July 30 is a great day for freedom and also a bleak one.
It’s a great day because on July 30 1619 the first representative assembly met in the New World, at Jamestown.
The colonists, ill-prepared as they were in almost every other way, brought with them sound principles of political philosophy and practice, and created a legislature despite starvation, disease and chaos because that’s what free Englishmen did, without needing or seeking permission.
It’s also a bleak day because in the same year in the same place the first black slaves were sold, and the commitment to liberty that created the House of Burgesses didn’t stop Virginians and then other southerners, and northerners, from also constructing markets where they bought and sold their fellow humans.
And for centuries to come, with baffling hypocrisy, the freest people in the world denied others the smallest share in liberty.
If they were monsters or American liberty were a fraud it would be easy to explain.
But the United States really is the land of the free and many of these people, if you had met them without yourself recognizing the evils of slavery, would have won your admiration for their courage, decency, even their generosity.
Contemplating this paradox ought to bring a little humility into our own lives.
We are tempted to think we have achieved total enlightenment by our good fortune in having been born in the present not the past.
But if genuinely good people could be blind to the horror and hypocrisy of racial slavery in their midst in their day, what might we overlook in our own that will horrify posterity?
After all, we are the same fallible humans they were.
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