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Posts Tagged ‘Independence Day’

In preparation for our secular High Holy Day, I watched Ken Burns’ documentary on Thomas Jefferson. Recently, Jefferson’s importance as an American Founding Father was debased by the Texas Board of Education and members of the Christian Right. I, in contrast, maintain that Jefferson was our most important Founder and if anyone deserves to be remembered for All Time, it is Thomas Jefferson.

Thomas Jefferson was the preeminent American philosopher. He, practically single-handedly, crafted (as George Will said) “the catechism” for our country’s “civil religion”. He stated clearly, unequivocally, and absolutely what it means to be an American. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, and are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, and that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” There are no greater words ever written, prior or since, that so succinctly, accurately, and magnificently state our core values. Go ahead, I dare you to take any other quote written from colonial times to the present, and weigh it up against that singular sentence from the Declaration of Independence, and claim it a better statement of American values. You can’t do it, and if you can, I will weigh it. Most likely, I will tell you that you have missed the ruddy point of our entire existence from Plymouth Rock to today.

What is remarkable about Jefferson the Philosopher is that America doesn’t really have any other philosophers. We really don’t. We’ve had poets and statesmen and authors and capitalists, but we haven’t really had philosophers. We haven’t had philosophers because we don’t really need them. We don’t need anyone to examine and decipher the soul of America. We know what the soul of America is: it’s what Jefferson stated back in 1776. No further national introspection is needed. Those words are encoded in our DNA, and we know they are there, and we’re all glad for it.

What we have needed since that fated day, now celebrated as Independence Day, isn’t philosophers but pragmatists. Thanks to Jefferson, we have the core value, the goal of our existence as a nation and as a society, but we’ve needed direction on how to attain that goal. That’s where our other great orators, thinkers. artists and musicians  come in: trying to figure out how to get there, gain freedom and equality for all, and remove the bonds of tyranny without simply adding more under another guise.

That’s the journey we’ve been on ever since: not to find out who we are, but how do we get where we’re destined to be. And that’s the journey that seems hopelessly stalled. Today, we are as divided as a society as we’ve ever been since the end of the War Between the States. Reasoned discourse has failed, the two-party system is gridlocked in contests of pointless rage, and our government certainly appears to be an impediment to, not an enabler of, liberty. We are under tremendous strain: a faltering economy, a failed energy policy, a lackluster educational system, three branches of government withered and cracked, and a social safety net that could very well be the anchor pulling us under. Toss in environmental catastrophe and the threats of global terrorism and you’ve got quite the fecal stew. No wonder 55% of Americans think we’re on the wrong path.

I think we’ve simply lost our way. The guiding star, Jefferson’s writings, are still out there. We need to train our binoculars and find it again. Find it, and study it, and accept it as our own. Honestly look at how we’re going down the right path, and reinforce that. Honestly look at where we’re going wrong, and stop that. Then we can get back on the path and travel to that grand destination.

Happy Independence Day to all Americans, and to all across the world who’ve been inspired to act in the cause of liberty by the words of Thomas Jefferson put forth 234 years ago on July 4th, 1776.

And here’s to hoping that, in our 235th year, we figure out how to get back on the right track.

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My 2009 Independence Day essay

My 2008 Independence Day essay

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A Difficult Birth

I watched HBO’s excellent mini-series “John Adams”, about the famed patriot and second President of the United States. As I posted waaaaay back in December of ’07, John Adams is my favorite Founding Father, and I think HBO did him justice, flaws and all. Beyond a fairly accurate portrayal of Adams himself (although I do think HBO downplayed the staunch religious beliefs shared by John and his cousin, Samuel Adams), the mini-series gave a very accurate portrayal of the nation’s gritty past.

John Adams

There’s this great mythology around the birth of this nation. We have this image, inspired by John Trumbull’s famous painting, of nattily-attired statesmen, gathered in a great hall, proudly proclaiming our independence for all the world to hear. Unfortunately, that image is not at all accurate. I won’t go into all the factual details here, sites like Americanrevolution.org describe them well enough. I do want to go into what our vaunted image, and even a nitpicking of the facts, does not convey, and that is how risky and dangerous, and messy and complicated, the birth of this nation really was.

