Two weeks ago was the 4th of July. In less trying times the occasion is looked upon by the rest of the world as an excuse for Americans to express their particular brand of crass nationalism. It has become exceedingly easy in the last few years to view any American overtures about liberty and equality with suspicion and even disdain. America is, by many empirical measures among the worst developed democracies on Earth. And these shortcomings are not new to the nation. Even the Declaration of Independence, for all the eloquent universalism of its opening paragraphs, also contains descriptions of “merciless Indian savages”. The American constitution was designed to give slave-holding and rural states an outsized influence. And of course, America’s original sin; slavery, was maintained for decades after the Declaration of Independence. So our ambivalence about American independence is understandable. Some of the most morally eloquent and intelligent Americans have always had a complicated relationship to the day their nation was born or the document for which it is celebrated.
Something unique to American celebrations of Independence is the obsessive focus on the military and its heroism. It should not go unsaid that the American preoccupation with the martial is more suited to authoritarian countries than to democracies and is easily leveraged by those who would wish to turn America from the latter to the former. Donald Trump released a video this last week saluting current U.S. armed forces as “truly special people” and that “we are in awe of their courage, and we are eternally in their debt.” This sort of pandering is not unique to the current president but it does reflect a tendency for Americans to ignore the political and social meaning of the Declaration of Independence. It was a pivotal moment in world history, a moment of emancipation for some and an increase in net irony for others. And yet in the United States, on the anniversary of its signing, there is no attempt to explore its true value or the means by which it can help understand the political period we are currently surviving.
I came across a sermon by Martin Luther King Jr., delivered at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, on or near the 4th of July, 1965. His topic was “The American Dream”. Below I have excerpted some of the sermon.
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by God, Creator, with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
This is a dream. It’s a great dream.
The first saying we notice in this dream is an amazing universalism. It doesn’t say, ‘some men’; it says ‘all men.’ It doesn’t say ‘all white men’; it says ‘all men,’ which includes black men. It does not say ‘all Gentiles’; it says ‘all men,’ which includes Jews. It doesn’t say ‘all Protestants’; it says ‘all men,’ which includes Catholics. It doesn’t even say ‘all theists and believers’; it says ‘all men,’ which includes humanists and agnostics.
Never before in the history of the world has a sociopolitical document expressed in such profound, eloquent and unequivocal language the dignity and the worth of human personality. The American dream reminds us—and we should think about it anew on this Independence Day—that every man is an heir of the legacy of dignity and worth.
Here King is the man from the child’s textbook expressing his progressive view of American history that is still noticeably patriotic. It is the man sanitised to be respectable to a pearl clutching majority. But King went on to say;
Are we really taking this thing seriously? “All men are created equal.”And that means that every man who lives in a slum today is just as significant as John D., Nelson, or any other Rockefeller. Every man who lives in the slum is just as significant as Henry Ford. All men are created equal, and they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, rights that can’t be separated from you. Go down and tell them, “You may take my life, but you can’t take my right to life. You may take liberty from me, but you can’t take my right to liberty. You may take from me the desire, you may take from me the propensity to pursue happiness, but you can’t take from me my right to pursue happiness.” “We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal and endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights and among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”
Now there’s another thing that we must never forget. If we are going to make the American dream a reality, we are challenged to work in an action program to get rid of the last vestiges of segregation and discrimination. This problem isn’t going to solve itself, however much people tell us this… History is the long story of the fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges without strong resistance, and they seldom do it voluntarily. And so if the American dream is to be a reality, we must work to make it a reality and realize the urgency of the moment.
King here is his own figure, laying the foundations for the social democracy he never got to advocate for. It is interesting to note that in the recording of King’s speech when the Declaration of Independence is quoted it is reacted to by the congregants as if it were gospel. When King says “All men are created equal” he is met with a chorus of “Amen”.
Every ideology, every empire, every attempt to build anything has a set of foundational texts. The state or philosophy which is being built always attempts to remain loyal to the foundational texts. These texts move us on a historical scale; they motivate our wars and justify our crimes. Although the last few centuries are frequently described as the “Age of Ideology” this is not a product of the printing press or any other invention of modernity. Alexander the Great kept a copy of The Iliad under his pillow during his conquests. He so loved Homer’s epic that he made pilgrimages to the ruins of Troy during his invasion of Persia and frequently imitated the actions of Homeric heroes.
For every society, these texts and stories are stitched together, sometimes awkwardly, and weave a tapestry of moral and political meaning. They are our North Stars, by whose light we orient ourselves and navigate forward through history.
But historically, the vision of America presented in the first paragraphs of the Declaration of Independence is very dissimilar to anything intended by the founders of America. There is a dissonance in American history created by the radical claim in the Declaration of Independence that all men are created equal and that certain rights are natural and unalienable. This revolutionary proposition is at sharp odds with the institution of slavery in America.
Taken in its entirety, the Declaration is an immensely self-contradictory document, and read as such there is certainly a case to be made for discarding it. It was written by a slave-owner after all. It’s problems are obvious and glaring and not easily or rightly ignored.
But I disagree with the assertion made by some that the failures of the American revolution are reason to condemn to condemn the “American experiment”. There is no doubt, and no honest or moral denying the failures of the United States. American failures are not moulded by circumstance. But at the same time Jefferson and Washington were profiting off the scarred backs of their slaves, Thomas Paine wrote “We have every opportunity and every encouragement before us, to form the noblest purest constitution on the face of the earth. We have it in our power to begin the world over again.” Paine’s hopes for a rebirth of human freedom were dashed in the American and then in the French revolution. It is worth noting that Paine died penniless, condemned by the founders.
The American philosopher Richard Rorty wrote in his book Achieving Our Country
You cannot urge national political renewal on the basis of descriptions of fact. You have to describe the country in terms of what you passionately hope it will become, as well as in the terms of what you know it to be now. You have to be loyal to a dream country rather than to the one to which you wake up every morning. Unless such loyalty exists, the ideal has no chance of becoming actual.
If America is to survive its current political crisis (formally known as the Trump Administration) it must abandon the shallow simplifications of the past. If America is to live up to the story it tells the world about itself; it cannot be the story of Jefferson or Washington. It cannot be the story of Hamilton either, no matter how catchy the songs. The history of America, of the America that matters, the America that is worth saving; is the history of people like Martin Luther King and Thomas Paine. It is the history of those who fought, for years and often with no hope of victory, against the slave trade, against segregation, against injustice, inequality and oppression. It is a history of the silenced, the downtrodden, the poor and the hungry. It is a history of those who were loyal to idea of America and never bound by one they inhabited.
I’ve ended up accidentally writing a trilogy of essays, largely because of my own need to negotiate my relationship with the country I’m studying in. Next week I’ll be doing a less self-involved piece about why stupid ideas are popular and (on an entirely unrelated note) probably Jordan Peterson.