Reparation for the Three Original Sins of the Nation

The denial of territorial rights of the Indigenous peoples from whom the land was taken, the basic human rights of the African slaves who built the foundation for today’s economy, and the right of women to vote and fully participate in society are original sins of the United States of America. Each of the three sins of omission in the founding of the United States was a denial of God-given, self-evident, unalienable rights proclaimed by the Founders. None of these acts can be undone or fully atoned by acts of the U.S. Congress or the people. But neither can the continuing legacy of their denial be ignored or easily excused. It will be very difficult, if not impossible, to restore progress toward a “more perfect union” until there is a national consensus, including those whose rights have been denied, regarding reparation for these three original sins.


In my previous four blog posts, I have attempted to lay the groundwork for this discussion. In the first, Liberty and Justice for All, I made the case that liberty and justice are the most basic expressions of the initial covenant or promise made by the newly formed government to the people of the United States. All legitimate functions of government, by one means or another, are intended to secure liberty and justice for all. Most political disagreements are rooted in beliefs that the government is placing too much emphasis on individual liberty or alternatively on social justice. However, as I explained, there can be no justice for all without liberty for all and no liberty for all without justice for all. Justice without liberty is not just, and liberty without justice is not freedom.


In my second post, In Defense of the Founders, I pointed out that the Founding Fathers understood the limitations of the government they created and laid out a clear agenda for future generations to continue their mission “toward a more perfect union.” Their agenda was clearly expressed in the American Declaration of Independence and the Preamble to the Constitution of the United States of America. Both of these documents are rooted in a concurrence of core values of Christianity and Western Moral Philosophy. They understood that the “just power” of government is derived from the “consent of the governed,” and they did not have the necessary consensus of the people at that time to abolish slavery or grant voting rights to women, let alone address violations of the territorial rights of displaced Indigenous peoples.


My third post was a re-posting of a series of eight blog pieces written in 2017, Finding Common Grounds. These posts explained my grounds for believing that the American people could find means of healing the current wide and growing political divide by refocusing on the core values and principles upon which the nation was founded. I suggested a process by which we might reestablish a consensus through an extended national discussion for the purpose of adding a collective “New Bill of Rights and Responsibilities” to the U.S. Constitution. I emphasized that this collection of amendments must address the contentious priorities of both the political Left and the Right. I conclude by suggesting a “Declaration of Interdependence” to reflect our growing understanding of the interdependence of humanity with the other living and nonliving things on Earth.


My most recent post, Toward a More Perfect Union, outlined 200 years of progress in fulfilling the Founder’s promise or covenant of a government that secures liberty and justice for all. The nation was created by the Declaration of Independence in 1776 and ratification of the Articles of Confederation by the 13 American Colonies in 1781. The first major step toward the improvement of governance was the act of replacing the Articles of Confederation with the current Constitution of the United States of America in 1791. The second step addressed in my blog was the abolition of slavery and granting of voting rights to former slaves during the 1860s. Next came the Progressive Movement of the early 1900s which succeeded in limiting corporate power and finally granted voting rights to women. And finally, the civil rights, feminist, and environmental movements of the 1960s sought once again to fulfill the promise of liberty and justice for all, in the case of the environmental movement, including the rights of future generations. Paraphrasing Martin Luther King Jr. observed, “The moral arc of American history is long, but it has bent toward justice.”


Over the past 40 years, we have witnessed a retreat from the long quest “toward a more perfect union.” The Occupy Wall Street movement of 2011, in response to the financial bailout of 2009, revealed economic inequities not seen since the Gilded Era of the early 1900s. A months-long sit-in protest of the Dakota Access Pipeline initiated in early 2016 by the Sioux people of the Standing Rock Reservation in North Dakota drew thousands of supporters of Indigenous Peoples’ Rights from across the nation. The Women’s March on Washington DC in January 2017 against flagrant anti-women/sexist political rhetoric was reportedly the largest single-day protest in U.S. history. An estimated four million people around the world took to the streets in September 2019 to demand that governments take action to mitigate the negative impacts of global climate change. The movement was ignited by a 16-year-old Swedish girl who said, “We demand a safe future. Is that really too much to ask?” And then, the Black Lives Matter movement exploded into major street demonstrations in 2020 protesting continuing police brutality against racial minorities and persistent denials of “equal protection under the law.”


