Celebrating America on the 4th of July by confronting our complex history
WASHINGTON: As Americans prepare to commemorate the 4th of July, our society is facing a growing examination of our history, with the focus largely on our shortcomings. Throughout the country, statues are being removed of figures once considered worthy of being honored. But now found wanting by progressive standards. Schools and universities are changing their names to reflect contemporary sensibilities. In various communities, the names of once-revered figures such as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and Theodore Roosevelt are coming under attack.
America, we have been told, is guilty of “structural racism.”
A new kind of identity politics is replacing the goal of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the civil rights movement, which was to create a color-blind society in which men and women would be judged on the “content of their character” rather than the color of their skin.
There is much in American history to regret, as is the history of every country on earth. We are, after all, imperfect human beings. We were guilty of slavery, although it was not America’s “original sin,” as some now claim. Slavery existed in Ancient Greece and Rome and was embraced in both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament. In 1787, when the Constitutional Convention met, slavery was legal every place in the world. Many of our Founding Fathers wanted to eliminate slavery at that time. Among them were Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay. They compromised on this question to get all 13 colonies to declare independence from England.
Were they wrong to do so? In retrospect, a strong case can be made that they were.
After the Civil War ended slavery, black Americans faced an era of segregation, lynchings, and bigotry enshrined in law.
In the South, they were denied the right to vote. Living in the south, the years of segregation are a memory I live with. I lived in the South and saw on a daily basis the disabilities under which blacks lived. Martin Luther King’s march from Selma to Montgomery in 1965 is a memory I live with. I was saddened to hear of the murder of the Rev. James Reeb, a white Unitarian minister from Boston who had joined with other clergymen in going to Selma to participate in the march.
A year or so earlier, Jim Reeb came to speak at the William and Mary law school, where I was a student. After his talk, I hosted a reception for him at my house.
The horrors of slavery and segregation are a part of our history.
But so is our ability, this 4th of July, to reform and to change. In 1954, school segregation was declared unconstitutional. In 1964, the Civil Rights Act passed, and in 1965 the Voting Rights Act was adopted. My generation, which grew up in the years of segregation, lived to see a black president elected and re-elected. We lived to see black Americans hold the most important positions in our society. From Secretary of State to Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to Supreme Court Justice. To President of the United States. Twice.
We still have serious problems to resolve, as the George Floyd case shows us. But if our society were indeed imbued with “structural racism” it is unlikely that all of this would have happened in my one lifetime.
The story of America is indeed complex.
When the Framers of the Constitution completed their work in 1787, the French Revolution had not yet occurred. Italy and Germany were not nations, but only a collection of warring states. No other people in 2021 are living under the same governmental structure which existed in their countries in 1787—only Americans.
The U.S. Constitution changed Americans from being subjects of government to be its rulers. In his book, “We Hold These Truths,” Mortimer Adler writes:
“The government of the United States resides in us—-we, the people. What resides in Washington is the administration of our government. I am sorry to say that most Americans think of themselves as the subjects of government and regard the administrators in public office as their rulers, instead of thinking of themselves as the ruling class and public officials as their servants—-the instrumentalities for carrying out their will.”
When the Constitution was written, the framers did look throughout the world for an example of a free society with limited government. Finding none to follow. No existing government in 1787 was designed to provide its people with freedom, nor had any in past history.
The framers set out to create something that had never been created before— an inherently perilous undertaking. They fully realized the uniqueness of their enterprise.
Charles Pinckney of South Carolina asked:
“Is there, at this moment, a nation on earth that enjoys this right, where the true principles of representation are understood and practiced, and where all authority flows from and returns at stated periods to the people? I answer, there is not.”
The achievements of the Constitutional Convention were considered miraculous in their own day.
On Dec. 9, 1787, James Madison wrote to Thomas Jefferson, who was serving as the U.S. representative in France, saying it was “impossible to consider the degree of concord which ultimately prevailed as less than a miracle.”
