It’s the Fourth of July again, and we’re celebrating something. Most people, of course, are just celebrating not having to go to work, an occasion for a party if there ever was one. But the deep-thinker types insist on asking about the meaning of the occasion, and some of them are not in a partying mood. “...the history of my country has been a series of wars of conquest and subjugation masquerading in mainstream discourse as a series of heroic frontiers...” says Clare Brandabur in an essay on the Arabic Media Internet Network. And “...when it comes to black America's history and Old Glory, there is a hypocrisy that cannot be swept away with one hundred tragic 9-11s,” says the pseudonymous Morpheus on Playhata.com.
What about it? Is the Fourth of July a mass exercise in hypocrisy, an orchestrated distraction from the ugly reality of American history? Should we be cringing instead of partying, hanging our heads in shame?
Well, let’s consider. Is there a country on earth whose history doesn’t involve conquest, subjugation and convenient tidying up of history? The Arabs swept across half the globe imposing their religion by force, before they were subjugated in turn by Western colonial powers. The Bantu tribes went marauding into the southern regions of Africa, subjugating as they went, before the the Afrikaners did it to them. And why do the Apache live in the Arizona desert? Because they were driven off the plains by the Comanche. There are few innocent nations, and the European settlement of North America was hardly unique in its expropriation of already occupied land.
Successful expropriation is not what we’re celebrating today. What we’re celebrating today is, on the contrary, the things that redeem American history, the principles and the achievements that manage to raise this project of ours above the familiar sordidness of human affairs. The reason we celebrate the Fourth of July is that on this date in 1776 a document was signed that, uniquely up to that time in human history, asserted as the founding principle of a nation a set of principles, instead of shared ancestry or fealty to a monarch. Unlike say, Germany, where they’re still debating whether third-generation residents of Turkish ancestry can be real Germans, here we say you can be an American as long as you embrace a few key principles. And while those principles were compromised from the start by the existence of slavery and the expropriation of the native peoples, a lot of Americans have expended a lot of blood, sweat and tears over the years to force us back toward those ideals. That’s the central struggle of American history, and that’s the honorable part of it, what we celebrate today.
The ugly side of American history is the human side: the swindles and the massacres and the deportations and the lynchings. Those should never be forgotten, but there’s nothing especially American about them, either. Open a world history text to any page. The particularly American side of our history is how the institutions derived—by fits and starts—from those founding principles have forced us time and again to confront those things. The economy of half the country was based on slavery, and the other half refused to accept that. A cruel system of racial separation was ended by a combination of grass-roots action and pressure from the federal government. And our courts have an irritating habit of telling the government it can’t get away with things that in other countries are done by decree.
A cynic will point out that all of these achievements have been resisted by vested interests. So they have—and they happened anyway, because we were bequeathed a strong and flexible system designed to limit state power and enable reformist zeal. And when we betray our principles, there is pressure for remedy and recompense. It’s an imperfect, clumsy system, but show me one elsewhere that’s done better. There’s a reason why our net migration flow is so overwhelmingly into the United States. Our struggles have produced an extraordinarily dynamic society, with a highly fluid concept of class and a realistic prospect of prosperity for the great majority.
And if you’re black, or Native American? What’s in it for you? Do you have any reason to celebrate the Fourth of July? Well, the African-American community with all its problems is the world’s wealthiest population of African origin, by far. You might celebrate that on the Fourth, without giving an inch on your claim to a fair shake from a society run by whites. As for the Indians, it’s hard to imagine a world in which nobody ever intruded into their stone-age Eden. Sooner or later they would have had to engage modernity. In a best-case scenario, without theft and slaughter, what would the life of the Lakota or the Cherokee look like today? I don’t know. But I suspect that the old ways of life were doomed anyway. Change could have happened without slaughter, maybe, assuming a superhuman prescience and restraint on the part of the settlers the likes of which have never existed anywhere. Ask it this way: is there another framework in which the original nations of America could exist today that would be better than the one that exists, of a modern state ceding sovereignty in local matters to the native communities? If you can’t come up with one, you might as well celebrate the Fourth along with the rest of us.
None of this is to encourage triumphalism or complacency. We’ve got a lot of problems. But we’ve also got institutions and traditions and attitudes that foster solutions to those problems. And those are what we celebrate on the Fourth of July.
Look at the essays I cited above. You’ll see that Clare Brandabur says, “I love my country.” You’ll see that Morpheus says, “...black patriotism stands up for the greatest ideals written into the American idea.” I don’t want to speak for them, but I suspect that these two critics of our historical record recognize, in spite of their reservations, the value of what we’re celebrating today—institutions and attitudes that were designed to manage the strife inherent in human affairs.
So have another beer, guilt-free, and raise a quiet toast to those ideas Jefferson held to be self-evident two hundred and thirty-two years ago. They’re what all the fuss is about today.