America had barely turned fifty when a Frenchman paid a visit.
He came to America, as he explained to a friend, to see “what a great republic is.” For nine months he traveled America’s highways and byways, over her “rocks and rills,” and through her “woods and templed hills.”
What he found was not just America’s greatness; he found America’s goodness. And though Alexis de Tocqueville didn’t pen these words, he could have:
I sought for the greatness and genius of America in her commodious harbors and her ample rivers, and it was not there. . . . I sought for the greatness and genius of America in her rich mines and her vast world commerce, and it was not there. I sought for the greatness and genius of America in her public school system and her institutions of learning, and it was not there. . . . Not until I went into the churches of America and heard her pulpits, aflame with righteousness, did I understand the secret of her genius and power. America is great because she is good, and if America ever ceases to be good, America will cease to be great.
Almost from the beginning, America has been described as great. But most countries boast of their greatness, of their exceptionalism. Few, if any, boast of their goodness . . . except for America.
America, from her birth, has been on a moral mission—what Abraham Lincoln called “the last best hope of earth.”
This isn’t to say that America was or is flawless or perfect. Of course not. But to some Americans on the Left, America is anything but good. She was flawed from the beginning—a racist, sexist, xenophobic, imperialistic, and greedy nation. To these, America is neither great nor good. And they point to slavery as proof of America’s inherent evil.
It’s true that slavery and the century that followed of ill treatment of African Americans, as well as the inexcusable dealings with Native Americans, was a blight on America. Nevertheless, even with slavery American had a moral compass. Slavery in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was universal; it was the norm, not the exception.