Some have claimed that the United States has never been just or great. In particular, they cite the phrase in the Declaration of Independence, “ … that all men are created equal…”, as proof of this, arguing that it excluded anyone other than white men. But history demonstrates otherwise, and the evidence of infinity can tell us something about it.
In the spring of 334 BC, the man who would become Alexander the Great took command of a Macedonian-Greek military force set to bring down the Persian Empire, which itself had long sought to destroy the Greek world. Alexander succeeded, driving all the way into modern-day India — but he was still determined to push on farther.
As the Greek-Roman historian Plutarch reveals, Alexander once listened to the philosopher Anaxarchus argue for the existence of infinite worlds — at which Alexander wept because he had not yet conquered even one of them. Rather than submitting to hopelessness, Alexander was driven on to do better, to reach toward the infinite.
Mathematicians and philosophers had, themselves, often been perplexed and fascinated by the idea of infinity — that, no matter which number was conceived, another one could always be added to it. Therein, it was certainly known that 1 and 2, as points along a line, finitely existed — but that between them, there were seemingly an infinite number of possible points (1.1, 1.2, 1.21, 1.22, ETC.). Although you know that 1 and 2 exist in any given place, you can get lost between them with or without a conscious effort.
The Founding Fathers faced such a set of circumstances as they stood against Great Britain through the absolute, moral, self-evident truths on which they based that stand — including the articulation of the truth that God has created all men equal. They did not consider the infinite possibilities, but the definite — “all men.”
What today we usually refer to as “humankind” our Founders referred to as “mankind.” Distinctions between men and women, and race, then, were often quite clear, but “man” and “mankind” were all-inclusive.
Although years later, many Southern elites wrongly defended the evil institution of slavery as a positive good, none of the Founders went that far. Those who owned slaves knew two things: they were engaging in hypocrisy (many of their fellow Americans rightly called them out and criticized them for it); and slavery would absolutely have to end to uphold the truths enumerated in the Declaration.
By agreeing to categorically include the universal absolute of “all men” in the Declaration, those slaveholding Founders understood their way of life was set for a reckoning.
This was something both Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglas also understood — that the work of America was in progress, but not perfect — when they defended the Founders, their vision, and the Declaration. They understood there were still Alexandrian worlds of their own to conquer as Americans in reaching for definite truths — that all men were created equal.
It is plausible that either man, or any American who passionately and wholly believed in those moral reasons and truths on which the Revolution was based, could have taken a different view and called for the end of America because those promises had not yet been fulfilled. But they didn’t because they knew the truth — that America was indeed great, and good, and a promise unfolding.
Too often, we confuse perfection with goodness, while forgetting that flawed and struggling people and peoples can, on the whole, be good. Each generation of Americans strives to be better in their own times, and better than those who came before. None of us will ever be perfect, but that does not mean we are not good or capable of good — or that we should not try. Who we are in 2020 is not who we were in 1861, let alone 1787.
Consider our nation as points on the long path of history. If we see the Founding as point 1, and the absolute truths of the Declaration (and protected in the Constitution) as point 2, we know what we are striving toward. But the importance is to recognize progress that we have made, and the good things we have done, and to not become lost in the infinite between where we were, and where we are.
Some on the Left, and especially radicals and extremists, approach the infinite because they fundamentally disagree with those absolute moral truths under God that make us who we are as Americans. They will reject progress, preferring an infinite number of integers not yet reached. They would rather us be something else — and this is why they have even targeted statues of Lincoln and Douglas for destruction.
They forget: It wasn’t ever the failure of the original intent, the Declaration, or the Constitution — but the failure of some people to live up to them. We do acknowledge our nation’s wrongs, but we also have to remember to celebrate, honor, revere, and emulate what we’ve done right, else we are infinitely trapped.
Joe Vigliotti, a contributor to The Flip Side and a Taneytown city councilman, writes from Taneytown. His column appears every other Friday. Email him through his website at www.jvigliotti.com.