Three of them are black. I will almost certainly have more black grandchildren since my son and his stunningly beautiful wife from Nigeria have only one child so far and they intend to have a larger family.
Without a doubt, my black grandchildren will face challenges in their lives—both from officials and from private individuals—that my white grandchildren will most likely never face. And that's just not right. And it's not acceptable to me. It should not be acceptable to them. And it should not be acceptable to anyone.
Yet, the acknowledgement of America's imperfections is the starting point for a correct understanding of America's founding.
But we need to understand an important historical detail that seems to be overlooked, misunderstood, or obfuscated by many—including the New York Times and its 1619 Project.
The American colonies may have begun with the Mayflower and Jamestown. But the United States of America arose on July 4, 1776.
The Colonial period was certainly influential in the shaping of America, but until we stepped away from the power structure of the colonizers, we were not American citizens.
And the claims I am defending are about the United States of America. I am making no defense of the British empire in this continent or elsewhere. I am an American citizen looking at our founding documents and examining the nation we have become since our nation was birthed in 1776.
The decision to declare our independence was made on July 2. That was the equivalent of a decision of a young person to move out of their parents' house in the midst of family fight. But two days later, a much more important decision was made. Similar to a decision to get married, the 13 colonies decided to become one nation—the United States of America.
The Declaration's authors pointedly explained that its purpose was to explain to mankind the reasons that impelled them to separate from England. In so doing, they boldly proclaimed the central purpose for government of the new nation.
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. That, to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.
Three fundamental principles were to be at the center of the new nation:
All men are created equal. We are endowed by our Creator with inalienable rights. Just governments are based on the consent of the governed.
Let's pause and ask an important question.
Were any of these things the reality in 1776?
No. None of them. These principles were not where we were; they were a description of where we were going. These were the hopes, dreams, and aspirations of this new nation.
Full equality was not the only thing missing at that moment. Self-government and protection of inalienable rights were also very much in jeopardy. Each of these things lay somewhere in the future—but these dreams were the direction that the Founders of our nation were willing to go should it cost them their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor.
These were great ideals. But did every one of the signers of the Declaration live up to its lofty words? No. Several were slave owners, including Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin.
Did the governments that they created—first by the Articles of Confederation and then, 11 years after the Declaration, by the Constitution of the United States—did these governments immediately fulfill all of these ideals?
No. It took until 1791—a full 15 years after the Declaration—to obtain the Bill of Rights. And it took longer, much longer—painfully longer—to make substantial progress on the promise of equality.
But America was not built on the Founders' personal fidelity to these promises—America was built on these core principles themselves.
All men are created equal.
All are endowed by God with inalienable rights.
Government is to be by the consent of the governed—not just the privileged—all the governed.
These ideals were bigger than the men who wrote them.
If you have any knowledge of history, you will readily recognize that virtually every great leader fails at one time or another to live up to his principles.
Moses was utterly instrumental in delivering God's promises and commandments to the children of Israel. Still, Moses ultimately violated these commandments, and God would not let him enter the Promised Land.
Yet there is no doubt of the power of the message of Moses.
Peter walked with Jesus. And Peter declared the central truth of the Christian faith, "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God." And yet, Peter denied Christ three times.
Winston Churchill was instrumental in defeating Nazi Germany, and yet, he was drunk more often than appropriate, and he frequently insulted Lady Astor.
Take any leader you want: Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr., Ronald Reagan—anyone—and we will find that they were flawed human beings who did not live up fully to the ideals that they taught and urged us all to follow.
Frederick Douglass, former slave and a critical leader of the anti-slavery movement—about whom I will have more to say in a few minutes—gave this balanced assessment of the men who wrote the Declaration of Independence and founded this country.
Douglass understood. The flaws of men do not defeat profound truths. And the flaws of Thomas Jefferson—serious though they may be—do not overcome the power of his words.
All people are, in fact, created equal. And all of us are endowed by God with inalienable rights.
The story of America should not ignore its flaws. History should not be hagiography. But neither should we overlook the incredible power of the ideas that launched America and our many successes.
The story of America is a positive one, very positive indeed. Look at where we started. Look at the strides we are making.
