America, perhaps now more than ever, finds herself in a tenuous political situation. As a nation we are a diversity of interests divided across political lines and socio-economic circumstances; in fact, America can hardly be considered one nation of united citizens. So what does the fourth of July mean to us? How is unity possible under such circumstances? Has the American experiment failed?
Perhaps America is most divided against herself because we have forgotten that it is an experiment in self-government, rather than a failsafe solution to suffering. In Federalist 1, Alexander Hamilton famously observed of this experiment that
it seems to have been reserved to the people of this country, by their conduct and example, to decide the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force. If there be any truth in the remark, the crisis at which we are arrived may with propriety be regarded as the era in which that decision is to be made; and a wrong election of the part we shall act may, in this view, deserve to be considered as the general misfortune of mankind. This idea will add the inducements of philanthropy to those of patriotism, to heighten the solicitude which all considerate and good men must feel for the event.
Although his statement smacks of declarations previous to his own, (The shining city upon a hill imagery is taken from Jesus’ “sermon on the mount” and John Winthrop understood that America was to become this city) the sentiment is worth remembering, for it traces the burden borne by us Americans. Hamilton wisely declares that “if there is any truth” in this American exceptionalist rhetoric, that our conduct, whether good or bad, will either provide a great misfortune for mankind or will be considered an act of philanthropy for all men everywhere. It was once believed that America had the opportunity to act as a beacon that shines her light to all men in all places, is this still evident?
No man understood the irony of such exceptionalist rhetoric more than Frederick Douglass. Thus, on July 5th of 1852, as a free black man, he dared to ask the question “what to the slave is the fourth of July”? Given our precarious political situation, his answer is one that we will soon be reminded of in our media: “Your celebration is a sham…There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices, more shocking and bloody, than are the people of these United States, at this very hour”. Why did Douglass believe that our celebration was a sham? Did he see any hope that this nation may right her wrongs? Is there any hope today?
Twenty years later, Douglass would deliver another speech. His aged reflections provide the tonic to his more candid rhetoric. Despite his earlier reminder regarding the great irony of the Independence Day, he reminds us Americans why Hamilton’s experiment in self-government is worth saving and worthy of our devotion. He reminds us
Nothing can bring to man so much of happiness or so much of misery as man himself. Today he exalts himself to heaven by his virtues and achievements; to-morrow he smites with sadness and pain, by his crimes and follies. But whether exalted or debased, charitable or wicked; whether saint or villain, priest or prize fighter; if only he be great in his line, he is an unfailing source of interest, as one of a common brotherhood; for the best man finds in his breast the evidence of kinship with the worst, and the worst with the best. Confront us with either extreme and you will rivet our attention and fix us in earnest contemplation, for our chief desire is to know what there is in man and to know him at all extremes and ends and opposites, and for this knowledge, or the want of it, we will follow him from the gates of life to the gates of death, and beyond them.
So is Trump’s America worth saving? Although it often seems that we are one nation divided under God, America still provides the greatest opportunity for kinship with our fellow man and honest reflection upon the nature and virtues of humanity. Is there any nation more diverse than America? Is there any city that dares declare that it will act as example to the world as much as our own? How many localities in the world organize county fairs under the premise of fawning over livestock, only to band together with their fellow citizens over a funnel cake or a box of popcorn? How many in America, on the other hand? How many races have been welcomed into our country, despite our more recent shortcomings? In other countries are such conversations regarding the propriety of immigration even possible, or are such conversations settled before the debate may even take place? Despite our recent tendency to close our borders, how many students of different colors, origins, and religions still study under the same roofs of our schools and break bread at the tables at those school? How many of those schools provide that bread that is to be broken? How many millions would be willing to provide that bread for those students if the common fund was unwilling? How many Americans would be willing to fight and die to save those children if a second 9/11 were to occur? How many have made that high sacrifice? How have we forgotten?
America is imperfect; the Founding of our country is riddled with contradictions, and sadly some of our founders held slaves in bondage. Today in America, slavery is illegal, although it can be argued that certain forms of slavery still exist. However, I like to think that Frederick Douglass smiles happily upon this divided nation as it attempts to grapple and work through its contradictions through civil discourse and disobedience, however misguided it sometimes may seem. I like to think that were he here with us today, he would understand the great strides we have made to realize the principles of our Declaration and solidify the rule of law under our Constitution. Although our government and our politics is riddled with contradictions to this day, and although our founders can be considered both saints and villains from different vantage points, our divided nation gives us that opportunity to “Confront either extreme [of man] in earnest contemplation” and endeavor to cement a brotherhood more lasting and more enduring. Because of the work of Douglass and the Founders both, we have the opportunity to endeavor to “follow them from the gates of life to the gates of death, and beyond them” and make our mark on this great nation and its experiment in freedom for all, no matter how great or small any of us may be or feel under the weight of the political burdens of our day.
So what is the fourth of July to an American today? It is a much needed respite to reflect on this great opportunity to establish brotherhood with so many unlike ourselves. It is a wonderful time to recognize our civic duty to extend our hands to one another and recognize our similarities rather than our differences.