Celebrating Independence


The American Mythos

Here in the United States, we value independence. The mythology that we are self-sufficient, free-thinking, rugged individualists has been used to sell trucks, guns, beer, and insurrection. We fought a war against England to guarantee our right to govern ourselves, and no one’s going to take that right from us. “Live free or die,” as they say in New Hampshire. [This 1809 quote from General John Stark became the New Hampshire state motto in 1945.] It’s that kind of sentiment that we celebrate on the Fourth of July.

This is not all bad. Values are important, and we in this country do have shared values. We stand for justice, freedom, and equity, for example. If we disagree on what these terms mean and who deserves to benefit from them, that’s not surprising. The Declaration of Independence is itself a document of contradictions.

For instance, it reminds us that all “men are created equal” and that each of us has “unalienable Rights,” including those of “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” Though we will interpret these phrases in different ways depending on our worldview and political persuasion, they remain lofty, and we could do worse than try to live up to them.

At the same time, the Declaration reflects our racist history. Drafted to justify the intention of America’s thirteen states to “dissolve the political bonds which have connected them” with England, the statement indicts King George for 27 offenses. The last of these reads:

He has incited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavored to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.

Declaration of Independence

Speaking Out Against Slavery

The racist language expressed by Jefferson, and accepted by his colleagues, was so normal at the time that no one thought it strange to include it in a government document. To them, Native Americans were “savages,” and though these white men could be friendly with some, and generous to others, overall they thought little of wiping them out.

The story of the how we Europeans relentlessly spread westward, stealing land and slaughtering indigenous bodies is well known. Less well known is that Jefferson, in the draft statement he sent to Congress, denounced slavery. His last reason for breaking with England read:

. . . he has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating and carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere, or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither. This piratical warfare, the opprobrium of infidel powers, is the warfare of the CHRISTIAN king of Great Britain.

As we know, being Christian does not stop one from committing genocide or murder.

Jefferson continued:

Determined to keep open a market where MEN should be bought & sold, he has prostituted his negative for suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or to restrain this execrable commerce: and that this assemblage of horrors might want no fact of distinguished die, he is now exciting those very people to rise in arms among us, and to purchase that liberty of which he has deprived them, & murdering the people upon whom he also obtruded them; thus paying off former crimes committed against the liberties of one people, with crimes which he urges them to commit against the lives of another.

Thomas Jefferson, Draft of the Declaration of Independence
Photo by Reba Spike

Profits Over People

This last sentence refers to a 1775 proclamation made by England’s Lord Dunmore that offered to free any slave who fought for Britain, and many enslaved people did so. [1]

Many Natives sided with the British, as well. In 1763, the British government ratified a proclamation that reserved the land west of the Appalachian mountains for the Natives. This sounded good. Of course, things didn’t work out the way the indigenous people expected and more than it worked out for Black people.

How could it when the even delegates who disapproved of slavery refused to buck the southern members or allow a threat to their financial investments. Northern cloth merchants, for instance, depended on cheap cotton. When we live protected lives, favoring our material gain over the freedom of others is easy. Our nation was built on such trade-offs.

While in theory the underclass of our country had a right to pursue happiness, in practice, this pleasure was reserved for the wealthy and the white. How else are we to understand why those upstanding, doubtless friendly, mostly Christian men chose to delete Jefferson’s condemnation of an obviously barbaric system and replace it with the vapid phrase, “He had excited domestic insurrections amongst us”?

Apparently, they cared more about their “insurrections” than about the suffering of real human beings. It was not okay for indigenous Americans to fight back. It surely was not acceptable for slaves to claim the right of personhood. Our founding document reflects this.

At Least They’re White

This is not a flattering way to tell the American story. In his article, “This Is How Truth Dies,” David Brooks cautions us to tell a balanced history of our nation’s founding, one that allows all of us to feel pride in who we are. He encourages us to “tell narratives in which everybody finds an honorable place,” white men included. One reason Donald Trump can lie to his base without question, Brook tells us, is because his “stories of dispossession” match the experiences of his followers. [2]

It’s true. Many white males in the United States feel put upon, betrayed, and dispossessed. If you’re not white, male, heterosexual, able-bodied, housed, and neurotypical, this may sound absurd, yet there you are. Anyone can make themselves out to be a victim if they try hard enough.

But while we might not feel sympathetic toward these privileged few, it is also true that many of Trump’s followers are poor, working-class individuals who, once upon a time, could count on that other American myth, the one about pulling yourself up by your bootstraps, the one that claims that all anyone can get ahead if you are loyal and work hard.

Of course, most of those poor, working-class folks never do get ahead, but at least they can dream. And at least they’re white.

