We have to remember our national sins on Independence Day—but without despair
This is the first year in more than a decade that I will celebrate Independence Day with my family in the United States, and only the second in 20. My exile has been largely self-imposed: I left in the late ’90s to complete my studies in Rome, and, to make a long story short, I met a girl. Though many people assume I have largely forgotten American ways and taken Italian citizenship, the truth is that—proud as I am of the Italian part of my heritage and grateful to the people that received me with so warm a welcome—I say with John Adams, “I have not one drop of blood in my veins, but what is American.”
There is, therefore, much sweetness in this homecoming. The prospect of visiting family and friends, of poolside grilling and cornhole and bocce (a family favorite, of which we play a special and familiar variation), and of fireworks in celebration of our nation’s birthday all conspire (with many other things unmentioned) to make this a happy occasion, one by which to renew acquaintance with the things that bind us and remind us of that shared patrimony of commonplaces,in which we discover ourselves one nation and one people.
The news of reporters being gunned down at the Capital Gazette in Maryland, and the headline breathlessly proclaiming that fully one third of my fellows in citizenship believe another civil war is in the offing, have conspired with other circumstances—familiar to anyone who takes any interest at all in national affairs—if not to cast a pall over this happy reunion, then at least to alloy the sweetness of the repatriation.
Our history is rife with examples of our failures to live up to our commitments. We must face those failures in this and every generation squarely and without stint.
But many of my fellows in citizenship, from this generation and from those before, and even some who suffered grave and protracted injustice from the United States, nevertheless have refused to drink from the cup of bitterness and despair. Feeling myself blessed in America—not least by their example—I eschew the cup as well.
In any case, my love of America has never been the result of fantastic or blinkered esteem. Our history is rife with examples of our failures to live up to our commitments. We must face those failures in this and every generation squarely and without stint. I learned that from America, too.
The words to follow—most of which are a revisiting of lines I wrote a couple of years ago for my blog to help spread the word about my book The Soul of a Nation: America as a Tradition of Inquiry and Nationhood—seek to express some little of what I hope we are not too late to learn from our failures and successes in the work of ordering our lives together. I say these things with a view toward recovering a sense of our genuine achievements in a way that not only permits, but encourages, us to face more fully the failures and outstanding work we have inherited.
I reject the tendency to deify the founders of the United States. In the same breath, I repudiate the tendency to demonize them. They were human, just as we are. Just as we have, so did they have feet of clay.
I reject the tendency to deify the founders of the United States. In the same breath, I repudiate the tendency to demonize them.
The men and women we revere did terrible things, even as they believed—not wrongly—that they were good people about a worthy business and even a truly noble cause. Neither their sincere love of that cause, nor the service they rendered to it, can remit so much as the slightest soupçon of their guilt. Even so, their guilty conduct cannot subtract an iota’s worth from the cause they loved and sought to advance.
For example: As we prepare to celebrate the founding of our nation—conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal—it is not only necessary but indispensable that we remember how many of the Founding Fathers owned slaves, and how morally awful and physically brutal was the system of race-based chattel slavery practiced by some of our forebears. It was awful even by the standards of other societies that practiced similar—and similarly awful—forms of slavery.
That cannot be the only thing we remember. We must continue to learn about how the men and women of the founding generation—and of the half-dozen generations before that—loved and cherished their rights and their liberties, and honored those among them who served the public interest honorably, without respect to party.
The men and women we revere did terrible things, but their guilty conduct cannot subtract an iota’s worth from the cause they loved and sought to advance.
We must remember as well how we casually cheated, bamboozled and murdered Native Americans. Nevertheless, that cannot be the only thing we recall when we think of the “white man” and his dealings, past and present, with the peoples from whom we took our land.
In this day, especially, we must remember the terrible religious bigotry that stained the souls and the honor of our forefathers in nationhood, even as we learn once again about how they struggled to find a way to order their lives so that each man could worship and advocate for truth according to conscience, and at the same time fully participate in society and in the public counsels—and how, in the main, they succeeded in so ordering their lives after much effort.
We must remember how the Civil War was and was not “over slavery.” We must recover our sensibility: our awareness of and sympathy with the ways in which our forebears did and did not struggle with each other in peace. Those ways teach us needful lessons about the real and genuine importance of the causes for which the parties to that terrible conflict contended in war.
In short, we must remember together how hard it was for our forefathers to recognize the humanity in others—was it not obvious to them?—and how deeply that failure to recognize the full and equal measure of humanity they shared with those others (who should have been fellows) wounded their own.
We must make ourselves capable of mindfulness. We must allow ourselves to feel in ourselves and in our fellows the limits fallen human nature puts to the moral vision of even the best of us, even and especially those of us with the best of intentions. While we must not be bound by the imperfection of our forebears—we must frankly face their sinfulness—we must recognize that we are heirs to their condition for good and for ill.
Most importantly, we must be mindful of the consequences of our failure as a society to recognize the humanity of others—whether they be the gay couple, the snake-handling Pentecostals, the immigrant family from Honduras, the Catholics with 10 children or with two, the Muslim refugee with four mouths to feed (he was a promising young lawyer back home before the war), or the young man with the mullet and the penchant for playing Merle Haggard records and the perpetual sunburn and three-beer buzz (he would be happy to turn the music down and even happier to tell you why your engine rattles like that at low revs). Because, simply and shortly put, those others are people, too.
We must desire to know all about the men and women in the founding generation and in every generation after that, who—in the main— loved public spirit, honesty, fairness, industry, kindness and charity, but did not always practice them or even try.
Our forebears knew that being good citizens meant first and foremost being good neighbors. They worked until they found the way to order their lives together (except when they did not, and remember what happened then?). They knew the world was dangerous, and they did not let it scare them (except when they did, and what happened then?). They understood how lucky they were, and tried to be worthy of their good fortune (except when they did not, and what happened then?). They were happy when their neighbors did well and they were there to help when times were tough (except when they were not, and what happened then?).
I do not know whether we are still—or ever were—the kind of people our forebears believed themselves and tried to be, except when they did not. I do know—as I know my Savior lives—that such a people is the only kind of people it is worth trying to be. This Independence Day, let us resolve anew to make a go of it.