This was such a dangerous endeavor that the members of the Continental Congress were rarely, if ever, all present at the same time. They would appear in shifts, as it were, with individual representatives of a colony present but almost never a full quorum of a delegation. Some of the notables, like the Adams cousins and William Ellery of Rhode Island, had open warrants for their arrest by the British colonial government long before the 2nd Continental Congress convened, and would certainly have been hanged if they were caught travelling to Philadelphia. Almost the entire New York delegation would be missing at times, most of those delegates lost home or property, and the wife of one (Francis Lewis) was captured and held prisoner by the Brits for many months during the Revolutionary War. This type of personal danger is almost never conveyed in American mythology.

John Trumbull Painting

There were also health and transportation problems. Yellow fever was not uncommon in Philadelphia in those years, and travel was risky. British blockades and privateers made sea travel dangerous, forcing travel over land. It took weeks if not months to ride the roads to Philadelphia, and in some circles families would weep from grief if loved ones had to travel, it was so dangerous. Remember this was the early days of America, cities were small and far apart, and there were great tracts of land void of civilization and comfort. It wasn’t the highly developed contryside that marked Europe in the 18th century, this was something far wilder. Getting all these great men to Philadelphia to draft the Declaration, create and fund a Continental Army, and plead for help from France and Spain was not an easy affair.

After the Revolution, things were still sloppy and complicated. There’s a sordid mess surrounding the crafting of the Constitution itself. Yes, it’s a beloved document and has served us well, but in reality, it was a contentious and difficult document to craft. The nation first had to go through the sloppy failure of the Articles of Confederation, a configuration so weak it nearly allowed the 13 states to break apart or, even worse, rejoin Great Britain. It was not easy to keep the Union together, and in the end, the only way to guarantee continued independence as well as undivided strength was by guaranteeing the continued enslavement of an entire race of man for decades thereafter.Constitution

People shouldn’t forget that our founding fathers enabled that greatest of travesties, but in a way, these men were forced to do so in order to avoid becoming servants again, through dissolution of the Union and potential reconquering by Britain.  I’m sure that last sentence can be debated: what if our founders banned slavery in 1787? Would we have been split into two, or perhaps more, nations? And would that have been a bad thing? It’s an interesting debate, but the fact still stands: slavery stood for 89 years after the Declaration of Independence  was first read to an assemblage in Philadelphia. All men created equal? Hardly, it would appear.

In my opinion, it’s vitally important for all Americans to understand that we are a flawed nation. We had a difficult birth and a flawed childhood and, to this very day, we struggle and wrestle and fight with our greater ideals and our conscience. We’ve fought unjust wars, we mistreated our own citizenry, we’ve “prospered” ourselves into great poverty, and we’ve poisoned our waters and air and land. But we’ve also had successes: we freed Europe from the ravages of war, our scientists have stopped polio and invented transistors, we’ve created unique and beloved forms of art and music, and we’ve been an example to the world in terms of freedom and liberty. Best of all, we’ve managed to survive and thrive in spite of our great mistakes and failures.Revolutionary War Collage

Success and failure, failure and success. Hmmm, sounds like we’re human. And part and parcel of being human is being flawed. It can be said that the greatness of a person can be judged by how well that person responds to his or her own failure. We all make mistakes, and we all have to learn from them and overcome them. This is true for people and true for nations. Those who think they themselves, or the United States of America itself, are incapable of making mistakes and deserve continuous adulation are not only inaccurate but incredibly arrogant.

It has always been my view that arrogance is the worst human characteristic. Arrogance, that belief that you can do no wrong and can make no mistake, is that characteristic that prevents you from ever learning anything. And the inability to learn guarantees an inability to succeed and thrive. It’s a flaw that guarantees stagnation and eventual irrelevance. Individuals should strive to never be arrogant in anything, even those things in which you are an expert. Nations should also strive to never be arrogant, even in areas in which that nation has succeeded in the past.

If I could ask all Americans to do anything for this country, I would ask them to be honest with our country’s flaws and failures, and strive to continuously improve the health, welfare, and integrity of this nation and all of its citizens. Only through understanding of our flaws can we ever improve our lot in life.Long May She Wave

I hope everyone had a happy, fun-filled Independence Day weekend, and I wish nothing more than a just and prosperous future for the United States of America on this, the 233rd anniversary of it’s birth.

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I know I haven’t been posting regularly as of late. There have been a few real-life issues keeping my muse at bay, or perhaps in full retreat. Regular postings of my National Park trips will resume shortly, I promise.


