When I was growing up in rural Kansas and Oklahoma, July 4, Independence Day, was billed as the one holiday that brought us all together. Regardless of our origin, our heritage, our belief system, we were all Americans, damn it, and July 4 gave us a chance to all celebrate our freedoms. That was the way it was billed. We had something that no other country in the world could claim.
Over the years, though, what I’ve learned, individually, and what we’ve learned and begun to talk about as a nation, is something far removed from the idyllic picture that was painted for us. There has never been a point in the history of the United States where everyone was free. The country itself is founded upon stolen land. The blood of genocide soaks the soil of every farm and every city that dots the landscape from sea to shining sea. The eternal stain of enslavement discolors all the 13 original colonies and fostered the racism that still, to this very day, keeps people of color from being genuinely free.
Now, I’m not one to say don’t celebrate the birth of this nation. That’s not my place. You celebrate what you want to celebrate today. But before you light that first firecracker or grill that first hot dog, or wave your flag in that parade, let’s take a moment to get real about what the true history and status of this country is. My country ‘tis of thee, embraced misanthropy, of thee I scream.
Pull back the covers, take a look at the wounds and the disease. Then, if you still have the stomach, we’ll talk about celebrations.
Stolen Land, Stolen People
Thievery is at the heart of what we now know as the United States. Of course, not many people call in that. Instead, we hear words like conquered and settled, and explored. But who was conquered and what was settled? Exploring sounds like an innocent enough activity, but the reasons for doing so only worsened the crimes being committed.
North America was not unpopulated when the first Europeans landed here. From Jamestown to Plymouth, the people who dared to cross an ocean, looking for freedom from their own oppression, considered themselves better than those who were already calling this land home and didn’t care that in order for them to establish what they wanted in a country, those they called savages would have to die.
History tells us that the number of indigenous peoples was reduced because of diseases most likely introduced to the continent by Spanish explorers in what we now call Florida. They were weak, their numbers too few to provide any real resistance to the light-skinned invaders. While that is true to some degree, what is also true is that many tribes only wanted to live peacefully. If the Europeans had made an honest effort to work alongside the indigenous tribes rather than trying to steal their land and their means of livelihood, they might have found surprising amounts of cooperation among people who wanted to preserve their way of life, not become converts to some foreign religion.
Unfortunately, the invading forces from Europe weren’t inclined to cooperate, share, or leave well enough alone. They wanted everything for themselves and if that meant they had to eliminate the natives already here, well then, that was just the way they had always operated, from the Roman Empire forward. There was no reason in their mind to think differently.
Then, as if it wasn’t enough to steal the land and kill its people, they had to bring over other people of a different color, people stolen from yet a different continent, because they simply couldn’t survive in the manner to which they were accustomed if they had to do all the work and labor for themselves. While some people want to use 1619 as a marking point for when slavery first started in the United States, the truth is it was here long before then. There are records indicating enslaved Africans in what is now the United States as early as 1526.
There’s little question that had the Europeans who first moved to North America not been immoral thieves, there most likely wouldn’t be a United States, and if there was, it would look a lot different than the country we see today. When you celebrate this country, you celebrate thieves.
Independence, With Liberty And Justice For The Wealthy
Many of us who were educated in public schools in the United States come away with a white-washed concept of our independence from Britain and King George. We hear the names of George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and many others who led a revolution that resulted in what we see today. The overthrow of tyranny founded the “great experiment” in representational democracy, a government for the people and by the people.
Hold up a second, though. Exactly who benefited, really, from this revolution? Who really fought and died and who made incredible amounts of profit in the process? We don’t tend to think of the Revolutionary War as being profitable for our founding fathers, but it was. Robert Morris, the Pennsylvanian largely touted as being the financier of the Revolutionary War, gave considerable preference to rich landowners who loaned money to the Continental Congress, making sure that their income was well secured beyond the end of the war. Those who were not landowners received no guarantees at all. Morris himself was active in how banking was first established in the country and the writing of trade laws related to tobacco and flour, both industries in which he was heavily invested. In trading those commodities with France, Morris profited greatly off the war he was helping finance.
