Was our nation created on “racist principles,” as Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, of Vermont, has suggested?

Clearly, our country has a long and troubled history of racism. From shortly after the founding of the Virginia colony in the 17th century, men and women were brought in chains from Africa and compelled to labor as slaves for the benefit of their owners, nearly all of whom were white.

Not long after the abolition of slavery, southern whites waged a campaign of fear and terror to disenfranchise their black neighbors, and they established the odious legal regime of segregation, which endured until the middle of the last century. Even today, after the successes of the modern civil rights movement and the election of our first African-American president, no one would say that the evils of racism have been eradicated from our national life.

But the fact that many Americans have been racist (and that some still are) does not mean that the American nation was (or is) based on racist principles.

The Declaration of Independence speaks in universal terms: “all men are created equal and are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights,” including rights to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

It is true that the man who wrote those immortal lines, Thomas Jefferson, himself owned slaves. Does that mean what Jefferson really meant to say was that “all white men are created equal”?

No less a figure than Chief Justice Roger Brooke Taney thought so. In the notorious Dred Scott case in 1857, Taney argued that Jefferson would never have committed himself to uphold a principle — in this case, human equality — that he could not live up to in practice. Thus Taney concluded that African-Americans could never have the rights of citizens of the United States.

Taney, however, was wrong about Jefferson and wrong about the Declaration of Independence.

In his 1785 book, “Notes on the State of Virginia,” Jefferson wrote eloquently about the way slavery demoralizes and degrades both masters and slaves. Moreover, he acknowledged frankly the injustice of slavery. “Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just,” Jefferson wrote, “that his justice cannot sleep forever.” He knew that, some day, the bill for that injustice would come due.

Tragically, Jefferson himself never managed to live up to his own best principles. He died in debt and did not free most of the people who worked for him as slaves at his great estate, Monticello. But that proves only that Jefferson was weak and imperfect, not that his principles were bad.

If the principles of the Declaration cannot be faulted, perhaps we should condemn the Constitution for having compromised with slavery. The radical abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison thought so, and he called it a “covenant with death and an agreement with Hell.”

At the time the Constitution was adopted, slavery existed as a matter of state law, and though virtually all the states at one time permitted slavery, the institution was deeply entrenched only in the south, where tobacco and cotton farming made it profitable.

When it was first adopted, the Constitution did not end slavery — and to that extent, Garrison’s view has some merit. But the southern states would never have ratified a constitutional charter that abolished slavery. Had the New England states insisted on demanding abolition as the price of Union, there would never have been a United States of America.

Even so, the Constitution never authorizes slavery, and nothing in it directly or indirectly asserts the superiority of any race or ethnic group to any other. Although the Constitution acknowledges the existence of slavery, it treats the institution with repugnance and regards it as an evil soon to be abolished.

Indeed the word “slavery” appears only in the Thirteenth Amendment, where the practice is outlawed. Instead, the Constitution always alludes to those held in slavery as “persons.”

If we want to see the principles of the Constitution, we should look to the preamble: “to establish justice” and “promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.”

Those are not racist principles but, to the contrary, general principles that remain worthy of our allegiance today. But we also should remember that having the right principles — though praiseworthy — is really the easy part. The hard part is living up to them.

Joseph R. Reisert is associate professor of American constitutional law and chairman of the department of government at Colby College in Waterville.

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