For every charge over Omaha Beach, there’s a My Lei.
For every Apollo 11, there’s a Tuskegee Syphilis experiment.
All our heroes have the same problem heroes always have. They’re people. And some, beyond the appendix of history books, weren’t good ones. They owned slaves. They were lousy to their families. They were bigots and misogynists, philanderers and all flavors of horrible human frailty.
The adage is true, after all. The one about your heroes. You really shouldn’t meet them. You really shouldn’t even read the letters they wrote to their contemporaries.
That the primary author of the Declaration of Independence, the single most important document in the history of Western Liberalism, was written by a man who had a decades long sexual relationship with woman he enslaved because of her race, is a feature, not a bug, of the American experience.
So, today, it’s a fair question to ask, what exactly are we celebrating?
It’s not our great men. And it’s not our history.
Today we celebrate the idea of America. The great Hegelian synthesis that is our founding principles. The thesis that all people were created equal and imbued with certain inalienable rights. The anti-thesis that our very founding documents and the men who wrote them did not mean all people. And the reconciliation of those two ideas that has yielded the struggle that is our past.
The truths were self evident. We declared them to be our founding purpose. And we fell terribly and inexcusably short of living up to them. Had we stayed there, where we started, today would mean nothing. The human framework that is America though, and the people who believed and fought the unpopular, thankless fights to expand the scope of who those ideals applied to, enabled us to move closer to that goal. Slowly. Painfully. Imperfectly. And incompletely.
If we make today about our great men, it falls down too easily. If we make today about our accomplishments, it’s not honest enough to account for the reality of our failures. But if we make today about the idea of America, that all are equal before the law and that all are imbued with inalienable rights, rights which cannot be taken nor given, and that the purpose of our great state is to ensure that they are not, only then can we have an honest celebration of America.
I take my lead from Frederick Douglas, who a decade before the Emancipation Proclamation spoke about what the 4th of July meant to a slave. For Douglas, it was a reminder of the strength of the ever durable message of our charter. But a harsh reminder that America had not made good on the promise it declared. He spoke of the force of the coming fight, but still, a commitment to use this day as a reminder of the principles of America.
“Cling to this day. Cling to it, and to its principles, with the grasp of a storm-tossed mariner to a spar at midnight. . . At a time like this, scorching iron, not convincing argument, is needed. . . It is not light that is needed, but fire. It is not the gentle shower, but thunder. We need the storm, the whirlwind, and the earthquake. . .”
We’re not done this journey. We haven’t walked it all out just yet. But that doesn’t mean we can’t take a day to acknowledge to power of the promise we once made, all we’ve done to try to make good on it and all we’re going to have to do to preserve it as the standard we strive to meet. And so I’ll cling to it. Like a storm-tossed mariner to a spar at midnight.
Happy Independence Day.