At the same time, though, the people actually fighting the war weren’t being paid at all. The wealthy signers of the Declaration who were all gung-ho about freeing themselves from the grasp of King George did little of the actual fighting. Sure, those who originally enlisted were considered “hallmarks of respectability or at least of full citizens in their communities.” Native people, free Blacks, white servants, and free white men who had “no stable home” were excluded from serving. At first. But the war didn’t go especially well at first and all those “respectable” white dudes were either killed or ran back home to protect their property. It didn’t take long for the Continental Army to change its tune as to who it would allow within its ranks.
As the war grew more serious, with the revolutionaries losing battle after battle in those early days, impressment, forced conscription into service, became more common, especially for the Navy, whose role was critical. There were frequent mutinies within the ranks and even among George Washington’s own troops there were riots by enlisted men against their officers. For those who didn’t own land, who didn’t come from money, the revolution wasn’t about who ran the government over them, it was more about getting paid, finding a way to survive this war that the rich white men had started.
And while they were serving, state constitutions were being drawn that denied them the right to vote. Only Pennsylvania abolished property-holding qualifications entirely, and even then there were plenty of other requirements to make sure that the “disaffected” portion of the population wouldn’t have a say in the new government being established. From the very beginning, this has been a country by the rich, for the rich, serving the best interest of the rich, and we have never strayed from that intent.
Some 250 years later, we hit this date with a tendency to say, “Look how far we’ve come!” Yet, if we’re honest with ourselves, which I have to admit, we’re getting better at for the first time in our history, the issues that have plagued us from the very beginning are still with us today.
The original draft of the Declaration of Independence contained derogatory language about “Scotch and foreign mercenaries,” excluding them from citizenship. The language was removed given the four Scots who were part of the Continental Congress.
Jefferson’s first draft also charged King George with waging “cruel war against human nature itself, violating it’s most sacred rights of life & 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 to restrain this execrable commerce: and that this assemblage of horrors might want no fact of distinguished die…” That entire paragraph would be struck from the document in deference to the slave-holding states in the South.
Where are we in comparison? Consider that we still don’t have a pathway to citizenship for those who come from other countries to work in our fields and harvest our crops. In fact, at the moment, there are crops literally going to ruin because immigrant farmworkers can’t even get past the border, despite how badly they are needed. Exchange the reference to Scots for Latin Americans and tell me what meaningful difference there is.
Or consider the children of color who ask their parents and their teachers if the police hate them, or if they can change their skin so that people won’t be so mean. Consider the mothers who hesitate to send their children to the store out of fear that they won’t return unharmed. Consider the frequency with which young men of color are targeted not only by the police but by laws that single out their actions and make them criminals so they can be imprisoned in numbers large enough to sway elections.
Consider that just this past week, the Supreme Court of the United States handed down a decision that completes the gutting of the 1965 Civil Rights Act, making it legal for states to enact laws that disproportionately affect people of color. Does that sound like anything has substantially changed from the conditions in which this country was founded? Sure, we have all this technology and all the cool clothes and more streaming services than anyone can watch, but have we progressed the ideals of “Liberty and Justice for all?”
Yes, we have made some progress, but just as we are touting that progress, half of the United States Senate is looking for ways to roll back that progress and if they ever again have the majority, they will undo every advantage, take back every achievement, revoke every right and privilege, and suppress every vote they possibly can. Over one-third of the US Congress is looking to do the same and in state after blood-thirsty state, rights are being dismantled faster than lawsuits can be filed to stop them.
There is no freedom here, there is no liberty here, there is no reason to celebrate here until everyone is equally free; until everyone is equally liberated; and until everyone can equally celebrate their participation and citizenship in the United States of America. There is no freedom here as long as people are enslaved by inadequate wages. There is no liberty here as long as people “without a stable home” are still targeted and rounded up by local governments. There is no reason to celebrate here as long as tribal lands are desecrated by oil pipelines running across them.
Thomas Jefferson penned a lengthy list of complaints against King George in that foundational document. If we were to revisit the concept again today, our list would, of necessity, be longer.
While we may have succeeded in removing ourselves from British rule, we have not succeeded in making ourselves free and if, on this day, we are not free, then what is it we are celebrating? When you feel you’ve adequately answered that question, then go ahead and light that firecracker.
Otherwise, perhaps we would do better to spend this day in silence.