In 1976, while celebrating the bicentennial of the Declaration of Independence, Americans venerated the founders of their republic. They were remembered for establishing a form of government that flourished in the United States and inspired democracies worldwide.
Not 50 years later we scold them: All were white, we now note, all male and affluent, all of them sexist and racist, many of them slave owners. So castigated are they nowadays that even their statues of commemoration are threatened with removal.
It was not the founders who changed, of course, but their publics. Viewed from the late 18th century, when the voice of public opinion was itself white, male, and affluent, and when slavery was a legal if “peculiar institution,” they could wear their laurels proudly. In the early 21st century those laurels are tattered. Slavery has been unconstitutional for a century and a half, and the public’s opinion of sexists, racists – and white males themselves – has moved on.
Put simply, the sin of the 18th century was its failure to observe the values of the 21st. Put biblically, the sins of the fathers were visited upon the sons. And we, the sons – and the daughters – have come to wonder how differently the U.S. would have developed if slavery had been abolished by the Constitution and not by an amendment 75 years later. How differently it would have developed if women’s suffrage had been affirmed by the Constitution and not by an amendment 130 years later.
But wait. As we judge, so shall we be judged. Which of our 21st-century sins will be visited upon our children? Those who wonder what 22nd century iniquities we will be found guilty of need look no further than the color green, no further than our denial of climate change.
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Historians remind us that, when John Adams was in Philadelphia writing the Constitution, his wife Abigail wrote from Boston: “Remember the ladies.” (He didn’t.) And they remind us of Thomas Jefferson’s famous denunciation of slavery: “I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just.” (He didn’t.) We are reminded of these things because, even as the founders may have had their misgivings, they were so wrapped in the mystic of male chauvinism and so in thrall to the “peculiar institution” that they could not do other than what they did. Sons and daughters be damned.
And so it is with us today, whenever we ponder the color green. We know that the carbon dioxide (CO₂) levels in our atmosphere have not been this high in millennia. We know that human activities – burning fossil fuels, deforesting woodlands, etc. – have contributed to the intensity. We know that these levels of this magnitude are weirding our weather and altering our climates. And we know that this weirding and alteration is unsustainable. Like Jefferson before us, we sometimes “tremble” for the only planet at our disposal. Unfortunately, we are so wrapped up in the mystic of denial and so in thrall to the fossil fuels in our engine room that we cannot do other than what we do.
The sexism and racism that rubbished our founders’ laurels diminished America’s women and ravaged its slaves. The sins that we will visit on our children will be worse. They will be existential. Ironically, our sins are known in their denial: reduced biodiversity, desertification, diminished food supply, too little – or too much – water, global warming, rising sea levels. Our sons and daughters be damned.
It took 75 years to abolish slavery and 130 to affirm women’s suffrage. With climate change, we don’t have that long. And many in high places are moving backward.