Accepting Whiteness

As Drew Hart points out in his book Trouble I’ve Seen, new immigrants to the United States, like the Irish and Italians, were not considered white when they first moved here. But whiteness is a moving target. It can be conferred by the dominant culture. Hart writes that these groups preferred being “white” to “linking arms with the people who actually had more in common with them economically and socially.” [3]

In other words, you can share in white privilege, but you must first reject those who were once your comrades. It can feel good to have someone to look down on, and that is part of the lure. We feel important, powerful, strong.

Before we judge these immigrants too harshly, be honest. It sucks being oppressed. Who wouldn’t choose feeling safe and welcome everywhere to being harassed because your skin color is wrong?

If we could choose this, I mean. After all, not everyone can hide behind whiteness. Black bodies can’t, nor can people with obvious disabilities, those who wear turbans or hijabs, who are female, homeless, overweight. In this country, we judge the inner person by the outer shell. If we don’t like what we see, it’s not that big a leap to demonize it. Research on mainstream views of homeless people reveal that some of us see a person sleeping on the street as “trash.” [4] Who would gladly leave ourselves open to censure, poverty, and bodily harm? No, it’s no surprise that those who can be “white” will choose to be.

Power Corrupts

Yet what if these newly white folks, and long-time white folks, refused to treat the “unacceptable” among us like trash? What if we welcomed them, saw beneath the surface, invited them to the table? That would threaten the entire system of privilege. It’s what got Jesus crucified and Martin Luther King, Jr. assassinated.

For as long as I can remember, power has scared me. When I became a minister, I worried I might use my power to harm another, for even though I am a woman, as a preacher and as a chaplain, I have power. I have a platform; I receive deference. It’s easy to get used to this. It’s easy to believe we deserve it.

Whiteness is like that. Being a white man with money, property, and political power, as were the founders of our nation, is like that. We come to think it’s normal, that we deserve it, so we resist any threat to our privilege. It is not easy to be a Nelson Mandela, a lifelong leader who does not become a tyrant. Power corrupts. Absolutely.

Becoming the Beloved Community

The founders of our nation had a unique vision, one that went beyond the rights of kings. Instead, it granted rights to the people. But who were the people? Who deserved a voice? These men wanted independence, the ability to rule themselves, but they didn’t think this right should extend to everyone. We continue to pay the price for that hubris.

Throughout history, our nation has oppressed and dominated others. If the United States can ever embrace the promise of the Declaration, we must be honest about our past in all its complexity, all its muddiness, and all its beauty. We must recognize the ways we are insensitive to ourselves and others, that we victimize others and wound ourselves. Hart points out that people who live in the underside of society see reality more clearly than those who look down from above, yet pain and trepidation live in the hearts of even the wealthiest men, and none of us has all the truth. On the other hand, it’s easy to fool ourselves, so we must listen to what others share.

Our challenge is to embrace the vision of our founding fathers while also undoing the harm that they and we have done. We must tell the truth, first to ourselves, and then to others. Together, we must create more fair and equitable systems in our country. It won’t be easy. For society to be more fair, some of us will have to give things up. But loss is part of life, and those things we will lose in the cause of justice are not the things that matter. Besides, we will gain much. If we turn our society into a beloved community, we will gain closeness, kindness, compassion, mercy, love.

Opening Our Hearts to Change

To create change, we must open our hearts to it. We must learn the truths that others know and that we ignore. We must pay attention to what others need so we can make things right. Most of us want to make things right. If we don’t, we can learn to. We can listen, open our hearts. This is possible.

Even so, we can’t make people care. We can’t make them want to change. All we can do is invite them to join us in creating a beloved community, a nation in which everyone is respected, everyone is free, everyone is sacred. But no matter who joins us and who doesn’t, the time to start creating a society that reflects the justice and equity, justice, and freedom our Declaration calls for is now. No matter a person’s station or race, she deserves to live a happy, fulfilled, meaningful life.

In faith and fondness,

Barbara

Credits

  1. Williams, Yohuru, “Why Thomas Jefferson’s Anti-Slavery Passage Was Removed from the Declaration of Independence,” History, https://www.history.com/news/declaration-of-independence-deleted-anti-slavery-clause-jefferson, accessed 7/3/21.
  2. Brooks, David, “This Is How Truth Dies,” The New York Times, July 2, 2021, A21.
  3. Hart, Drew, Trouble I’ve Seen, Harrisonburg: Herald Press, 2016, 79.
  4. See, for instance, Donley, Amy, “The Perception of Homeless People: Important Factors in Determining Perceptions of the Homeless as Dangerous,” (2008) Electronic Theses and Dissertations, 2004-2019, 3789, https://stars.library.ucf.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=4789&context=etd, accessed 7/3/21.

Photo by Reba Spike

Copyright © 2021 Barbara E. Stevens. All Rights Reserved.

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