Celebrating July Fourth Should Mean Questioning United States History

In this political cartoon an earlier generation of immigrants to the United States, now prosperous, seeks to bar new arrivals
In this political cartoon an earlier generation of immigrants to the United States, now prosperous, seeks to bar new arrivals. Their shadows betray their past.
This is Part 2 of my July 4th Independence Day blog. Part 1 explored my approach to teaching American history and included a series of themes and essential questions that focus student attention as they examine what is important to know and why. Because it was the week Americans celebrate Independence Day, the blog examined a quote from a speech by Frederick Douglass, abolitionist and former slave. The speech was delivered in Rochester, New York in 1852, and Douglass asked the assembled, “What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July?” I use the speech in social studies classes to engage students in examining the question “How do we create a more just society?”

Follow Alan Singer on Twitter: https://twitter.com/ReecesPieces8

Essential Questions about the Past and Present

1. How should we interpret the United States Constitution?

2. How do we preserve and extend democracy in the United States?

3. What is the responsibility of government?

4. What is an American?

1. How should we interpret the United States Constitution?

This is clearly an ongoing debate stretching from Washington’s first administration and arguments between cabinet members Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson to the current Supreme Court. It is noteworthy that Jefferson, who favored a narrow or strict reading of the Constitution, interpreted national power broadly when I suited his purposes and he negotiated for the purchase of the Louisiana Territory doubling the size of the United States. Even rightwing stalwart Antonin Scalia, who repeatedly argues for judicial restraint and against federal overreach, had no problem extending first amendment protection and citizenship rights to private businesses in the Citizens United decision. I introduce this question to students with a mock face-off between Scalia and former Associate Justice William Brennan. Brennan, who was appointed by Dwight Eisenhower to the Supreme Court in the 1950s was neither a radical nor a liberal, but he was very thoughtful about how to interpret the Constitution and the role of Supreme Court Justices. His key point is that “the genius of the Constitution rests not in any static meaning it might have had in a world that is dead and gone, but in the adaptability of its great principles to cope with current problems and current needs.” In 1996 Associate Justice Scalia responded directly to Brennan’s views arguing for a much narrower interpretation of the Constitution based on a principle he called “textualism” but has also been identified as “originalism.” Supreme Court Justices have a tendency to be long-winded and feel the need to touch on every implication of an idea, so teachers need to pick and choose as they select passages from the documents.

There are those who find legitimacy in fidelity to what they call “the intentions of the Framers.” In its most doctrinaire incarnation, this view demands that Justices discern exactly what the Framers thought about the question under consideration and simply follow that intention in resolving the case before them. It is a view that feigns self-effacing deference to the specific judgments of those who forged our original social compact. But in truth it is little more than arrogance cloaked as humility. It is arrogant to pretend that from our vantage we can gauge accurately the intent of the Framers on application of principle to specific, contemporary questions . . . We current Justices read the Constitution in the only way that we can: as Twentieth Century Americans. We look to the history of the time of framing and to the intervening history of interpretation. But the ultimate question must be, what do the words of the text mean in our time. For the genius of the Constitution rests not in any static meaning it might have had in a world that is dead and gone, but in the adaptability of its great principles to cope with current problems and current needs. What the constitutional fundamentals meant to the wisdom of other times cannot be their measure to the vision of our time. Similarly, what those fundamentals mean for us, our descendants will learn, cannot be the measure to the vision of their time.

“I am first of all a textualist, and secondly an originalist. If you are a textualist, you don’t care about the intent, and I don’t care if the framers of the Constitution had some secret meaning in mind when they adopted its words. I take the words as they were promulgated to the people of the United States, and what is the fairly understood meaning of those words. I’m not very good at determining what the aspirations of the American people are . . . If you want somebody who’s in touch with what are the evolving standards of decency that reflect a maturing society, ask the congress. Many European countries envy the United States Supreme Court because of its wonderful power to create rights that ought to exist and eliminate rights that ought not. I suggest this is a very new enterprise. We’ve only been doing it for forty years. We haven’t lasted for 200 years doing it. And we haven’t gone far down the road. I think at the end of it, at the end of the road, there is really a serious weakening of constitutional democracy.”

2. How do we preserve and extend democracy in the United States?

This debate has also been going on since the early years of the republic when Jefferson and his supporters challenged Alien and Sedition Laws passed by Congress and signed by President John Adams. It involves ongoing debates over who has the right to vote and representation in national and state governments. As his second term as president came to an end in 1961, Dwight Eisenhower grew increasingly concerned about threats to democracy in the United States. During his administration he had to address both McCarthyism and the Cold War. But in his farewell address to the nation Eisenhower chose to warn against the “unwarranted influence” of the rich and powerful on government decisions, particularly on military decisions. The Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission (2010) case revolved around the constitutionality of federal election laws that regulated campaign spending by corporations and other organizations. The majority opinion, delivered by Associate Justice Anthony Kennedy, argued that the First Amendment “prohibits Congress from fining or jailing citizens, or associations of citizens, for simply engaging in political speech” and extended this right to the very rich and powerful corporations that Eisenhower feared were gaining to much influence over government. The quote is from Chief Justice John Roberts’ concurring opinion.

