Saturday, July 4, 2020

Independence Day 2020

In the 1760s colonial elites objected to paying their share of taxes to cover the cost of keeping North America British rather than French. By the mid-1770s this movement had developed into a full-scale armed rebellion. And in July 1776 representatives of the rebellious faction, expressing their "decent respect for the opinions of mankind," declared "the causes which impel them" to independence from Great Britain. 

It has been estimated that they represented perhaps 1/3 of the colonists, another 1/3 remaining loyal to the legitimate government in London, the rest probably waiting to see how things turned out. How it turned out was determined militarily, as such issues of sovereignty and borders almost invariably are, by victory in war. The war for independence was a long war, won in the end thanks to the military and naval support of King Louis XVI of France, who may or may not have been inspired by the ideals articulated in the Declaration of Independence but who certainly saw the opportunity to weaken his British rival. Many of the "loyalists," as they came to be remembered, left. Many went north to what remained of British North America and helped populate what became English-speaking Canada. The rest of the former colonists accommodated themselves to the new realities and started to build a new country.

Old conflicts about whether to be British or American gave way to new battles about crafting a constitution, conflicts between "federalists" and "anti-federalists." A series of great and small compromises cobbled together an amazingly resilient constitution and "a more perfect union" got off to a hopeful start under the providential leadership of George Washington, whom his former sovereign, King George III, reportedly called "the greatest man in the world." But conflicts continued, as Hamiltonian Federalists fought Jeffersonian Republicans. If I could go back in time, I would certainly be a Hamiltonian and vote for John Adams, never for the aristocratic, pseudo-populist Jefferson. But, no matter, Hamiltonian nationalism and Jeffersonian populism both survived and in various ways have animated American political debates and divisions ever since.

There was one other division, of course, which predated the constitution, predated independence - America's "original sin" of slavery, which finally brought the young, socially and economically energetic, relatively egalitarian republic to an impasse, to be resolved, as such conflicts almost invariably tend to be resolved, by another war, a traumatic Civil War. A decisive victory in 1865 should have resolved the conflict; but, after a short interval of relatively successful "Reconstruction," the defeated confederates were allowed to regain power and reimpose a racist regime, which would take yet another century to be dismantled - and even now remains a force to be reckoned with in the hearts and minds of too many.

Meanwhile millions of newcomers, many unwanted, came to this new nation, seeking mainly freedom from want but in the process embracing other freedoms as well. When we celebrated our Bicentennial in 1976, I was struck by how the celebrations in New York that day were as much about this country's diverse immigrant experience as about what happened in Philadelphia in 1776, although what had been proclaimed back then in Philadelphia had been amazingly assimilated by the immigrants the nation had itself assimilated, creating a country uniquely based more on a civic identity than on a racial or ethnic one. 

But, of course, the racial and ethnic divides remained real, to the detriment of the acquired civic identity. And especially in times of stress, demagogic appeals to the militarily defeated but still living religion of white supremacy still have power to undermine the national unity promised by our unique civic identity, as has so dramatically been evident in recent years.

So 244 years later, that same "decent respect for the opinions of mankind" demands a continued accounting, a continued resolve to attend to the unfinished business of both the Revolutionary War and the Civil War, to fulfill the promise of "a more perfect union" proposed by the Constitution, a promise turned into a possibility by the transformed Constitution created by the Civil War.

And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.

No comments:

Post a Comment