All of these movements are responses to the past 40 years of increasingly flagrant violations of the historic American covenant of liberty and justice for all. In my opinion, none of these movements will be successful in bending “the moral arc of American history back toward justice” unless the various movements unite in support of a common set of demands rooted in the founding documents of the United States of America. They must join with the American people in demanding that the government keep its covenant to secure liberty and justice for all, not just for those affected by their particular causes.


I believe all disenfranchised, discriminated against, or marginalized people can legitimately demand reparation for past denials of their basic constitutional rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Some will argue that legal rights are limited to those specifically enumerated in the U.S. Constitution. However, the 9th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution clearly states, “The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.” The U.S. Supreme Court has never clearly ruled regarding the specific rights left unenumerated by the Founders. However, what could be clearer than the Founders' intentions that among those unenumerated rights are the rights they earlier expressed as self-evident truths in the Declaration of Independence? The founders also declared that governments are instituted for the specific purpose of securing these rights.


It would be reasonable to ask, in what sense would providing liberty and justice for all represent reparation for the original sins of the nation? First, it’s important to recall from my first blog piece, political liberty requires protection of the unalienable rights of all to participate fully in society and governance, and justice requires “impartial treatment of every man in matters that relate to his happiness”—to the extent that such is capable of being bestowed. I am convinced that the U.S. government has a constitutional responsibility to ensure all the basic essentials for the pursuit of happiness—to the extent they are capable of being bestowed by the government. In the U.S., these essentials include clean water to drink and air to breathe, enough wholesome nutritious food to eat, sufficient education to participate fully in processes of democracy, universal access to basic health care, time to rest and recreate, and enough money for basic needs that cannot be acquired by other means. The ability to pursue happiness cannot be ensured by simply giving people money or providing economic opportunities. I will address the essentials for liberty and justice more fully in a future blog.


Who would benefit most from the assurance of liberty and justice? Obviously, those who are currently being discriminated against, marginalized, or otherwise oppressed by the denial of liberty and justice. Today’s oppressed are made up predominantly of those who are suffering from a legacy of the denial of basic human rights, going all the way back to the arrival of the first European settlers in North America. Those denied include Indigenous Peoples, African Americans, Women, and various other minorities protected by current civil rights laws. The oppressed also include many others who have been marginalized and exploited during the pursuit of economic growth and individual wealth as the expense of liberty and justice.

Who should logically bear the economic cost of this national reparation? Obviously, those who have benefited economically from the denial and deprivation. The current stock of national economic wealth is largely a consequence of past economic exploitation and the ongoing extraction of excess profits or economic rents from the economy. Certainly, some of the wealthy have benefited by contributing rather than extracting and exploiting. However, every “self-made man” has built "his" success on a foundation of past economic exploitation. Equally obvious, the future costs of reparation should be borne in proportion to the past benefits—which means by the wealthiest one percent, perhaps ten percent, of Americans.


We live in one of the wealthiest nations in the world, and we can afford the costs of reparation—even if it requires significant contributions by those of us in the middle class. In reality, reparation is not a sacrifice because it requires nothing more than keeping the covenant made by the founders of the nation. Reparation is an essential step in realigning our nation’s history with the moral arc of the universe as it bends toward justice. This is not socialism; this the “democratic republicanism”. If we still believe in the original covenant, we simply cannot afford to continue denying reparation for the past sins of the nation. If we have lost faith in that covenant, we can choose to continue our nation’s blind pursuit of economic growth and financial wealth. However, we will then have abandoned our aspiration for moral leadership in the world and will have left it for other nations to realign humanity with the moral arc of the universe as it bends toward justice. In this election year of 2020, we are being asked to make this choice.

John Ikerd