Happy Fourth, Everyone! Enjoy the fireworks and picnics and parades, and celebrate our shared membership in this great nation of ours!
But let’s keep trying to become the nation we can be, rather than blindly patting ourselves on the back for being the nation we’ve always been. And after we’re done celebrating, let’s also be less smug and more circumspect about who and what we really are, and the room for improvement that really exists.
First, let’s recognize the many ways in which the folks who rebelled against Great Britain 237 years ago (238 would be a more accurate estimate of when they began to rebel with force) were not perfect and were not perfectly in the right. For one thing, they were the propertied class (allied by smugglers who resented Great Britain’s reassertion of the laws whose violation they had long benefited from) who wanted to protect their own property interests against not just claims by Great Britain, but also the claims by slaves, Native Americans and the unpropertied classes in America the interests of which Great Britain was arguably more sensitive to.
From our modern perspective, Great Britain was really more progressive on several issues: They wanted to respect indigenous rights more than the colonists did; they wanted to move toward abolishing slavery while the colonists didn’t; they wanted to respect the newly conquered Canadian’s right to speak their own language and adhere to their own religion while the colonists didn’t (because it divided the Canadians from them).
The Americans had long benefited from the imperial policy of “salutary neglect,” by which they were allowed to benefit from British protection and patronage but did not have to pay taxes in order to allow their economy to grow. It was when America became prosperous enough to contribute to the coffers of the society from which they benefited that the propertied class decided that that was somehow unjust, citing their own particular notion of “representation” as the justification (though “representation” is a far more complex subject than most people recognize).
The War of Independence was also a civil war, with the unpropertied class in the southern hinterland (mostly Scots Irish, the predecessors of Appalachian hillbillies) siding with the British against the propertied class leading the revolution. It was a bloody mess with many atrocities committed on both sides.
The Confederates in the American Civil War that began eighty years after the revolution ended saw their struggle as a continuation of the American Revolution, and they were in many ways correct. They continued to struggle against a more remote central government that was threatening to deny them of their slaves and to impose more unity on them than they desired. It’s an interesting tribute to the power of national mythology that almost no one is bothered by the fact that we assign the labels of “right” and “wrong” in opposite ways to two such similar instances in our history.
I don’t want to oversimplify, just offer a little bit of a corrective challenge to our conventional mythology. There were some legitimate grievances that the rebels were motivated by, and some real overreach by the British. The marginal moral superiority of the British on slavery and indigenous rights was in part due to their remoteness and less immediate interest in the matters of contention. And the outcome of the struggle, years later, culminating in our Constitution, was a truly impressive product with real value to the progress of human history and popular sovereignty. But we should not simply revel in our imaginary perfection; we should also always recognize the realities of our history and our present that are less laudable.
We are deeply saturated in a national mythology, with one large and influential faction considering any critical thought applied to our own self-examination to be anathema. No, that’s not the America I want for my children, or for the rest of humanity, so, yes, let’s keep working at becoming a truly enlightened and humane people.