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An Independence Day Essay

This is going to come as no surprise to anyone who knows me, or to anyone who has read a few pages of this blog, but I love American history. Care needs to be taken, however. I am not a rabid “rah rah” American, parading myself around swathed in red, white & blue, attacking all critics and keeping myself oblivious to the dark side. I love American history because American history makes a great story.

Let’s take a look at what makes a great narrative. In my view, a great story revolves around a flawed main character. Typically, this is a person who constantly wrestles with any number of personal weaknesses. The story is the struggle, the struggle by a troubled soul to accomplish something meaningful in a troubled world. Sometimes the story ends happily, sometimes the story ends badly. The thrill is in the story. Can Joe Malfunction make it to his goal without destroying himself in the process?

Gadsden Flag

America is the perfect Joe Malfunction. It was founded on great principles: that absolute power is bad; that the people deserve a say in their government; that people, all people, have a fundamental right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. This was a wholly novel concept, especially applied on a scale as large as the original thirteen colonies. Never before have just principles such as these been applied across an area as wide and a population as large.

Betsy Ross Flag

But this character, the United States of America, is a flawed character. Right off the bat, America, our hero, had a slave problem to deal with. How does one proclaim one’s liberty whilst enslaving an entire race of man? With hypocrisy, that’s how. Slavery was the drunken, abusive father of Our Hero. Slavery would keep the country down, keep it weak, keep it from coming into its own greatness. The pressures of this chronic abuse would fester, and fester, until, like a teen-ager finally fighting back, America would explode during the great Civil War, leaving disastrous carnage in its wake. The old America would go through a painful puberty, beat the abusive father into submission, and become an honorable man.

Confederate Flag

But that was not the end of the story. Our hero struggled to get on his feet. America faced the difficult task of Reconstruction which, although horribly flawed and poorly implemented, would end with America facing the historic 1890s. This was adulthood, this was America finally trying to live up to the ideals on which it was founded. It made a lot of mistakes, including native American genocide and Jim Crowe, but blacks would vote, women would vote, economic prosperity would be wide-spread, and America would venture into the Great Unknown: the Industrial Age and the era of global influence.

38 Star Flag

Soon, our hero would face two great challenges. Like Scylla and Charybdis from The Odyssey, twin wars, one spawned from the other, would test the nation in ways not seen before. The horror of war, and inner reflections known as isolationism, proved to be a tremendous strain on the nation and the people within. But, like Odysseus, our hero would emerge from these trials almost unrecognized. America would emerge as a great superpower, a juggernaut both military and economic. Some would try to break America’s dominance, but none would succeed. In fact, most would, in the end, try to emulate Our Hero in any way they could.

48 Star Flag

But, like some great Shakespearean play, superiority begets arrogance, arrogance begets stagnation, stagnation begets weakness, and weakness begets defeat. Unchallenged, our hero turns slothful. He forgets there are still challenges out there, some of them even created by his own misdeeds. His actions (both just and unjust, for he is undoubtedly imperfect), come back to haunt him. New enemies are determined to bleed him in any way possible. He also has forgotten his own roots. He is slowly becoming the bullying father he shrugged off all those years ago, but his conscience, the voice of the people, still gnaws at him.

50 Star Flag

Today, that Great American Narrative continues. We know the story so far, but there are so many great unknowns. What will happen to Our Hero in the next chapter? Will America remember those principles on which it was founded, and reclaim its honor? Or will it become paranoid, trusting no one, damaging its friends and citizens until it falls at the hands of its enemies? Will it struggle through energy and economic hazards and emerge stronger than ever? Or will it succumb to its own unwillingness to change, and die a cruel death?

Future Flag?

Putting all metaphors aside, I think America has its problems. Some of its past is horribly dark and disturbing, and would make children weep if they knew the truth. But the United States was founded with the best of intentions, and its core, being the U.S. Constitution and its attendant Bill of Rights, is sound and noble and has set an example for democracies worldwide (even ones now better than our own). For that fundamental reason, even with its flaws, I love this country and am proud to be an American. I want the story to end well, I want our hero to succeed and live happily ever after.

So wave your flags and light your fireworks this weekend. Come Monday, help write the next chapter, guide Our Hero back on the right path, and maybe the story will have a happy ending.

Happy Independence Day, America!!

Independence Hall

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