By lex, on July 3rd, 2006
This should be an easy post to write, but somehow it isn’t. Despite the fact that we’re living in times of prosperity unimaginable even twenty years ago, there’s still a kind of fin de siecle feeling in the air, a feeling filtering down somehow from our elites. Peggy Noonan wrote a dreary piece some months back about how families are taking their children to the mall to buy them one more pair of faded jeans – not that they need any more jeans, mind: It’s just that they’re doing what they can while they can. Getting it while the getting’s good. As though it might soon be over. We’re at war overseas. We seem to be at war with each other. What’s to celebrate?
And that’s the problem I’m having with this post – it’s just that this kind of pessimism is so not us. After all, the document whose birthday we celebrate today famously promised us the optimistic ideals of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. You wonder how many of the Signers swallowed a bit at that: They had to be all too familiar with life in the late 18th century (nasty, brutish and short, as a rule), liberty (except in the south, for people of color, and in the north, for indentured servants regardless of color) and those pursuits of happiness (available certainly to the landed gentry, but rather down-rung on the hierarchy of needs for those looking to 1) keep their scalps, while 2) finding some land to 3) grow a little sustenance on). But that was the world they knew, and the Signers took it on the volley, and hit it back cross-court. At the famous risk of their lives, their fortune and their sacred honor, it must be remembered. They had a vision of perfection in mind, I think, but they also took pragmatic satisfaction in the achievable good.
Oh, the old scrap also fussed a bit about old King George, and his naughty habits, his quartering of soldiers, and his propensity to call “together legislative bodies at places unusual, uncomfortable, and distant from the depository of their Public Records, for the sole purpose of fatiguing them into compliance with his measures.” But it must also be pointed out that the opening paragraphs dealing with “self-evident” rights was blatant false advertising – it bore no relation to the world as it was then known. There were very few “rights” which adhered to the governed, apart from those that lesser nobles had prised from the dead hand of murdered royals over the centuries, and which they had, in turn, conceded in some small portion to those unhappy souls whose quietude might be purchased by the favor of an uncertain voice in Parliament, along with the sense that, in any private disagreement, the common man might get a fair hearing from a jury of his peers.
It was a long way from there to here, and John Adam’s “country of laws, not men.”
It purchased us a fight, that scroll, and a near-run fight at that. The Continental Army lost nearly every battle – nearly every one that is, until the last. They won by refusing to be entirely defeated, by remaining in the field and, it must be admitted, by virtue of the emerging sentiment among the upper and middle British classes that all of this hideously expensive inter-familial butchery was not at all the thing. One does not slaughter one’s cousins, if one can avoid it.
But having won the greater victories along the very short trajectory of our nationhood – the destruction of slavery, fascism, and communism, to name just a few mouldering abominations – we still find it within ourselves to frown across the table at each other here at home. “We are a nation divided,” comes the common lamentation, along with the broad hint that we could be more unified, if only.
If only you hadn’t voted for Bush. Twice.
If only you wouldn’t burn the flag.
If only you were in favor of single-payer health care.
If only you believed in personal responsibility.
If only Europe loved us more.
If only you didn’t care so much what Europe thought.
If only the war was over.
If only the war was won.
If only gays had full marriage rights.
If only they got back in the closet.
And more along these lines, but little that really matters any more than these. Look back up at that list – it’s silly, isn’t it? These are our “divisions”? These are the things that send partisans to the barricades? Piffle.
“Divided” was Cold Harbor, where on a foggy morning in early June, 1863, 7000 bold bluecoats marched down to meet my Virginian forefathers, who laid them low at little cost, to little gain. Divided was Antietam, where on a single day, 23,000 American casualties fell to American fire. Divided was Chancellorsville, where 30,000 Americans on either side fell over four days.
Much was lost in those bloody years, but much more remained besides. Enough to send 115,00 Americans to their deaths 50 years later, and another 400,000 Americans some 30 years after that. Men who died to give back to Europe, and to others, the liberties that they themselves could not acquire, or could not maintain.
If it’s true that our future is uncertain, it’s equally true that it always has been thus. We weren’t promised liberty, we wrested it away from those who would withhold it from us. We weren’t given the rule of law, we created it. We’ve gotten nothing from this world that we haven’t built with our own hands, or hacked out of the ground. Despite all the little things that divide us – amplified by the new megaphone that allows even the most wretched among us an equal voice – so many more things unite us, even when we take them for granted. We still have that vision of the city on the hill, even when we can’t agree exactly what it looks like.
In the face or unimaginable darkness, our forefathers somehow gave us hope. They deeded to us the ideals of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Over the centuries, we successfully passed these on to others, some by dint of example, others by force of arms. Not all of them were grateful at the time, not all of those who once were grateful are grateful still, but never mind – it is the nature of man to forget a kindness, and nurture a grievance.
Today, we have young men and women willing to give their last full measure of devotion to ensure our children have those hopes too. They stand atop the shoulders of young men and women who gave their all over the years to give us the right to frown across the table at each other. Who stand upon the shoulders of those who pledged their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor to the prospect
That these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States, that they are Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved; and that as Free and Independent States, they have full Power to levy War, conclude Peace contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which Independent States may of right do.