By Dylan R.N. Crabb
239 years ago, a fledgling nation on the eastern coast of what was called the “new world” declared its independence from Great Britain as a gesture of empowerment against arguably the most powerful naval force on the world at the time. The leaders of the secessionist movement had solidified their treacherous actions in history knowing that, if their efforts were to fail, they would be executed for crimes against the British Crown. However; the vision that was shared by these revolutionaries had given them a common cause of liberty, which drove them beyond a fear of death. Individuals who have the courage to collectively stand against a superior militaristic force for a cause greater than any one person are truly exceptional.
It is important to remember the courage and convictions of our ancestors whom were able to come together – beyond faith, beyond politics, beyond any one culture – and create a better society for their posterity. However; it is also important to recognize where our courageous ancestors missed the mark. Remembering their short-comings as well as their strengths does not dishonor them, but builds upon their vision.
In 1776, the United States of America was a young, optimistic, and ambitious nation with immense political and economic potential. We were also largely dominated by an aristocratic society with the upper classes bearing an ever-so-slight superiority complex towards their so-called social inferiors and a somewhat prejudiced mentality against non-Western cultures. The United States government was also practicing institutionalized slavery long after Thomas Jefferson wrote a declaration of war to King George III declaring the self-evident truth “that all men are created equal.” It’s true that the ideals of those courageous revolutionaries were radically humanistic for their time, but it would take the rise of various social movements over the course of the next two centuries to progress the nation further (just compare American society in the revolutionary period to today and contrast the differences). Despite several of America’s founders being anti-slavery, the issue of slavery would not be settled for another 85 years from our declaration as an independent nation, and American societies today are still feeling effects of issues that surround our past as a slave nation. The point I’m trying to make here is that the United States was progressive for its time back in 1776, but could still make improvements as time passed.
Americans have progressed from the revolutionary period and we should feel pride in how far we’ve come, but there is still progress to be made. There is always progress to be made because there is no such thing as a perfect society. It is important to understand our history and humble ourselves as we stand on the shoulders of our forefathers, the courageous men and women who risked everything so that their children and grandchildren could have a better life.
One of the shortfalls of America’s founders lies in their failure to address the issue of institutionalized slavery, as I previously mentioned. Frederick Douglass references the apparent hypocrisy of Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence in an 1852 speech.
“I am not included within the pale of this 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 life and healing to you, has brought stripes and death to me. This Fourth of 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 (Amy Goodman and Denis Moynihan, truthdig, 2015).”
Slavery is America’s original sin and Frederick Douglass orated that superbly in pre-Civil War America. Today, 150 years after the end of the Civil War, American societies across our landscape remain torn apart by old tensions.
As a scholar of American history and politics, I understand the resentment that African-American communities (and other historically minority communities) feel toward the United States government. Any honest scholar understands that history seldom paints pretty pictures, but rather reveals a continuous struggle between the “have’s” and the “have-not’s.” However; I also believe in the potential of America and the promise of progress through the collective strengths of exceptionally courageous individuals like the British colonial revolutionaries of 1776. People like George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, Patrick Henry, and others believed in improving their world and, while they may have been men of privilege, they used there privileged foundations to build what they believed to be a better world. That should be a goal of every generation: to stand on the the shoulders of giants and raise the standard of living for every person in the society.
On this Independence Day, and every subsequent Independence Day, Americans can reflect on the progress they’ve made as well as look to the future at prospects of creating a better society not just for Americans, but for all of humanity.
Happy Independence Day!