In Defense of Hypocrisy: the Confusion of the 1776 Report and its Critics

Underlying the debate about the 1776 Report is the question as to the founders’ hypocrisy. The report states: “The most common charge leveled against the founders, and hence against our country itself, is that they were hypocrites who didn’t believe in their stated principles, and therefore the country they built rests on a lie. This charge is untrue and has done enormous damage…with a devastating effect on our civic unity and social fabric.” The Report’s critics point to this obvious contradiction more than almost anything else. How can the report have any integrity insofar as it claims the founders weren’t hypocrites? How can we believe that they believed in the principles of the Declaration of Independence at the same time that they owned slaves? It doesn’t take the “evil” progressive historians the Report evokes to raise these questions: they’re obvious even to schoolchildren.

The difficulty is that the Report seems to misunderstand the meaning of hypocrisy and, so too, the Report’s critics also don’t understand what hypocrisy means. The problem with this “debate,” as with so many other debates in the Trump era, is that the vehemence of their disagreement with one another is making both sides stupid. To see this, let’s first define what hypocrisy actually means. It means that we’re saying one thing while doing another. It doesn’t deny, however, that when we say it we really mean it. In fact, the strength of the hypocrisy charge is precisely in that deeper contradiction. We’re just lying if we say something we don’t mean and then do something that contradicts it. You wouldn’t call that person a hypocrite; you’d call them a liar. But hypocrisy is the belief in one thing while we’re doing something that contradicts that belief. According to that definition, the 1776 Report’s very claim depends on the admission of hypocrisy. They want to claim that the founders truly believed in the principles of the Declaration including in its application to slaves. They’re arguing with historians who say that the founders didn’t really believe in those principles because they owned slaves. To counter that argument it doesn’t make any sense to say that the founders weren’t hypocrites. That would only make sense if they didn’t, in fact, own slaves, which they obviously did! So, the only sensible defense of the founders is precisely that they were hypocrites. They truly believe in equality but they own slaves. They could have been like the Southerners in the period before the Civil War who stopped being hypocrites by no longer believing in equality (the “Declaration of Independence is a ‘self-evident lie'” said some in the South at the time).

Conversely the Report’s critics are actually denying that they were hypocrites. They’re suggesting that the proof that they didn’t believe in the principles of the Declaration is that they owned slaves! No hypocrisy then. They just don’t think the Declaration applies to slaves. These historians resolve the contradiction by denying their actual commitment to equality.

This is all to say that hypocrisy can be a good thing. It allows us truly to believe in virtue even if we don’t always live up to it. As we can see in this “debate,” Americans throw the word “hypocrisy” around as though it’s the worst sin there is. Instead, as the saying goes, “hypocrisy is the compliment vice pays to virtue.”

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