The ideals expounded in 1776 have been our goal, our guide, and our inspiration for continued improvement. And at the center of every major effort to improve upon our government living up to these promises, we will find the ideals of the Declaration and, usually, the document itself as the inspiration.
On May 8, 1790, the Virginia Baptists met in Richmond in convention. This group played an extraordinarily important role in the origins of the Bill of Rights—having extracted a promise from James Madison that he would introduce a Bill of Rights (including protection for religious freedom). He made the promise to gain their votes in the election for the first Congress.
Fresh from that accomplishment regarding our inalienable rights, the Baptist group took aim at the twin promise of the Declaration—equality.
They adopted a resolution declaring that slavery "is a violent deprivation of the rights of nature, and inconsistent with a republican government" and called upon the people and the legislature to "extirpate the horrid evil from the land."
The Anti-Slavery Convention of 1833 was a catalytic moment in the movement, which ultimately led to the political chain of events that resulted in Southern Secession, war, and the eradication of slavery.
That 1833 Convention issued its own Declaration in self-evident reliance upon the Declaration of Independence. They called for the eradication of slavery to live up to the principles and promises of our founding. Their arguments were compelling and bold: "No man has a right to enslave or imbrute his brother . . . or to brutalize his mind by denying him the means of intellectual, social, and moral improvement."
We need to now return to Frederick Douglass, a former slave and one of the greatest orators of all time. His speech on this issue is something you simply must read. I don't say that lightly about anything. But his speech entitled "What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?" is a true classic that will touch nearly everyone with emotions that are almost too powerful.
His appeals to the promises of the Declaration of Independence are frequent and powerful. Concerning the promise of the inalienable right to liberty, Douglass proclaims:
"Would you have me argue that man is entitled to liberty? that he is the rightful owner of his own body? You have already declared it. Must I argue the wrongfulness of slavery?
What, am I to argue that it is wrong to make men brutes, to rob them of their liberty, to work them without wages, to keep them ignorant of their relations to their fellow men, to beat them with sticks, to flay their flesh with the lash, to load their limbs with irons, to hunt them with dogs, to sell them at auction, to sunder their families, to knock out their teeth, to burn their flesh, to starve them into obedience and submission to their masters? Must I argue that a system thus marked with blood, and stained with pollution, is wrong? No! I will not. I have better employments for my time and strength than such arguments would imply."
There is much more. And it is hard to read. But it must be read.
I was born in Arkansas, and I have lived in Virginia for more than half of my life. My southern roots are real. But for my entire adult life I have challenged any person who seeks to defend the South in the Civil War.
Slavery was an unspeakable evil that rails against every human being's God-given conscience.
My 14-year-old grandson, one of my three black grandsons, was walking down the street of my little town, Purcellville, Virginia, when a voice from a passing car—I will not call this person a man—yelled the singularly most hateful racial epithet at my grandson.
This person needs to read Frederick Douglass's speech.
I even see soft defenses of the Confederacy among a small contingency of Christians as well. Take my Facebook page for example. I have posted items using some of the themes of this speech. My readers are mostly conservative Christians. I get thousands of likes from those who agree among my readers when I write about these themes. But invariably, there are a handful who still believe that the Confederacy should be defended. They need to read Frederick Douglass's speech.
Douglass laid the charge at America's feet. You are hypocrites. Your Declaration of Independence demands the eradication of slavery. Your Constitution has no provision that protects slavery, and its great moral thrust is the protection of liberty that denies the legitimacy of slavery. Your Bible defies the learned pastors who defended the legitimacy of slavery.
Douglass closed his speech saying:
"Allow me to say, in conclusion, notwithstanding the dark picture I have this day presented of the state of the nation, I do not despair of this country. There are forces in operation, which must inevitably work the downfall of slavery. 'The arm of the Lord is not shortened,' and the doom of slavery is certain. I, therefore, leave off where I began, with hope. While drawing encouragement from the Declaration of Independence, the great principles it contains, and the genius of American Institutions, my spirit is also cheered by the obvious tendencies of the age."
