The two American Ideas

Ideas are important because what we think affects how we act, and ideas are persistent–an idea can only be replaced by another. It has taken me around five decades to come to understand United States history primarily as a struggle between two profound and persistent ideas.

The first is “all men are created equal” announced to the World by Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence in 1776. This was an aspiration the day he wrote it, in spite of the language he used with regard to being self-evident, which was primarily a literary device that signified that the Church was not needed to behold truth. The messy and inconsistent life of this Founding Father should not cause us to reject this most basic American idea–it can and should still serve as the North Star for the United States. These words are fine, we just need to live into them.

The second idea is the existence of a “hierarchy of human value that has most commonly been marked by Race across U.S. history” plainly codified just 11 years later in Article 1, Section 2, Clause 3 of the United States Constitution (emphasis added):

Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons. The actual Enumeration shall be made within three Years after the first Meeting of the Congress of the United States, and within every subsequent Term of ten Years, in such Manner as they shall by Law direct. The Number of Representatives shall not exceed one for every thirty Thousand, but each State shall have at Least one Representative; and until such enumeration shall be made, the State of New Hampshire shall be entitled to chuse three, Massachusetts eight, Rhode Island and Providence Plantations one, Connecticut five, New-York six, New Jersey four, Pennsylvania eight, Delaware one, Maryland six, Virginia ten, North Carolina five, South Carolina five, and Georgia three.

This second American idea is the anti-thesis of the first, however, they have coexisted across the fullness of history until today. The United States has never fully reckoned with this duplicity of ideas that are at the shared heart beat of the nation, and such a reckoning is my primary intellectual interest and passion today. I am a late arriver to this understanding of the World and it is important to say that clearly. As a White man, it was relatively easy for me to roll through life without being jarred as I am today by the juxtaposition of these two ideas that have been present from the beginning.

I understand reckoning to a process and not a set of facts or beliefs–everyone can only start from where they are! The process has three basic parts:

First, learning about the past and the present, realizing that incomplete and false history was not taught to you by accident. Second, learning how to talk about Race and other ways in which there are hierarchies of human value–this takes practice and the only way to get better is to learn and talk about it. Finally, as both individuals and most importantly as a community, we must decide what our new understanding means for the future. What will we do about what we learn?

I would be honored for you to join me in the journey.

About Don Taylor
Professor of Public Policy (with appointments in Business, Nursing, Community and Family Medicine, and the Duke Clinical Research Institute), and Chair of the Academic Council at Duke University . I am one of the founding faculty of the Margolis Center for Health Policy. My research focuses on improving care for persons who are dying, and I am co-PI of a CMMI award in Community Based Palliative Care. I teach both undergrads and grad students at Duke. On twitter @donaldhtaylorjr

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