The 4th of July has always been my favorite holiday. Some people love the pomp and patriotism. Others the excuse to drink cheap domestic beer to excess and blow things up. My love of it is more abstract. I love how the holiday– or the idea of the holiday to be more accurate– represents the best of what makes this nation great.
Unlike Thanksgiving and Christmas, which for many are as much obligation as a celebration, the 4th is a party. It is the holiday of friends and loved ones and tons of strangers who are in the same festive mood. It lacks the self-important trappings of New Year’s Eve/New Year’s Day, with it’s forced retrospectives and resolutions. It doesn’t result in miserly old women leaving a waiter the tip of “he is risen” in the place of compensation for the meal he served them. People are not dressing up for no other purpose but to shock, disgust, amuse, and/or arouse one another (well, unless you have a kink for garish American flag ensembles). Nor is it some contrived drinking holiday that misunderstands or misappropriates another culture in order to sell copious amounts of very particular, often gross, beers. It is simply a huge party.
That alone would probably qualify it as my favorite holiday. But the 4th of July is so much more. This is the birthday party for the world’s oldest living democracy. And the principles this nation was founded upon deserves every cheer raised, every ear-shattering explosion, every stirring symphony crescendo, every elephant ear ate, and each and every one of the cheap beers swilled in her honor.
Conceived during the Seven Years War, the birth of the United States of America was announced on July 4th, 1776. Despite our romanticism about the nation, it was not born a powerful and prosperous place. Circumstances and luck played a great role in the survival of our revolution and early republic. This was a small and relatively weak nation. She covered over 892000 square miles of land and was home to over 2.5 million people. This nation exported raw materials and imported nearly all finished goods purchased on the market. Far from being an industrial or commercial powerhouse, we were closer to the “developing nations” of today, full of subsistence farmers and resource extractors. People lived much shorter lives, in much more dangerous and unhealthy conditions. Americans, as a whole, were quite poor. Wide swaths of people were not allowed to vote based on gender, race, and economic standing. Many lived in bondage– in fact, nearly a third of Americans in 1800 were enslaved black people. People crapped in chamber pots.
This has only become truer with the passage of time. The nation is physically larger and more populous. We have more wealth. Better health. Most people can vote (though certain elements among us would like to roll that back). We have yet to master full and equal citizenship for all, but our original sin of racial chattel slavery is gone and it’s cousin Jim Crow is thrashing violently at the end of his long and awful life. To echo Lincoln, we have more of “everything desirable among men.”
Yet, as Lincoln warned, we often find ourselves dismissing these advances. Our success and abundance are not only taken for granted, they are evidence of our weakness. Instead of marveling at our accomplishments and gifts we “fix upon something that happened away back” and “find a race of men living in that day whom we claim as our fathers and grandfathers; they were iron men, they fought for the principle that they were contending for.” The nostalgic among us in nearly every generation of Americans finds this narrative too compelling to ignore. They imagine how much better things were in some bygone era. Some like to imagine the uniqueness of a particular moment in time– the roaring 20s, the Greatest Generation, the Old West. This sort of fantasy is harmless, though I’d note it is always self-indulgent and applied through the lens that you’d be one of the fortunate people of your imagined past, not an illiterate immigrant child worker, a grunt killed before his boat even unloaded at Normandy, or some lonely, penniless miner. And that is the most charitable way to read people’s romantic longings for the past.
We hold this annual celebration to remind ourselves of all the good done in this process of time of how it was done and who did it, and how we are historically connected with it; and we go from these meetings in better humor with ourselves—we feel more attached the one to the other, and more firmly bound to the country we inhabit. In every way we are better men in the age, and race, and country in which we live for these celebrations. But after we have done all this we have not yet reached the whole. There is something else connected with it. We have besides these men—descended by blood from our ancestors—among us perhaps half our people who are not descendants at all of these men, they are men who have come from Europe—German, Irish, French and Scandinavian—men that have come from Europe themselves, or whose ancestors have come hither and settled here, finding themselves our equals in all things.
Add to that those whose ancestors came from Africa, the Middle East, Asia, and Latin America– slaves, laborers, and refugees. All have come hither and settled here, some by choice, others by force, and still more by chance. They too deserve to find themselves our equals in all things.
If they look back through this history to trace their connection with those days by blood, they find they have none, they cannot carry themselves back into that glorious epoch and make themselves feel that they are part of us, but when they look through that old Declaration of Independence they find that those old men say that “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,” and then they feel that that moral sentiment taught in that day evidences their relation to those men, that it is the father of all moral principle in them, and that they have a right to claim it as though they were blood of the blood, and flesh of the flesh of the men who wrote that Declaration, and so they are. That is the electric cord in that Declaration that links the hearts of patriotic and liberty-loving men together, that will link those patriotic hearts as long as the love of freedom exists in the minds of men throughout the world.
