From Independence Day to “We the People”

This is the traditional season to celebrate U.S. patriotism. Many people have been taught the nation’s history in the ringing phrases and the lofty ideals of colonial documents we memorized in parts as school children, for example, from the Declaration of Independence, “We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal . . .” Following the War of Independence, “We the People” established a Constitution to “. . . secure the Blessings of Liberty to Ourselves and Our Posterity.” That same Constitution established a way to account for the enslaved at the margins of society: three-fifths of a person for purposes of both taxation and representation.

This is also a season of looking at the reality of colonial life and history. Recently, a Princeton scholar expanded the account of early American life by including the lives of enslaved Africans. In New England Bound: Colonization and Slavery in Early America, Wendy Warren concludes that to understand race-based slavery in the British colonies, including all of North America and the Caribbean, one must also understand how slavery developed and functioned in New England; their interests and very survival were inextricably connected. That is, New England is where the mechanisms of oppression and exclusion of the “other” from government, the economy, culture, and laws were developed. From the beginning, whatever popular concepts grew from that base, including ideas of freedom, justice, religion, capitalism, and protection — all were established as a very narrow framework favoring a select few at the expense of others.

Warren’s work is not the only alternate interpretation of colonial history. Last August, at a commemoration of African ancestors at Faneuil Hall, State Representative Byron Rushing pointed out that New Englanders are fond of citing their history as abolitionists, but not so much as prime profiteers from the transatlantic trade. That assertion is taken up in Logbooks, an account by Ann Farrow of the selective memories of colonials in Connecticut and the construction of a historical amnesia. And many years ago, Lorenzo Greene documented in great detail the profitability of slavery in his germinal work, The Negro in Colonial New England.

But in this season, patriotic flag-waving can be balanced by the reality of several other voices. On July 5, 1852, Frederick Douglass gave a powerful denunciation of Independence Day from the perspective of one who had been enslaved. His address entitled “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July” is notable for the comparisons it draws between the freedom vaunted for those unlike himself and for those in bondage. Douglass poses his question and answers it. “. . . To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciation of tyrants brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade, and solemnity, are to him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety and hypocrisy—a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages . . .”

So today, when the presumptive Republican candidate, himself a second generation immigrant, talks about “making America great again,” those of us who are not of European descent, wealthy, or male are alarmed, even threatened. There is a sense that the definition of “we” will be restricted once again as it has been over centuries. This is especially important today as we grapple with the definition of citizenship. It is appropriate that as July 4th approaches we understand that “we the people” did not apply universally but only to a very select and limited group of persons in the United States. For the past 231 years, various groups of residents have been challenging and expanding that definition of who “we” are – women, Asians, African-Americans, Latinos, Muslims, Jews, lesbians, gays, the transgendered, the poor, convicted felons, and so forth. The purpose of the Constitution was to accommodate change, and it has been necessary to amend the document as the nation evolved. There is nothing sacred about our laws. Their application and interpretation – some of them have been absolutely unjust – vary in the context of who the “we” is at any given point in time. Let inclusion of all truly make America as great as it has the potential to be.

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