Independence Day, 2020, will come without parades or fireworks shows in many communities. They are canceled for the coronavirus. Some Americans seem to want them canceled for good. They’re ashamed of the flag and the nation it represents.
Six years from America’s 250th birthday, her citizens should be preparing for the party to end all parties. Instead, many of us are questioning the idea that the country is worth celebrating at all.
It is. Joyfully and unashamedly.
As all other nations before it, ours was founded and built by flawed human beings, many of whom did terrible things. As James Madison observed, men are not angels. If they were, there would be no need of government.
Unlike all other nations before it, however, ours was dedicated to a principle so radical that it transformed human culture on a global scale.
Throughout human history, inequality based on strictly enforced social rank was universally accepted. From East to West, cultures were based upon the unchallenged belief that there were “better” and “worse” classes of people.
This system accepted slavery as merely the lowest of the many rigid and brutally enforced social ranks. Slavery was an accepted and thoroughly entrenched part of societies around the world, including ancient Athens and Egypt, medieval Ghana, 19th-century Brazil, and China and India throughout most of recorded history.
Everywhere humans settled, they tended to build societies with largely unchangeable social and economic strata. The pre-1776 world, aristocratic and rigidly hierarchical, would be unrecognizable to today’s Americans, whose vocabulary of human rights would sound insane to most people throughout human history.
Whether they know it or not, today’s young Americans are the direct intellectual descendants of the American colonists who, after enjoying more than a century of self-government, started to question their assigned status within the British colonial system.
The Americans openly questioned their social superiors, including the king. If they were to be taxed, then they demanded representation in Parliament, a dramatic elevation of their social status. When the king and Parliament told them to shut up and submit to the rightful rule of their superiors, they loaded their muskets.
The American Founders were not saints. But most of what they are reviled for today was the cultural residue of the aristocratic age they destroyed. Their insistence that they had the right to govern themselves, and that “all men” enjoyed the same right by virtue of being “created equal” flipped the global human social order upside down.
Legend has it that General Cornwallis ordered the band to play “The World Turned Upside Down” during his surrender ceremony at Yorktown. It would’ve been a fitting tune, for the American Revolution rendered the old world order obsolete and invented a new one in which any individual, no matter the circumstances of his or her birth, was presumed to have the same value, the same rights, and the same claim to self-government as any other.
In his Pulitzer-winning book “The Radicalism of the American Revolution,” historian Gordon Wood explained that “the Revolution suddenly and effectively ended the cultural climate that had allowed black slavery, as well as other forms of bondage and unfreedom, to exist throughout the colonial period without serious challenge. With the revolutionary movement, black slavery became excruciatingly conspicuous in a way that it had not been in the older monarchical society with its many calibrations and degrees of unfreedom; and Americans in 1775-76 began attacking it with a vehemence that was inconceivable earlier.”
The Society for the Relief of Free Negroes Unlawfully Held in Bondage, the first anti-slavery society, was founded in Philadelphia on April 14, 1775 — four days before the battles of Lexington and Concord. The revolutionary ideas engulfing the American colonies were sparking change before they sparked the war itself.
The Americans were coming to believe every person to be sovereign unto himself. When sovereignty is removed from the king and nestled inside each individual, any claim that one person, one group of persons or one class of persons has a right to rule the masses evaporates.
“Popular consent now became the exclusive justification for the exercise of authority by all parts of the government — not just the houses of representatives, but senates, governors, and even judges,” Wood wrote.
Thomas Jefferson’s words, quoted above, did more than set patriotic hearts afire. They burned down the old order. Not instantly. Not easily. But permanently.
Even Americans who think they loathe Washington, Jefferson and Madison do not attack them with the ideas that prevailed before the American Revolution. They attack America’s Founders with the Founders’ own words and ideas. That’s how thoroughly the American Revolution changed the world.
For modern Western politics, 1776 is Year One. The ideas that prevailed before are but the ancient fragments of a defeated civilization. That civilization destroyed with an idea expressed in just five words. “All men are created equal.”
Celebrate the United States of America?
Without hesitation. Every year. Every day.