ILLUMINATION
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ILLUMINATION

Why the 4th deserves celebration

Don’t discount the world into which our nation was born

Folk art flag. Photograph by Noel Holston (author)

Some of us are getting ready to mark the 4th of July, a national holiday about which a dear friend recently posted:

“…don’t forget what you’re celebrating, and that’s the fact that a bunch of slave-owning, aristocratic, white males didn’t want to pay their taxes.”

I laughed when I read it, and I laugh again now as I type the quote into this essay. It’s funny.

It also sells our imperfect, chaotic, phenomenal nation short.

It's very popular now, at least in some circles, to disparage the “Founding Fathers” for being, you know, guys, and to insist that their enslavement of Africans is the reason for and the very essence of what became the United States of America.

There’s no denying that the Declaration of Independence doesn’t mention women, much less include any among its signers, or that many of those bewigged guys owned slaves, or that slavery was an economic cornerstone of the colonies and, later, the states.

What’s missing from that capsule is context. It’s neither fair nor helpful to view this country’s founding through the lens of what we think and believe now.

Declaring independence from England and creating a governmental system in which people could vote, even if those people were white males only, was a radical act, a literally world-shaking act.

As Marshall B. Davidson writes in The World of 1776, “With a few minor exceptions, in 1776, all the advanced and settled nations on earth were monarchies; the practical advantages of royal absolutism as a system of government seemed clear from long experience. Except for distant rumblings from America, there was, at that moment, no serious indication that such venerable traditions would soon be threatened.”

Kings and emperors were the norms. The French finally turned on their royals in 1789 and didn’t cool down for 10 years. Russians didn’t depose their czar until 1917, and even then only to exchange one form of tyrant for another.

The Founders surprised the world again when, having successfully defended their divorce from England and its king, they did not initiate an American monarchy, as some colonists expected (and wanted), but rather a representative republic. OK, semi-representative.

No, women could not vote and were, in many respects, property. Nor could black men or women vote, not even the “free”.

But if the Founders believed they were forever codifying the privilege of rich white males when they wrote and ratified the Constitution in 1788, man (forgive the expression), did they ever blow it.

Intentionally or not — and I’d vote for the former — they gave us a set of guidelines, a blueprint, through which change is possible. Not easy, not inevitable, not necessarily permanent, but possible.

To cite a few examples:

By the time the Constitution was adopted, five northern states — Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island — had begun the abolition of slavery within their borders. By the early 1800s, the rest of the northern states were following suit. A rather bloody civil war, you may recall, won by the northern Union of states, ultimately forced the Confederate southern states to end slavery.

Ten amendments to the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, were adopted in 1791, outlining rights and protections few people on earth had. The first of the subsequent amendments, the 11th, was ratified in 1795.

Congress ratified the 15th Amendment, giving black American men the right to vote, in 1870.

Congress ratified the 19th Amendment, giving women the right to vote, in 1920. Women in England won their long battle for voting rights that same year.

Throughout the 20th century, American citizens with more expansive, inclusive notions of individual rights and fairness fought — not just worked, fought — for new laws and oversights, resulting in advances as diverse as the Voting Rights Act and “safety net” programs such as Social Security and Medicare, women’s economic and reproductive rights, and gay rights.

We got our first African American Supreme Court Justice, Thurgood Marshall, in 1967, and our first woman justice, Sandra Day O’Connor, in 1981.

We elected a black man President in 2008 and a brown woman Vice President in 2020.

We now have two African Americans on the Supreme Court, one of whom, Clarence Thomas, is so traditionalist he likely would have been a Tory in 1776. He and other conservative justices, not to mention a sizable segment of the electorate, appear hellbent on returning us to those not-so-thrilling days of yesteryear.

No hand wringing, please. No pouting. No throwing in the towel. The Founders would be disgusted with us.

While it may not be fair to say that when they wrote the Second Amendment, they couldn’t possibly have envisioned AR-15s, it is fair to say that they did anticipate that we, the people, would keep on butting heads over which direction the country should go.

It’s what they’d done, what they knew, and what they expected.

It’s America.

You don’t have to love it, but you should be glad it and all the possibility it still encompasses exists.

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Noel Holston

Noel Holston

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Writer, photographer, horticulturist, international music icon. Lives in the South. Email Noel at nholstonga@gmail.com