Douglass was not anti-American. He was not anti-Founder. He was not anti-Declaration. He was not anti-Constitution. He was not anti-Christian. He expressed his clear belief in the ideals of each of these sources. His call was simple.
Live up to the Bible. Live up to the Constitution. Live up to the guarantee of equality and rights proclaimed in the Declaration. Live up to the promise of American freedom.
And this has been the same call that many other voices have raised to challenge America to do better. The women's suffrage movement wrote a historic appeal for their causes—votes for women and the prohibition of alcohol, by which, they reasoned, many women suffer abuse at the hands of men who drink it. And their appeal was fashioned after the Declaration of Independence.
Their call was the same as the call of Frederick Douglass: live up to the promises of the Declaration.
Even Lyndon Baines Johnson, one of my least favorite presidents (despite the fact that he and I share August 27 as a birthday), called America to live up to these promises. On July 2, 1964, he signed the Civil Rights Act that advanced racial equality in our country in a very significant way. His speech that day was truly powerful and inspiring. And he appealed—repeatedly appealed to the promises of the Declaration and said—at long last, we are taking steps to live up to these promises.
Every step toward genuine and appropriate equality has been achieved not by tearing down the Declaration and the premises of America—rather it has been a consistent, righteous voice that says, we must live up to our own standards.
This is not tearing down America. This is not denying the greatness of the American vision, the American founding. This is a call to build on the greatness of our ideals and consistently being the kind of people and nation that our birthright requires us to be.
Yes, there is much to be done. And I will return to that thought in just a moment. But it is more than appropriate for us to also take stock of how much progress we have made.
Slavery was abolished over 155 years ago. Equal protection has been a constitutional guarantee since 1868. These provisions eliminated de jure racism from the governmental sphere—although de facto racism persisted a good while after that. Brown v. The Board of Education—in 1954—marked the beginning of the end of de facto segregation by government.
And the Civil Rights Act of 1964 eliminated the legal framework for segregation and racism in the private economy. De facto problems persisted after that, but lawsuits and societal pressure have made the promises of this 1964 Act the usual rule in actual practice, although exceptions still persist.
Any honest person who is approximately my age recognizes the dramatic societal improvements in this area. Take the issue of interracial marriage as a significant example.
As recently as 1990, 6 in 10 of non-black Americans said they would be opposed to a close relative marrying a black person. That number has now fallen to 1 in 10. We have come a very long way. And, yet, there is much to be done.
All of this stands in stark contrast with what we are hearing from those who are destroying the statues and defaming the American dream.
They say that America was born in racism. And sexism. And worst of all, in the views of these critics, it was born in capitalism, and was far too Christian.
America's founding was illegitimate. And the Constitution was polluted from the beginning, as was the Declaration of Independence.
This is the cancel culture. They aim at more than destroying individuals who stray from their orthodoxies. They aim to cancel our entire national history and rewrite our culture. But they are indeed attacking individuals.
Consider just one of their more recent efforts. These are the people who destroyed the career of the senior vice president of communications of the Boeing airplane company. Over three decades earlier, he had the audacity, as a young Navy pilot, to write a column arguing that women should not be sent into military combat. This was a perfectly respectable view then. And it is still a perfectly honorable view that many Americans still hold.
Again, the chief object of the cancel culture is to use coercion—economic, political, legal, and social—to remake our society and our government into one of their liking.
They scoff at the evidence of change over time. They ridicule the idea that we are getting better. Any flaw, any failure, is fatal. They accept no nuance because nuance, like truth, does not fit their narrative.
They have announced their goal to defund and dismantle the police. But that is just the tip of the iceberg. They want to dismantle every aspect of the existing power structure that they claim is systemically racist, sexist, homophobic, etc.
Their goals are revolutionary, and their tactics are always coercive. Any student of socialism knows that it is a violent philosophy that justifies tyrannical uses of power to achieve what it believes to be the greater good.
Far too many people fail to understand the truth about socialism. They need to read Witness, by Whitaker Chambers, to understand the intrinsic relationship between socialist theories and violent coercion. They need to read The Gulag Archipelago, by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, to see how these theories play out in real life. They need to tour the Romanian orphanages, as I did just a few months after the fall of communism, to see the consequences of their discredited theories for real human beings.