“Until the latest of our world conflicts, the United States had no armaments industry. American makers of plowshares could, with time and as required, make swords as well. But now we can no longer risk emergency improvisation of national defense; we have been compelled to create a permanent armaments industry of vast proportions. Added to this, three and a half million men and women are directly engaged in the defense establishment. We annually spend on military security more than the net income of all United States corporations. This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience. The total influence – economic, political, even spiritual – is felt in every city, every Statehouse, every office of the Federal government. We recognize the imperative need for this development. Yet we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications. Our toil, resources and livelihood are all involved; so is the very structure of our society. In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military—industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist. We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together.”

“The Government urges us in this case to uphold a direct prohibition on political speech. It asks us to embrace a theory of the First Amendment that would allow censorship not only of television and radio broadcasts, but of pamphlets, posters, the Internet, and virtually any other medium that corporations and unions might find useful in expressing their views on matters of public concern. Its theory, if accepted, would empower the Government to prohibit newspapers from running editorials or opinion pieces supporting or opposing candidates for office, so long as the newspapers were owned by corporations—as the major ones are. First Amendment rights could be confined to individuals, subverting the vibrant public discourse that is at the foundation of our democracy. The Court properly rejects that theory, and I join its opinion in full. The First Amendment protects more than just the individual on a soapbox and the lonely pamphleteer . . . [C]areful consideration convinces me that Congress violates the First Amendment when it decrees that some speakers may not engage in political speech at election time, when it matters most.”

3. What is the responsibility of government?

The Declaration of Independence famously announced, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Much of the history of the United States has been about struggles to extend the promise of the Declaration to more people. This has included debates over the responsibility of government to prosecute injustice and provide work, welfare, old age and disability insurance, and for health care. Herbert Hoover and Franklin Roosevelt debated the responsibility of government when the United States was confronted by the Great Depression during the 1930s. Roosevelt continued to address it as the nation planned for the post-World War II era including in his 1944 State of the Union Address. Martin Luther King, Jr. repeatedly challenged the government to act aggressively to address inequality in the United States and toward the end of his life began to question the very nature of American society. Ronald Reagan responded to both Roosevelt and King arguing that government action was the problem rather than the solution including in his 1985 State of the Union Address. The debate over the responsibility of government continues today especially in arguments over health insurance and education.

“The American system is founded upon the conception that only through ordered liberty, freedom and equal opportunity to the individual will his initiative and enterprise spur on the march of progress . . . The Republican Party restored the government to its position as an umpire instead of a player in the economic game . . . For these reasons the American people have gone forward in progress while the rest of the world halted.”

“I shall ask the Congress for the one remaining instrument to meet the crisis -- broad executive power to wage a war against the enemy -- as great as the power that would be given me if we were in fact invaded by a foreign foe . . . The country needs and demands bold experimentation. It is common sense to take a method and try it. If it fails admit it firmly and try another. But above all try something.”

“We cannot be content, no matter how high that general standard of living may be, if some fraction of our people—whether it be one-third or one-fifth or one-tenth—is ill-fed, ill-clothed, ill-housed, and insecure. This Republic had its beginning, and grew to its present strength, under the protection of certain inalienable political rights—among them the right of free speech, free press, free worship, trial by jury, freedom from unreasonable searches and seizures. They were our rights to life and liberty. As our nation has grown in size and stature, however—as our industrial economy expanded—these political rights proved inadequate to assure us equality in the pursuit of happiness. We have come to a clear realization of the fact that true individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence . . . People who are hungry and out of a job are the stuff of which dictatorships are made. In our day these economic truths have become accepted as self-evident. We have accepted, so to speak, a second Bill of Rights under which a new basis of security and prosperity can be established for all — regardless of station, race, or creed.”

“There are forty million poor people here, and one day we must ask the question, “Why are there forty million poor people in America?” And when you begin to ask that question, you are raising a question about the economic system, about a broader distribution of wealth. When you ask that question, you begin to question the capitalistic economy. And I’m simply saying that more and more, we’ve got to begin to ask questions about the whole society. We are called upon to help the discouraged beggars in life’s marketplace. But one day we must come to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring. It means that questions must be raised. And you see, my friends, when you deal with this you begin to ask the question, “Who owns the oil?” You begin to ask the question, “Who owns the iron ore?” You begin to ask the question, “Why is it that people have to pay water bills in a world that’s two-thirds water?”

“This government will meet its responsibility to help those in need. But policies that increase dependency, break up families, and destroy self-respect are not progressive; they’re reactionary . . . Let us place new dreams in a million hearts and create a new generation of entrepreneurs . . . Let us resolve that we will stop spreading dependency and start spreading opportunity; that we will stop spreading bondage and start spreading freedom. There are some who say that growth initiatives must await final action on deficit reductions. Well, the best way to reduce deficits is through economic growth. More businesses will be started, more investments made, more jobs created, and more people will be on payrolls paying taxes. The best way to reduce government spending is to reduce the need for spending by increasing prosperity . . . Reducing unneeded red tape and regulations, and deregulating the energy, transportation, and financial industries have unleashed new competition, giving consumers more choices, better services, and lower prices . . . Every dollar the federal government does not take from us, every decision it does not make for us will make our economy stronger, our lives more abundant, our future more free.”

