Reflections on the Revolution in the United States of America
Independence Day serves as good a reminder as any that the United States is much more sharply divided on core questions now than usual. If July 4th is one of those annual moments when we remember to bury our hatchets and celebrate our common heritage, this year it feels like the brief pause before Left and Right commence the business of tearing each others’ eyes out. It’s telling—and damning—that our national day of patriotism seems so inadequate to the task of uniting us. Shouldn’t that be how we measure the Founding American holiday?
I submit that this has more to do with how we’ve gotten accustomed to thinking of ourselves on Independence Day. We’ve taken to celebrating our might (fighter jet flyovers!) and our opulence (massive quantities of meat!) and our childishness (explosions on the driveway!), but none of those things are sufficient to bind our disparate pieces back together. That’s just a fact. We can’t substantively reconnect over our shared appreciation of military hardware or domestic pyromania…and even the best barbecue can only hold back arguments for a moment.
In other words: it’s not good enough. Walt Whitman (pictured above) thought that disunity was American democracy’s greatest danger:
The historians say of ancient Greece, with her ever-jealous autonomies, cities, and states, that the only positive unity she ever own’d or receiv’d, was the sad unity of a common subjection, at the last, to foreign conquerors. Subjection, aggregation of that sort, is impossible to America; but the fear of conflicting and irreconcilable interiors, and the lack of a common skeleton, knitting all close, continually haunts me.
And Americans hate each other more robustly now than ever before. Huzzah? Praise the Lord and pass the Tea?
So: What if we tried something else? What if we tried making Independence Day a celebration of the great American democratic experiment? What if we made it a day for recalling our virtues—instead of our mastery of combustion? This is the day we celebrate the civic spirit that animates the United States, rather than martial valor. It begins with the Declaration, of course, but it runs through Abraham Lincoln’s attempts to emancipate and reconcile, the drives for Women’s Suffrage and Civil Rights, and beyond. July 4th could be the day that Americans take pride in the difficult, noble improvements we’ve made in pursuit of Jefferson’s vision.
A problem: How would this look? A Kumbaya drum circle with interludes from Garrison Keillor? Well, no. Here’s how Lincoln described July 4 celebrations in a July 10, 1858 speech in Chicago:
Now, it happens that we meet together once every year, sometime about the 4th of July, for some reason or other. These 4th of July gatherings I suppose have their uses. If you will indulge me, I will state what I suppose to be some of them.
We are now a mighty nation, we are thirty—or about thirty millions of people, and we own and inhabit about one-fifteenth part of the dry land of the whole earth. We run our memory back over the pages of history for about eighty-two years and we discover that we were then a very small people in point of numbers, vastly inferior to what we are now, with a vastly less extent of country,—with vastly less of everything we deem desirable among men,—we look upon the change as exceedingly advantageous to us and to our posterity, and we fix upon something that happened away back, as in some way or other being connected with this rise of prosperity. We find a race of men living in that day whom we claim as our fathers and grandfathers; they were iron men, they fought for the principle that they were contending for; and we understood that by what they then did it has followed that the degree of prosperity that we now enjoy has come to us. We hold this annual celebration to remind ourselves of all the good done in this process of time of how it was done and who did it, and how we are historically connected with it; and we go from these meetings in better humor with ourselves—we feel more attached the one to the other and more firmly bound to the country we inhabit. In every way we are better men in the age, and race, and country in which we live for these celebrations. But after we have done all this we have not yet reached the whole. There is something else connected with it. We have besides these men—descended by blood from our ancestors—among us perhaps half our people who are not descendants at all of these men, they are men who have come from Europe—German, Irish, French and Scandinavian—men that have come from Europe themselves, or whose ancestors have come hither and settled here, finding themselves our equals in all things. If they look back through this history to trace their connection with those days by blood, they find they have none, they cannot carry themselves back into that glorious epoch and make themselves feel that they are part of us, but when they look through that old Declaration of Independence they find that those old men say that “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,” and then they feel that that moral sentiment taught in that day evidences their relation to those men, that it is the father of all moral principle in them, and that they have a right to claim it as though they were blood of the blood, and flesh of the flesh of the men who wrote that Declaration, (loud and long continued applause) and so they are.
That is the electric cord in that Declaration that links the hearts of patriotic and liberty-loving men together, that will link those patriotic hearts as long as the love of freedom exists in the minds of men throughout the world.
We could do worse than breaking up our eating, drinking, and pyrotechnics by reading the Declaration and reflecting on the ancient ties binding us to one another. Maybe we could give the Star Spangled Banner (and all of its nervy survivalism) the day off to make room for America the Beautiful (Cf. Ray Charles’ classic version)? Maybe we could cut down on the pomp and beef up the circumstance of our community events—like a big, public, summer Thanksgiving? The specifics matter less than the guiding vision: celebrating an America that is as free and fair as it is strong and prosperous.
Yes, I know, this is a romantic’s dream and a fool’s suggestion. Yes, I know, it won’t matter one bit. Yes, I know, hand-wringing and reflection are unlikely to mend more fences than a particularly smoky side of ribs. Yes, I know, a good deal of this is only matters to the eggheads—and the eggheads don’t ultimately decide elections or the path of our national zeitgeist.
I get it. I’m as cynical as any of you. I can see the Capitol Dome—and its corresponding plumes of hot air—from my house.
But a renewed focus on the guiding lights of the Declaration won’t hurt. We have other days to honor those who defend our shores. July 4th ought to be a day to celebrate the reckless optimism of our common project. Ours is a country that dared to dream of self-governance. Ours is a land that takes pride in living up to the audacity of its Founding by extending liberty and equal treatment to all members of the community. Ours is a country that confronts its worst shames in order to live up to those “better angels of our nature.” Even if pride in our national ideals fades into the messy routines within a week, this is the one day a year when reflection upon our community’s identity should be unavoidable.
And really, if we don’t bring all of this up on July 4th—then when?
 By the way, I don’t just mean the establishment leadership. Their combativeness is more or less a given—they live in a hyperbolic world. This time the political wildness has metastasized into the broader body politic. Bitter rancor now sprouts from the grassroots.