Holding to the dream as the fireworks fly

<em>Did Jefferson catch a glimmer of a dream?</em>
Did Jefferson catch a glimmer of a dream?

I hoop and holler over America’s Independence Day with all the enthusiasm of a six-year-old saluting the flag and applauding the fireworks. After all, this nation has stood for freedom and faced down tyrants with global ambitions.

But I don’t primarily celebrate for what happened in 1776. To be sure, the thirteen former colonies beheld a dream: The people should be represented by a government accountable to them, not by monarchs answerable to the mirror’s image. They actually inherited this dream from those hated Brits, who were slowly laying the platform for the freedom-loving constitutional monarchy upon which most modern democracies model themselves. Trouble was, the United Kingdom forgot this concept when applied to the thirteen colonies.

There were flaws, however. Deep flaws. The disaffected British colonialists probably did not need to fight a violent war (nine of the colonies possessed de facto independence on the eve of July 4th) and, more importantly, their prosperity was forged on the backs of African slaves and purged Native Americans. Perhaps it’s telling that the Revolution was unpopular in its first years: The British recruited more colonials than the Continental Army and the subsequent conflict was actually a civil war. Americans clad in red coats fought their fellow countrymen in blue coats. Once the war was won, the nation limped under the Articles of Confederation, which saw the states as semi-countries, then hammered-out a compromise Constitution giving us a president and US Senate not elected by popular vote. Its own authors doubted it would work.

Such was our inauspicious dawn — and it took time and calamity to develop the values and assumptions we now hold near and dear. We were isolationist at first, usually defended by a thread-bare military. We assumed whites were superior to Africans and those naked savages. The philosophy bolstering the later 19th-century’s economic policy added up to a crude form of Social Darwinism, where Victorian robber barons worshiped God on Sunday and exploited their own employees on weekdays.

I celebrate July 4th because of what the United States became. The Constitution was amended so voters would elect the Senate; the slaves were freed (although a brutal form of racism persisted); women got the vote; workers won their rights; and the nation became freedom’s imperfect harbinger when it rose up against those genocidal regimes. Nazism, Japanese imperialism, and Soviet communism fell as we matured beyond the dreams of the New England merchants and southern plantation owners gathered in Philadelphia in 1776.

The United States that we know came into existence in the wake of the New Deal and World War 2, a conflict we tried to evade but eventually embraced. It grew with the Marshall Plan, the civil rights movement and its own repentance over the nation’s 18th-century inconsistencies. To be sure, we’re far from perfect (we’ve toppled democracies, meddled in elections, and bolstered tyrants in the name of anti-communism), but we’ve shared our ideals in fits and starts. Many governments have adopted them. We’ve also advocated human rights, and we’re our own worst critics precisely because the United States was founded on noble ideals.

Interestingly, those vaunted founding fathers saw the country’s inconsistencies even as they embodied them. Take Thomas Jefferson, for instance. He owned slaves. Yet he saw slavery’s evil and accused Britain’s king of perpetuating the institution. Read a portion of a first draft of the Declaration of Independence, excised by southern merchants before it was mailed to George III. Perhaps Jefferson caught a glimmer of the dream of what the young nation would eventually become. Perhaps this will allow us to see beyond our own inconsistencies, flaws, and current peril.

Here’s the excised passage:

The King of Britain) has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating & carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither. This piratical warfare, the opprobrium of infidel powers, is the warfare of the Christian King of Great Britain. Determined to keep open a market where Men should be bought & sold, he has prostituted his negative for suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or restrain this execrable commerce. And that this assemblage of horrors might want no fact of distinguished die, he is now exciting those very people to rise in arms among us, and to purchase that liberty of which he has deprived them, by murdering the people on whom he has obtruded them: thus paying off former crimes committed again the Liberties of one people, with crimes which he urges them to commit against the lives of another.
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