4. What is an American?

What is an American was one of the most contentious issues in the 2016 Presidential election as Donald Trump called for a wall to separate the United States from Mexico, ending automatic citizenship for children of undocumented immigrants born in this country, and barring Muslims from entering the United States. But this is certainly not a new debate. In 1895, a poem by Thomas Aldrich decried the way a “motley throng” of new immigrants were threatening to undermine the American way of life and demanded, in an idea now echoed by Trump, that gates be placed around the country. Poet Langston Hughes answered him in the 1920s when he wrote “I, Too.” In the 1920s Congress enacted quota laws to sharply restrict Southern and Eastern European immigration. These immigration restrictions were not repealed until 1965 when President Lyndon Johnson signed a new immigration bill into law. During World War II, Paul Robeson, who faced discrimination because he was African American and was later victimized for his political beliefs, sang a “Ballad for Americans” seeking to define and unify a country built on diversity. Watch Reeces Pieces’ Youtube defense of immigrants.

Unguarded Gates (1895) By Thomas Aldrich

Wide open and unguarded stand our gates, And through them presses a wild motley throng- - Men from the Volga and the Tartar steppes, Featureless figures of the Hoang-Ho, Malayan, Scythian, Teuton, Kelt, and Slav, Flying the Old World's poverty and scorn; These bringing with them unknown gods and rites, Those, tiger passions, here to stretch their claws.

In street and alley what strange tongues are loud, Accents of menace alien to our air, Voices that once the Tower of Babel knew! O Liberty, white Goddess! Is it well To leave the gates unguarded?

I, too, sing America. I am the darker brother. They send me to eat in the kitchen when company comes, but I laugh, and eat well, and grow strong. Tomorrow, I’ll be at the table when company comes. Nobody’ll dare say to me, “Eat in the kitchen," then. Besides, they’ll see how beautiful I am and be ashamed —

This political cartoon is from 1916. The idea of using a wall to keep out immigrants is not new.
This political cartoon is from 1916. The idea of using a wall to keep out immigrants is not new.

“There is an old saying, ‘A stitch in times save nine,’ and this saying, in my opinion, is apropos of the condition that exists in the United States at the present moment with relation to the need of a law which will protect the citizens of this country from the foreign immigrants who are fleeing to our shores to escape the heavy taxation in the war-devastated regions of Europe. Some time ago it was my privilege to visit Ellis Island, not as a member of the committee but as a private citizen interested in obtaining information relative to the situation which exists at that place. I stood at the end of a hall with three physicians, and I saw them examine each immigrant as they came down the line, rolling back the upper eyelid in order to gain some information as to the individual's physical condition. I saw them place the chalk marks on their clothing which indicated that they were in a diseased condition, so that they could be separated when they reached the place where they were to undergo certain examinations. Afterwards I went to a large assembly hall where immigrants came before the examiners to take the literacy test, and the one fact that impressed me more than anything else was that practically every single immigrant examined that day had less than $50 to his credit . . . Practically all of them were weak, small of stature, poorly clad, emaciated, and in a condition which showed that the environment surrounding them in their European homes were indeed very bad. It is for this reason that I say the class of immigrants coming to the shores of the United States at this time are not the kind of people we want as citizens in this country.”

Ballad for Americans” By John La Touche and Earl Robinson

Am I an American? I'm just an Irish, Jewish, Italian, French and English, Spanish, Russian, Chinese, Polish, Scotch, Hungarian, Swedish, Finnish, Greek and Turk and Czech. And that ain't all. I was baptized Baptist, Methodist, Congregationalist, Lutheran, Atheist, Roman Catholic, Jewish, Presbyterian, Seventh Day Adventist, Mormon, Quaker, Christian Scientist and lots more . . . . Deep as our valleys, High as our mountains, Strong as the people who made it. For I have always believed it, and I believe it now, And now you know who I am. Who are you? America! America!

“Our beautiful America was built by a nation of strangers. From a hundred different places or more they have poured forth into an empty land, joining and blending in one mighty and irresistible tide. The land flourished because it was fed from so many sources--because it was nourished by so many cultures and traditions and peoples. And from this experience, almost unique in the history of nations, has come America's attitude toward the rest of the world. We, because of what we are, feel safer and stronger in a world as varied as the people who make it up--a world where no country rules another and all countries can deal with the basic problems of human dignity and deal with those problems in their own way . . . Over my shoulders here you can see Ellis Island, whose vacant corridors echo today the joyous sound of long ago voices. And today we can all believe that the lamp of this grand old lady is brighter today-- and the golden door that she guards gleams more brilliantly in the light of an increased liberty for the people from all the countries of the globe.”