By Carl Carter, APR
We fly our flags this week and celebrate a divorce document. That’s it.
It’s not about the creation of a new nation. I’d argue that America had been a nation from the first time people whose religions weren’t welcome in Europe started settling in Jamestown and Plymouth, a century and a half before Thomas Jefferson put his quill to paper. And for thousands of years before that, because the Native Americans who lived here have a rightful claim on the title of Americans too.
It has nothing to do with the wisdom and foresight of the Founding Fathers in establishing a bicameral Legislature. That didn’t come until 11 years later. It’s not about freedom of press or religion, or the right to own guns. The Bill of Rights didn’t happen for another 13 years.
It’s not about sending off soldiers to defend our rights, either. The Revolutionary War was already well under way. George Washington was already in charge of the Army, which had been fighting for a year.
It’s not even about freedom — at least not the way we use the word today. Despite Thomas Jefferson’s eloquent words that “All men are created equal,” half of our economy was built on the enslavement of black people who were captured or bought and brought here against their wills. Jefferson owned slaves. George Washington owned slaves. My ancestors owned slaves. I have copies of the sales documents showing the names of black humans, the dates on which they were bought and sold, and the price paid for them. (Have you ever held in your hand the bill of sale on another human your family owned? It can change how you look at the world.)
It’s not about establishing a government on religious principles. Ben Franklin, who drafted Jefferson to write our Declaration, was an atheist. Jefferson carried a prayer book but had no beliefs that resemble the fundamentalism that many claim now to be our birthright. Independence Day has little or nothing to do with religion.
So what happened on the July 4, 1776? We finished signing our divorce papers with England. We declared that the relationship was no longer good for us, that they had treated us badly, and that we were showing them the door. Read past the famous parts and you’ll find a laundry list of grievances very much like those you’ll read in any divorce. The King wouldn’t let us have any relationships with the rest of the world. He kept armies marching around, hovering and threatening us. He wouldn’t let us think for ourselves or work out issues among ourselves, telling us where we could live and where we could not. In short, we were in an abusive relationship with a domineering spouse.
To be sure, the Declaration contained fighting words, so the war that was already under way became even more fierce. It gave us many stories of inspiring heroism. My favorites, of course, involve two of my ancestors — an old woman in North Carolina whose husband and sons were off in the war. The old lady saw the British coming and burned her own house, declaring that she wouldn’t give them a damn thing to help in their war against her menfolk.
Or Jesse Carter, the first of my Carter ancestors to immigrate to the New World, who got caught up in the disastrous Siege of Charleston and likely either deserted or ended up on British slave ship. It’s OK, though, because he went back home, stole some land from the Cherokee and ended up rich. As hero stories go, that’s not much of one. But that’s the point. To make this country work, we have to be honest about who we are. We have to understand how we really got here so that we can make good decisions and find our way into a better future.
I’ve never had to go through a divorce myself, but I’ve seen plenty. They’re always messy, and nothing ever ends up the way you intended it to. One decision leads to another — some good, some bad. We go through good and bad times.
So here we are. Pretty messed up at the moment, from where I sit. It’s hard to imagine a time when things were screwier, but they were. Many times. We’ll get through it.
I remain an optimist. A few folks think I’m crazy, or not seeing the full picture. I heard the same thing when I didn’t join the fight against the godless secular humanists who were destroying our country behind the tyranny of a Southern Baptist Sunday School teacher named Jimmy Carter. Some folks questioned my grasp on reality when I said we didn’t have to fear Iraq, a country with no functional navy or air force or (as it turned out) weapons of mass destruction. Somebody always seems to think I’m just not worked up enough about the dangers we face.
But when faced with whether we can rise to meet these crises and challenges, my answer is always the same: We always have. Along the way, we’ve done horrendous, terrible things. We’ve beaten slaves, denied people their votes, marched Native Americans along the Trail of Tears, incarcerated people because they were Japanese, and much more.
We go crazy. A lot. But we always come back to our senses. And that process starts with understanding what really happened at the beginning.