They have obtained their beliefs not by surfing the internet and being radicalized by foreign socialists. Today's radicals believe what they have been taught for the last 40 years in the academy.
The events in Seattle paralyzed left-leaning political officials because the officials understood that the radicalized mob was simply acting on what they all profess to believe.
Let us not think that this is a movement that can easily be shrugged off.
With Boeing doing their bidding and the New York Times seeking to further indoctrinate every American student in their philosophy through the 1619 Project, this is a revolutionary movement that must be taken very seriously.
This movement has forthrightly declared that it doesn't even believe in the First Amendment—once considered absolutely sacred territory for most Americans.
Catharine MacKinnon of the University of Michigan complains that free speech now serves to reinforce and amplify injustice. She has said, "Once a defense of the powerless, the First Amendment over the last hundred years has mainly become a weapon of the powerful."
Louis Michael Seidman, a professor at Georgetown, wrote in the Washington Post, "When I was younger, I had more of the standard liberal view of civil liberties. ... What I have come to see is that it's a mistake to think of free speech as an effective means to accomplish a more just society."
Seidman argues that a government that protects individual liberties is antagonistic to the goals of redistribution and identity politics. "At its core, free speech law entrenches a social view at war with key progressive objectives."
And we see this view in operation every day. When there are calls to destroy the Goya food company because its CEO said something nice about President Trump, we see that the cancel culture is extraordinarily serious.
They do not believe in the old adage—I may disagree with everything you say but I will defend to the death your right to say it.
That one statement sums up American philosophy as well as any other. People who reject freedom of speech for all reject the essence of what it means to be an American.
I would submit, that we cannot gain victory over this movement through business-as-usual conservative or Republican political efforts—even though such efforts may be entirely needed.
We must counter their efforts to force their philosophy on this country, by powerfully demonstrating the superiority of our own revolutionary philosophy—derived from the Revolution launched in 1776.
The way forward must be built on the principles of our founding. The time has come for a clear and unmistakable defense of the legitimacy of our founding ideals: equality for all, inalienable rights for all, and rule by the consent of the governed. These ideals arise from a moral view of the world that shines far more brightly than anything the other side can offer.
But as we defend our ideals, we need to defend them all.
We cannot protect God-given rights unless we are also committed to equality.
We cannot achieve equality without protecting God-given rights. And there are some rights that are particularly at risk today, and we must strongly defend each one:
- The freedom of all people to speak messages I don't like and my freedom to speak messages others don't like
- The freedom not just to believe but also to exercise our beliefs in everyday life—a freedom that is for all people of all faiths
- The right to life from conception to natural death
Property rights, Second Amendment rights, and all the other protections in the Bill of Rights, must be zealously protected.
And we must insist on governmental compliance with the principle of self-government. No one except the people themselves and their elected legislators can make law.
We are experiencing daily denials of this principle with edicts from governors substituting for properly enacted laws. The rules of the Constitution must be observed at all times—even in emergencies. This includes the rule that only legislators can make law.
We must demonstrate that the market economy has not only been a powerful engine for prosperity, it has been the vehicle that has made it possible for the outpouring of unparalleled acts of charity that flow from the Christian duty to help those in need.
We live in a precipitous moment in our nation's history.
We must choose between two revolutionary paths. One path promises utopia but will deliver coercion and mediocrity. The other path, following the American Revolution of 1776, will deliver imperfections, improvements, and freedom.
As for me, even with imperfections, I choose the American dream of equality, God-given rights, and self-government.
America started with a dream of liberty in a land rife with difficulties. We still have difficulties. And we absolutely must strive to improve.
But we must not be the people that relinquish the American promise.
We are created equal. We are endowed by God with inalienable rights. We will pursue equality. We will insist on our rights. We will stand strong for freedom.
We Are Americans.
About Michael P. Farris
Michael P. Farris is president and CEO of Alliance Defending Freedom. As the second CEO of ADF, he brings to the role a diverse background as an effective litigator, educator, public advocate, and communicator, and is widely recognized for his successful work on both the national and international stage.