It was the best of rides; it was the worst of rides.
I took an Uber drive from the White House to Reagan airport last March. When I got in, the driver, after saying hello, immediately informed me, “America was founded on slavery.”
I was a bit taken aback by his assertion, not that I hadn’t heard it before, but I wasn’t expecting to launch into a discussion on the subject with a stranger. The rain began coming down heavily, however, turning a normally 20-minute drive to the airport into a 45-minute slog, so I engaged the driver about his views.
After hearing his case, I asked whether he knew of the original draft of the Declaration of Independence, written by Thomas Jefferson. He did not.
I told him about the following passage in the original draft, in which Jefferson accuses King George III of “having waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating and carrying them to slavery in another hemisphere, or to incur miserable death in their transportations thither. This piratical warfare, the opprobrium of infidel powers, is the warfare of the Christian king of Great Britain[,] determined to keep open a market where MEN should be bought [and] sold.”
Two things stand out from this passage. First, note that in the last line, Jefferson puts “men” in capital letters. This emphasis was his own, and answers the question of whether blacks were included in the Declaration’s famous phrase, “all men are created equal.” They certainly were, as Jefferson’s words attest.
Second, we learn a lesson about the limits of politics when we ask the natural question, “Why isn’t Jefferson’s condemnation of chattel slavery in the version approved by the Continental Congress?” The answer is that the slaveholding states would never have joined in the War for Independence had it been included.
I next asked my Uber driver, “What would have been the likelihood of the Revolution succeeding had the South not joined the North in prosecuting it?” He acknowledged that the Revolution would have failed without the South.
“And how many slaves would have been freed if the Revolution had failed?” I asked him.
“None,” he answered. “But Jefferson, and not only Jefferson, continued to hold slaves despite the Declaration’s promise of equality,” he added. “Therefore, the Declaration is not a liberty document.”
He had rightly reached the core of the debate: How do you reconcile the fact that the Declaration promises equality, but it and the Constitution seemed to do nothing to end slavery?
In answering, I began with the words of the famed former slave-turned-abolitionist Frederick Douglass, who, in 1852, proclaimed the Constitution a “glorious liberty document” — not the Constitution after the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments, but the original Constitution. Douglass pointed to the Constitution’s delayed ban on the importation of slaves, which took effect in 1808. He asked whether any constitution, anywhere, bans that which it thinks is good.
I asked my Uber driver Douglass’s question, but he refused to answer. The rain stopped as we reached the airport, and my impromptu civics dialogue had ended. Whether I reached him or not, I do not know.
‘No Better Place in the World than America’
Fast-forward one year. A few months ago, I arrived in the Philadelphia airport and took another Uber ride. My driver announced to me when I got in his car that he had immigrated from Liberia. I mentioned I knew a bit about Liberia, specifically its role as a colony for freed slaves.
He responded with a detailed description of the American Colonization Society, which, during the half-century before the Civil War, relocated 12,000 people from America to West Africa. The driver also knew that Abraham Lincoln considered the recolonization of freed slaves to Liberia but rejected it because he thought it would impose an undue burden on the freed slaves.
“I can tell you this,” the driver said. “I worked for the U.N. I have been around the world. There is no better place in the world than America!”
“That’s nice to hear you say,” I responded. “But you have certainly heard that some in this country don’t feel that way.”
“That is because they don’t know their own history!” he exclaimed, and he was correct. Recent polling shows only 19 percent of native-born Americans under age 45 can answer six out of 10 questions correctly from the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services citizenship test. Meanwhile, legal immigrants pass the test at a 90 percent clip.
“When I came to this country 10 years ago,” said the driver, “I had only two pairs of pants and two shirts to my name. Now, my family is here with me. I have a house, and I am finishing a double major in biology and chemistry.”
“That sounds like what we used to call ‘The American Dream,’” I responded.
“That dream is still alive,” he said. “You just have to be willing to work for it.”
I told him that what he had just said, although I agreed, would nonetheless bring on him the charge of “microaggression” at the University of California at Santa Cruz, which lists the following on its website: “Myth of Meritocracy: ‘Everyone can succeed in this society if they work hard enough.’”
“When I hear that stuff,” he fumed, “it makes me very, very angry. I kiss the ground that is America.”
A Tale of Two Uber Drivers
What do my two Uber-driver encounters tell us about America today? On the one hand, those who know more about American history tend not only to approve but to admire it. On the other hand, those who — through no fault of their own — did not receive a sound civics education are easy prey for unscrupulous demagogues who capitalize on ignorance to promote monstrous falsehoods, such as, “American was founded on slavery.”
My Uber drivers were both black. The driver who believed America to be founded on slavery revealed he knew little of the true history of this country. The newly arrived immigrant driver who believed America to be the best place to live in the world had both a solid knowledge of American history and real-world experience gained from living in other countries.
It seems that just as legal immigrants to this country score far higher on the citizenship test than do native-born Americans, so also have newly naturalized citizens been better able to pierce the veil covering the half-truths and ad hominem arguments by which anti-American ideologues seek to convince us that, to quote New York’s governor, “America was never that great.”
Down which road will America go: toward the self-destructive lie that America was founded on slavery, or toward an appreciation of the reason why millions of immigrants leave their homelands for this country? The answer to this question will decide America’s future.