Recently, I've been reading on the history of the Fourth of July, specifically when it comes to the Declaration of Independence. Like all historical events, our Independence Day is fraught with simplifications and even blatant inaccuracies. I read on NPR, for instance, that the vote on independence actually happened on July 2, and that the signing of the Declaration didn't happen until August of that same year. But the document was dated July 4 as it was sent out to each of the colonies, and so today we celebrate the Fourth as our day of independence from Great Britain.
This has been cause for some reflection on my part. I've been pondering the nature of freedom, of the founding of our country, and of the complicated history we all share. Is the United States as great as we want it to be? And even if it isn't, isn't there some kernel of truth or beauty that we can celebrate on July 4?
I love a good satire as well as anyone, but the Babylon Bee hits too close to home when it claims we have accepted the United States of America as our Lord and Savior. Yet satire alone does not tell the whole story; I think there can and should be a place for what can only be called patriotism. Not that I should place the United States on a throne above all others as the so-called “nation blessed by God,” but that I should appreciate what our founding fathers did so many years ago. The Declaration sounded a clarion call, if imperfectly, on the way God has placed humans in relationship; that oppression is not only offensive to our nature as human beings, but an offense against the Higher Law of truth, as set forth by God.
I added a catch up there, if you noticed; the call of the Declaration was imperfect. Arguably, it left no room for half of the world's population—women—and contradicted itself in being silent on the issue of slavery, which left black men and women wildly unequal to white landowners. In freeing themselves from the oppression of Great Britain, the newly vested Americans averted their gaze from the oppression that they themselves were upholding.
Yet one of the most interesting parts of the Declaration's history is Thomas Jefferson's original draft—which included a scathing indictment of Great Britain's slave trade and accused King George of trying to right the “crime” of slavery by having slaves murder other Americans to gain their freedom. I've included the full paragraph below:
“He [the king] has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating & carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither. This piratical warfare, the opprobrium of infidel powers, is the warfare of the Christian King of Great Britain. Determined to keep open a market where Men should be bought & sold, he has prostituted his negative for suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or restrain this execrable commerce. And that this assemblage of horrors might want no fact of distinguished die, he is now exciting those very people to rise in arms among us, and to purchase that liberty of which he has deprived them, by murdering the people on whom he has obtruded them: thus paying off former crimes committed again the Liberties of one people, with crimes which he urges them to commit against the lives of another.”
Thomas Jefferson calls the slave trade an “infidel power,” contrasting it bitterly with the so-called “Christian King of Great Britain.” Yet these words were cut from the final draft, nixed by the need to pacify the states (and the representatives) who were so deeply involved in the slave trade.
In a way, I think this very saga is a glimpse into the founding of our country. The United States was not founded perfectly; in many ways, it was not even founded well. But nevertheless, it was founded on ideals. When I look at the history of the American Revolution and the legacy of such documents as the Declaration, the Constitution, and the Federalist Papers, I see people who are idealists first and realists second. Even though, realistically, the Declaration could only represent all thirteen colonies if it left out all mention of slavery, the first impulse of Jefferson was to call for true equality—the “most sacred rights of life and liberty” for all people, including slaves.
This does not negate the terrible things that have been done in the name of this country. We are still a country founded on war, with a legacy of both liberty and oppression; we are still a country seething with internal divisions, left unhealed by the Civil War; we are still a country of uneasy peace, racial tension, and partisan hatred. But we are also a country that is founded upon the ideal of a self evident truth: that people have essential rights, endowed by their creator.
In some ways, I see this as parallel to human nature itself, and I see the hypocrisy of the United States in the strikingly similar hypocrisy of the church, which has a perfect ideal of which it falls short. “All men are created equal” is in some ways a failure—not unlike “Love one another,” “May they be one, as we are one,” and “Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” The United States has been a force for good—so has the church. The United States has been a force for evil—so has the church.
And so I have to come to the conclusion that I should approach my country in the same way that I approach my community. Not that the United States should be treated the same as a church; there are obvious differences in how we should approach Christian community and how we should approach our temporal citizenship to any physical country. However, I find the same principle at work, which G. K. Chesterton so succinctly summarized: “Things must be loved first and improved afterwards.”
To return to my original question—how should I respond on Independence Day? What is there to celebrate about such a mixed and complicated legacy? I can only say that it is important to celebrate the good without ignoring the bad. I should celebrate the Fourth of July, not because I don't think the country needs improving—it does—but because I think that love is a necessary predecessor to change. I must love my country first, and improve it afterwards.