Madison declared that,
“Happily for America, happily we trust for the whole human race, they (the Framers) pursued a new and more noble course. They accomplished a Revolution which has no parallel in the annals of human society. They reared the fabrics of governments which have no model on the face of the globe. They formed the design of a great Confederacy, which it is incumbent on their successors to improve and perpetuate.”
One of the unprecedented breakthroughs which the framers included in the Constitution was that there would be no religious test for public office or for citizenship. Elsewhere in the Western world, Catholics were without rights in Protestant countries. Protestants were without rights in Catholic countries. Jews had few rights in either case.
Charles Pinckney lamented,
“How many thousands of the subjects of Great Britain at this moment labor under civil disabilities, merely on account of their religious persuasions! To the liberal and enlightened mind, the rest of Europe affords a melancholy picture of the depravity of human nature, and of the total subversion of those rights, without which we should suppose no people could be happy or content.”
Pinckney pointing out that,
“From the European world are no precedents to be drawn for a people who think they are capable of governing themselves. Instead of receiving instructions from them, we may with pride affirm that, new as this country is, in point of settlement, inexperienced as she must be upon questions of government, she still has read more useful lessons to the old world, she has made them more acquainted with their own rights, than they had been otherwise for centuries…”
Professor Samuel Huntington notes that,
“This is a new event in the history of mankind. Heretofore most governments have been formed by tyrants and imposed on mankind by force. Never before did a people, in a time of peace and tranquility, meet together by their representatives and, with calm deliberation, frame for themselves a system of government.”
The framers of the Constitution were under no illusion that they had written a document that would stand the test of time without additions and changes. It is for this reason that Article V sets forth the process by which amendments can be adopted. James Madison stated that the founders hoped their successors would “improve and perpetuate” the Constitution. He said that
“Useful alterations will be suggested by experience could not but be foreseen…It, moreover, equally enables the general and the State governments to originate the amendment of errors, as they may be pointed out by the experience on one side or the other.”
This 4th of July, celebrate that the Constitution has survived these 234 years, enabling generations of Americans to live in freedom. It attracts to our shores men and women of every race, religion, and nation who sought liberty. This is testimony to the extraordinary achievement of the founders.
Kurt Weill, the lyricist who was forced to flee Nazi Germany, captured America’s genuine uniqueness when he wrote a song entitled, “Every Name is an American Name.”
The founders were committed to building a new civilization. One that would be a model for the rest of mankind.
“Happily for Americans,” declared James Madison, “happily we trust for the whole human race, they (the founders) pursued a new and more Noble course.”
In recent days we have heard a great deal about America’s flaws and shortcomings. These are, sadly, are a part of the human condition. Not only here but wherever imperfect human beings exist. We have seen our early leaders demeaned because their values were not those of the 21st century.
This, the Quaker theologian Elton Trueblood pointed out, represents the sin of “contemporaneity.” Holding people of the past guilty of not embracing the standards of the present time. Instead, we should recognize that their belief in limited government, checks and balances, religious freedom, and individual rights set them apart from their contemporaries elsewhere in the world.
We can take pride in the achievement and respect the founder’s understanding that it would be necessary to change and advance as time went by. America is not finished. It is still changing and moving forward.
The Fourth of July celebrates this unique contribution to advancing human liberty.
About the Author:
Allan Brownfeld is a veteran writer who has spent decades working in and around Washington, D.C. Brownfeld earned his B.A. from the College of William and Mary, J.D. from the Marshall-Wythe School of Law of the College of William and Mary. His M.A. from the University of Maryland. Served as a member of the faculties of St. Stephen’s Episcopal School, Alexandria, Virginia, and the University College of the University of Maryland. The recipient of a Wall Street Journal Foundation Award, he has written for such newspapers as The Houston Press, The Washington Evening Star, The Richmond Times-Dispatch, and The Cincinnati Enquirer. His column appeared for many years in Roll Call, the newspaper of Capitol Hill. His articles have appeared in The Yale Review, The Texas Quarterly, Orbis, Modern Age, The Michigan Quarterly, The Commonwealth, and The Christian Century. Visit his Writers Page to learn more.