Independence Day 2009 Reflections

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July 6, 2009 by D Stack

Am I Not a Man and a Brother?

Am I Not a Man and a Brother?

The second day of July, 1776, will be the most memorable epoch in the history of America. I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival. It ought to be commemorated as the day of deliverance, by solemn acts of devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations, from one end of this continent to the other, from this time forward forever more.

– John Adams letter to Abigail Adams, July 3, 1776 (he was off by two days but otherwise remarkably prescient)

Fellow Citizens, I am not wanting in respect for the fathers of this republic. The signers of the Declaration of Independence were brave men. They were great men, too great enough to give frame to a great age. It does not often happen to a nation to raise, at one time, such a number of truly great men. The point from which I am compelled to view them is not, certainly, the most favorable; and yet I cannot contemplate their great deeds with less than admiration. They were statesmen, patriots and heroes, and for the good they did, and the principles they contended for, I will unite with you to honor their memory….

…Fellow-citizens, pardon me, allow me to ask, why am I called upon to speak here to-day? What have I, or those I represent, to do with your national independence? Are the great principles of political freedom and of natural justice, embodied in that Declaration of Independence, extended to us? and am I, therefore, called upon to bring our humble offering to the national altar, and to confess the benefits and express devout gratitude for the blessings resulting from your independence to us?

Would to God, both for your sakes and ours, that an affirmative answer could be truthfully returned to these questions! Then would my task be light, and my burden easy and delightful. For who is there so cold, that a nation’s sympathy could not warm him? Who so obdurate and dead to the claims of gratitude, that would not thankfully acknowledge such priceless benefits? Who so stolid and selfish, that would not give his voice to swell the hallelujahs of a nation’s jubilee, when the chains of servitude had been torn from his limbs? I am not that man. In a case like that, the dumb might eloquently speak, and the “lame man leap as an hart.”

But such is not the state of the case. I say it with a sad sense of the disparity between us. I am not included within the pale of glorious anniversary! Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us. The blessings in which you, this day, rejoice, are not enjoyed in common. The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity and independence, bequeathed by your fathers, is shared by you, not by me. The sunlight that brought light and healing to you, has brought stripes and death to me. This Fourth July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn. To drag a man in fetters into the grand illuminated temple of liberty, and call upon him to join you in joyous anthems, were inhuman mockery and sacrilegious irony. Do you mean, citizens, to mock me, by asking me to speak to-day? If so, there is a parallel to your conduct. And let me warn you that it is dangerous to copy the example of a nation whose crimes, towering up to heaven, were thrown down by the breath of the Almighty, burying that nation in irrevocable ruin! I can to-day take up the plaintive lament of a peeled and woe-smitten people!

– Frederick Douglass, “The Meaning of July Fourth for the Negro”

This would have been a better posting for July 4, but since it is partially reflecting on some of those events  from this year, I hope it is worth a day late (well almost two days…)

My eldesrt daughter, Vicki, went down to my parents’ house along with my niece Catherine about a week ago. We hadn’t figured out the return date for sure – we knew it’d be about a week or so, but we weren’t entirely certain if it would be before or after Independence Day, Then Vicki announced to my mother “I have to be back in Massachusetts by the fourth so I can go to Boston with my Daddy.”

It seems I’ve infected my seven-year old with the history-geek bug. Vicki absolutely loves learning about American history and civics. She was all excited when I got called up for jury duty a while back and even more excited that I wound up on a trial (a quick half-day traffic case as it turned out). She wanted to know all about it. She had no school last year on both Election Day and Innaugration Day so I wound up taking both those days off. She enjoyed voting with me and watching the innaugration.

Two years ago we went on a boat ride to see U.S.S. Constitution make her annual turnaround cruise. She’s under major repairs this year and last, so while we did not go on the cruise we went to the Constitution museum both last year and this one. Last year was rather interesting – then Vice-President Dick Cheney was aboard her causing to administer the citizenship oath to some immigrants. There was tons of security and we were delayed quite a while. During which we saw lots of protesters. And heard lots of them. Vicki was curious about both the protesters and the security. I explained that the protesters didn’t like a lot of what Dick Cheney had done. And the security was to make certain no one would hurt him. She asked me if I liked what Cheney had done. As I dislike how we wound up in Iraq and much of the secrecy and exective power the previous administration had secured I answered I did not. She then asked me if I would hurt Cheney if I had the chance. I told her that I wouldn’t and we talked about ways to show we don’t like something or someone without being violent.

This year I was an Obama supporter during the election while my wife was less than enthusiastic about him. So Vicki asks me “that makes Mommy wrong, doesn’t it?” While I would have loved to answer yes, I explained how different people can see things differently.

I have very modest expectations of Vicki. I don’t expect her to be president or anything. Now Supreme Court Justice…

Yesterday was enjoyable. As she gets older her understanding of things gets more detailed. We got to talk a little bit about the chain of command aboard a naval vessel and the role of presient as commander-in-chief. And we’ve added to our routine watching 1776, which we did after going to a friend’s barbequeue (and rejoining Mommy and Vicki’s younger sister, Jasmine). And the barbequeues, parties, and celebrations are all a natural part of the holiday as well.

One thing I try to do, both for myself and my daughter, is instill a sense of patriotism but not nationalism. When I was in high school I was taught to view patriotism as a love for one’s country while being capable of acknowledging its faults. Nationalism was viewed a bit uglier, a “my country, right or wrong” attitude. I’ve not sugarcoated our history. I’ve taught her how our nation embraced slavery as it was founded, did not see women as equally capable as men. But something I firmly believe is that our founders established a nation which cannot endure hypocricy indefinitely.

The Declaration of Independence declared that “all men are created equal”. Did the founders believe that? As a group, probably not fully. They certainly didn’t view their African slaves as equal to them. Nevertheless they wrote those permissive words. An aspiration that they themeselves did not measure up to – and one the British made full use of in propaganda. But they were a gateway, allowing the question to be asked “am I not a man and a brother?” Frederick Douglass and others were right to call out the hypocricy of the United States. Just as Rev. Martin Luther King was. And Susan B. Anthony. And Woodward and Bernstein. And anyone else who has challenged the United States to hold to the ideals of its founding documents.

That’s why I’m proud to be an American. I didn’t choose it, I was born to it. In the same way we don’t choose our parents or our siblings, though we tend to love them, assuming no massive abuses or betrayals. I know my nation isn’t perfect. And it probably never will be. Perfection is not to be found on this Earth. But if we aspire to live up to our ideals, we’ll do all right…

There is nothing wrong with America that cannot be cured by what is right with America.

– Bill Clinton

There is nothing wrong with America that the faith, love of freedom, intelligence and energy of her citizens cannot cure.

– Dwight D. Eisenhower

U.S.S. Constitution Museum

U.S.S. Constitution Museum


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