SEDONA, Ariz. – As a government official in World War II, Hamilton Warren was outraged to learn that a black colleague made half as much as his white peers.
So, after the war, the wealthy Harvard graduate and his wife, Barbara, pitched up a tent in a remote corner of northern Arizona. Working together with the Hopi people, they built a school open to every race, creed, orientation and nationality, and dedicated to values of environmental stewardship, physical labor and cultural understanding.
Verde Valley School was and remains among the most genuinely progressive boarding schools anywhere. It is surely the most American. Instead of aping the Etonian traditions of the Old World, it created something different for the New. It believed in an identity that was forged, not just inherited; in the possibility of transcending differences, not reinforcing them; in making a break from the past, not remaining fixated by it.
So it is with so much in the United States, which makes it so different from nearly everywhere else. When Hernán Cortés and his men landed on the coast of Mexico in 1519, they encountered a world of barbarity: incessant warfare, endemic slavery and human sacrifice. They, in turn, inflicted their own barbarities: massacres, epidemics, forced labor and religious intolerance.
Whether one barbarity was better than the other is not a particularly interesting debate. The conquest of Mexico was another chapter of history as it usually is, a contest for power with little hope for progress.
The Conquistadors and their successors also imported millions of African slaves. Seen in the overall context of the Western Hemisphere – or, for that matter, most of the pre-modern world – the arrival of more than 20 slaves in Virginia a century later was abominable but not unique.
Yet something else came to America: the idea of liberty. Unlike the taste for plunder, which is nearly universal, the idea of liberty isn’t. It emerges from a distinctive intellectual tradition that, within a limited sphere, emphasized the claims of individual conscience, a disintermediated relationship with God and a skeptical view of state power.
It also emerged from a unique historical circumstance. Cortés was a soldier acting in the name of the Spanish crown and the Catholic Church. Among those who came to North America, many were religious dissenters and political refugees, starting with the Huguenots in Canada and the Mayflower Pilgrims. They could be tyrants and bigots, violent and superstitious. But they also saw themselves, if sometimes self-servingly, as nonconformists and victims of political persecution.
It was this self-conception that encouraged successive generations of religious dissenters, movement starters and freethinkers to go their own way. As importantly, it also made it untenable, over the long haul, for those in positions of authority to oppose them.
Elsewhere in the world – Spain in the 17th century, China today – the argument against liberty has mainly been an argument for tradition, hierarchy and order. In America, the argument against liberty has been the argument of hypocrites. To deny freedom to others inevitably means subverting the principle through which one can claim freedom for oneself.
That’s why every significant liberation movement in the U.S., from abolition to suffrage to civil rights to marriage equality, has made its case by appealing to foundational principles, not rejecting them.
“The existence of slavery in this country brands your republicanism as a sham,” Frederick Douglass reproached a Rochester, New York, audience July 5, 1852. But he also said, in the same speech, that “interpreted as it ought to be interpreted, the Constitution is a glorious liberty document.” Martin Luther King Jr. made essentially the same case 111 years later from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.
This has always been one of the astonishments of America: The origin story of the ruling class does more to undermine than bolster its claims to power. Take that origin story away – the one that traces a line from Mayflower Compact to the Declaration of Independence to the Battle of Gettysburg to the Freedom Riders – and you lose this.
Past generations of oppressed Americans have bested their oppressors by appealing to their conscience and self-interest. But if a new origin story were to tell us that our ideals have always been a sham (as opposed to being honored too much in the breach) and that the whole story of America is one of unremitting oppression (as opposed to the far-too-gradual relief of oppression), then we would lose the mechanism of self-reproach by which past progress was made.
At that point, the only thing for people with power to do would be to hold on to it. Why should anyone bother to measure his behavior according to standards nobody expects him to hold?
This is a beautiful country, especially amid red rocks under vast skies. But as people like Hamilton Warren knew, the real beauty of America has less to do with the outer vistas than the inner ones – the ever-renewing possibility of being “more perfect” according to ideals that remain our starting point and destination.
Bret Stephens is a columnist for The New York Times.