The father of all moral principle is the electric cord that links the hearts of all liberty-loving men and women together. This principle is not muted by nationality or race. Nor by gender, religion, or sexuality. This principle is the foundation for democratic governance the world over. It is our sacred gift to the world.
Lincoln used German immigrants to demonstrate this principle:
Now, sirs, for the purpose of squaring things with this idea of “don’t care if slavery is voted up or voted down,” for sustaining the Dred Scott decision [A voice—“Hit him again”], for holding that the Declaration of Independence did not mean anything at all, we have Judge Douglas giving his exposition of what the Declaration of Independence means, and we have him saying that the people of America are equal to the people of England. According to his construction, you Germans are not connected with it. Now I ask you in all soberness, if all these things, if indulged in, if ratified, if confirmed and endorsed, if taught to our children, and repeated to them, do not tend to rub out the sentiment of liberty in the country, and to transform this Government into a government of some other form. Those arguments that are made, that the inferior race are to be treated with as much allowance as they are capable of enjoying; that as much is to be done for them as their condition will allow. What are these arguments? They are the arguments that kings have made for enslaving the people in all ages of the world. You will find that all the arguments in favor of king-craft were of this class; they always bestrode the necks of the people, not that they wanted to do it, but because the people were better off for being ridden. That is their argument, and this argument of the Judge is the same old serpent that says you work and I eat, you toil and I will enjoy the fruits of it.
The same old serpent.
Germans are not “real Americans.”
This is how Know-Nothing nativists portrayed Irish and German Americans. Their party platform included the deportation of foreign-born criminals and panhandlers. They pushed for the use of Protestant Bibles in the schools (and for a particular strain of Protestant social teaching in the history curriculum of the day). They proposed outlandish immigration and naturalization policies meant to make the process so lengthy and onerous as to practically be impossible. The Know-Nothings feared that the United States was being overrun by foreign peoples, whose language, religion, and customs would forever destroy American culture. The only way to save American and return her to greatness was to expel these outsiders and restore the Anglo-Saxon Protestant way of life.
Any of this ring a bell?
Turn in whatever way you will—whether it come from the mouth of a King, an excuse for enslaving the people of his country, or from the mouth of men of one race as a reason for enslaving the men of another race, it is all the same old serpent, and I hold if that course of argumentation that is made for the purpose of convincing the public mind that we should not care about this, should be granted, it does not stop with the negro. I should like to know if taking this old Declaration of Independence, which declares that all men are equal upon principle and making exceptions to it where will it stop. If one man says it does not mean a negro, why not another say it does not mean some other man? If that declaration is not the truth, let us get the Statute book, in which we find it and tear it out! Who is so bold as to do it! If it is not true let us tear it out! Let us stick to it then, let us stand firmly by it then.
If the 4th of July means anything, it means these things:
All humans are created equal.
They are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights.
Among these rights are the right to Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.
There are many more rights– these are just three of the clearest and most unimpeachable examples.
Securing these rights is the responsibility of our government– it is the purpose for which said government exists.
These principles are not to be restricted to a certain gender, race, religion, or class. They are universal. They have been the model for every democracy, from the fully achieved to the still aspirational, ever since. They have been used to tear down empires, break castes, free slaves, and end apartheids.
All humans are created equal.
We have not always lived up to our principles. This is undeniable. There is no sense in ignoring this fact or downplaying it. History is complicated. So is life. Simplifying it does not help people love the country more– it either fills them with false pride and a warped worldview that allows them to demonize and harm their fellow man or leaves them feeling betrayed when they learn the uncomfortable truth. It is right and proper that they measure Jefferson (or any historical figure) by his words and his deeds. It enriches the mind to think about how a man could know something like owning people to be evil and still participate in the inhuman practice. It is worth considering how thousands of men twisted their faith and philosophy in knots to justify something as demonstrably evil as slavery while using those same ideas to break away from a powerful global empire and establish a functioning, limited democracy. Like the past, the world we live in is full of contradictions. We are trying to navigate through similarly muddy waters.
That is what makes our principles so important. This is why the past is worth remembering. Not to glorify ancestors or promote a better time (that never existed) to return to. But to remember our ugly failures and our better moments. Would you have been pro-slave or against racial chattel slavery? Would you have been a Bowery Boy or would you have fought for a place for the Irish and Germans in the United States (an especially important question for Mr. Trump, the grandson of a German immigrant)? How you feel about whether or not there is a place for Latin American immigrants in the United States is a similar question for our time. There is a right and a wrong answer here.
On this Fourth of July, I’d challenge you to think about what it is that makes this nation the country that it is. Where do we derive our strength? What do our founding principles mean today? My position is clear– our Declaration of Independence is the bedrock of what makes this nation great. The ideals of this nation, as outlined in that text, exist as a beacon of hope in an often dark and dreary world. They proclaim the humanity of all and the unalienable rights that status entails. This nation of immigrants is unique in the world and a model for where everyone else is headed. This is our gift. This is our exceptionalism. Don’t fear it. Celebrate it.