So the Fourth of July has come and gone in this crazy year of COVID, protests, and Presidential politics here in America. Our whole country seems to be seething with anger right now - some of it is the usual partisan nonsense that flourishes every election year, but much of it goes deeper than that. Minorities are taking to the streets to protest a law enforcement system that seems rigged against them, and many middle aged whites are countering with arguments that people won't get in trouble if they just don't break the law, and dragging out various crime statistics to buttress their point.
But for many young people, the problems in America are so pervasive and so deep that they see nothing worth celebrating in our country's history anymore. Over the last week, I've seen statements on social media like: "Burn it all down! If you ever owned a slave, you don't get a statue, period!" and "I choose not to celebrate because the premise of equality in the Declaration only applied to straight, white males and no one else." In short, all of American history is seen as racist, flawed, and unworthy of any honor or celebration because . . . people in the 18th century didn't think like people in the 21st century. Why is that surprising or shocking?
I won't address the many social issues that are being debated in America right now, except to say that there are some valid points on every side, and I do believe if we quit yelling and started listening to each other, we might actually come to a better understanding of why so many people are so upset. We might even (gasp!!) compromise on some things and solve some problems. But what I do want to address is the subject nearest and dearest to my heart - American history. It's something I have taught and studied for my entire adult life, and I believe it still has great value, and can teach us many lessons that we seem determined not to learn.
"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; that to secure these rights, governments are implemented among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed; that whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it, and to institute new government. . ." Thomas Jefferson wrote those words in 1776, in a document which was primarily intended to justify America's breaking away from the British Empire. But within that piece of persuasive political propaganda (for that is what the Declaration was), he included this bit of Enlightenment philosophy which would become America's first principle: the rights of equality and self-determination. Jefferson, as everyone knows today, owned some 300 slaves. He fathered children with one of them, although the precise details of his relationship with Sally Hemings are shrouded in mystery to this day. He was a flawed man, but more than anything, he was a product of the time and culture he lived in. Does that mean that everything he ever wrote, or said, or did, is worthless? Of course not.
George Washington was also a Virginia planter. He, too, was a slaveowner, although he recognized the evils of the institution and grew increasingly uncomfortable with it as he grew older. But he was also a man who served for eight years without pay as head of the Continental Army, fighting for the independence of this country. He was at the forefront of every battle; he shared in the dangers and hardships of his soldiers, and ultimately led them to victory against one of the most powerful nations on earth. He refused the chance to become a King when the Army wanted to disband Congress and offer him a crown. He presided over the Constitutional Convention, creating the most durable and stable Republic in the history of the modern world, and served for another eight years as its President, guiding the fragile young nation through many dangers, quelling partisan infighting that might have strangled America in the cradle, keeping us out of foreign wars, and establishing an Executive Branch that has endured to this day. Shall we tear down his monument, too?
Here is the challenge I would issue to all the "Cancel Culture" youths who are crying out for the mass erasure of American history. (NOTE: you see I didn't mention Confederate monuments here; that's a separate issue that I have written about here on multiple occasions.) Simply put, it is this: Show me, please, where in the world of 1776 there existed a government that allowed women and minorities to vote and hold office, that did not discriminate based on color, religion, or nationality. Show me an 18th century government that allowed universal suffrage, that did regarded women as full political and social equals of men, that respected all races and religions equally. Take your time, read some history books, and get back to me.
Hint: You won't find one. The political and moral values of the 21st century did not exist in the 1700's. It is unrealistic and unfair to men who lived 250 years ago to expect them to be as "woke" and enlightened as you are (or as you think you are) today. They were products of an era far more primitive and patriarchal than the world we live in now, and just as they were incapable of understanding the technological marvels of today, like cellular communications, the internal combustion engine, and space travel, they also could not wrap their heads around the societal values we take for granted.
That is what makes their achievement all the more remarkable: despite their limitations, despite the culture that produced them, despite what we would scorn as their "barbarity," they created a system of government that allowed our culture to evolve to where it has. As flawed as their understanding of equality was, they still made it the founding principle of their new Republic. They didn't perfectly practice the ideas they articulated, but they articulated them anyway, knowing that the sentiments contained in the Declaration and the Bill of Rights were goals worth striving for. We are still reaching towards their vision, but without them, we would not have the vision to begin with. They created a Republic, and a Constitution, that carried within itself the mechanisms for constant self-improvement and growth. Thanks to their wisdom and foresight, we haven't been wracked with constant Revolutions and the blood and misery that they produce. With the one notable exception of our horrible Civil War, the government they created has set a standard for stability and moral and political progress.
We could have done far worse. France fought a Revolution based on similar ideas to ours just a decade after our own Revolution ended, but instead of a stable democracy, they went from an absolute monarchy to a constitutional monarchy to a republic to a reign of terror to an authoritarian dictatorship to an absolute dictatorship to a restored absolute monarchy, all in the span of 25 years! And then they continued to change governments with depressing regularity and a great deal of bloodshed and misery for the next century. America avoided that fate thanks to the foresight and wisdom of the men who created our country.
So when I see young people posting the obscene "F*** the Fourth" hashtag, I shake my head sadly. The fact that they even have the freedom to say such things is because a slaveowning Southerner name James Madison penned the First Amendment to the Constitution, that "Congress shall pass no law . . . abridging the Freedom of Speech." Our Founders were not perfect men, OK? We get that. They were not modern in their values, their morals, or their worldview. But they were truly remarkable men for their time, and they laid a foundation on which we have been able to build a remarkable country. Because of them, we have the right to "peaceably assemble, and petition the government for a redress of our grievances." Isn't that what is going on in much of America right now? You are allowed to march and chant and demand change because a bunch of benighted 18th century farmers and merchants thought it was important for you to have that right.
Yes, we still have problems in America. We've come a long way on issues of race and equality, but we still have a long way to go. It has not been a smooth journey, but it could have been much worse. Rejecting the lessons of our history, and casting our Founders upon the ash heap because they are not us, is short-sighted and foolish. They have many lessons to teach us still, and we would be wise to learn them. The fact that we have the freedom to do so is a tribute to their wisdom and foresight.