The Greatness of America

Here are two classified advertisements from the Washington, D.C. newpapers in the year 1842:

“Ran away, a negro named Arthur. Had a considerable scar across his breast and each arm, made by a knife; loves to talk much of the goodness of God”

“Ran away, a negro woman and two children. A few days before she went off, I burnt her with a hot iron on the left side of her face. I tried to make the letter ‘M'”

Charles Dickens included these advertisements, along with many others, in his American Notes. He also observed that anyone in the American South who expressed the opinion that slavery was wrong could be hanged on the spot.

In a public park he head a mother tell her little boy that if he behaved himself she would buy him a whip “to beat the little n—–s with.”

“This is not the republic I came to see,” he said.

What’s the point of dragging this up? Slavery was abolished, right?

The point is, in my humble opinion, that each and every one of the people who like to stand up and say, over and over again, how great America is — how many such people do we hear every day? — ought to read these testaments of inhumanity, baldly presented in the public prints of our nations’s capital, and acknowledge that the bestial conduct they describe was condoned by all upstanding citizens, North and South.

Then, instead of talking about how great America is, they might say, “Well we’ve made terrible mistakes, but we’ve tried to learn from them and do the right thing.”

If that were to happen (though I don’t think it probable) I think America would be better regarded by the other countries of the world. Because I think the greatness of America is learning when we’re wrong and working to make it right.

Here are some previous entries about Dickens’ American Notes (the Cairo one is really funny):

Visit Scenic Cairo, Illinois!
Universal Disregard of the Spittoon
Dickens Has a Laugh With a Choctaw Chieftain
Great Turtle and Little Hatchet
“Those that want to be safe must hoist flags”
“A Proud and Pleasant Thing”
I Tried to Make the Letter M