July 4th and the Other Independence Day

Other nations celebrate national holidays without rancor, as did we until something snapped. How did it become horrible and exhausting to take pride in one’s country, to celebrate its founding and singular dedication to freedom beyond every other nation that’s ever existed?*

First, a little history. The original Constitution of 1787 was, for all its genius, a deeply self-contradictory document — a charter by and for a free people who enslaved hundreds of thousands of others. In 1776, America’s founders declared that human equality was not only a self-evident truth, but a fundamental premise of their new nation; barely a decade later, they officially rejected that premise, writing inequality and subjugation directly into the Constitution.**

There was no “original Constitution,” but the Articles of Confederation. It was hardly genius, but a stop-gap measure that failed miserably because it failed to provide for a federal government capable of binding together the 13 colonies and fulfilling its function. And the language relied upon came not from the Articles of Confederation, nor even the later-ratified Constitution, but the Declaration of Independence, that “we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” 

Either no one at the paper stayed awake during American history in high school or they’re trying to fudge some details in the expectation that readers slept as well. By “all men,” they meant all free men, for those were different times. More to the point, they were distinguishing colonists from Brits, as the Declaration was directed to George III, not woke NYT editors and their unduly passionate readers.

Another truth soon became self-evident: If America was to survive, it would have to be reborn. That rebirth was embodied — after 80 years and a brutal civil war — in the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments, which together represented a radical recommitment to our first and highest principles. They outlawed slavery, made the newly freed slaves American citizens and guaranteed their right to vote.

That, too, is a bit of historical gloss. Had the South not seceded, there would have been no Civil War. Sequence matters. But the point that these amendments were a radical, and necessary, correction to America remains, even if how we got there is a bit of radical historical revisionism.

The 14th Amendment, in particular, “hit the reset button on American democracy,” as Sherrilyn Ifill, director of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, put it recently. It extended the protections in the Bill of Rights, which applied only against the federal government, to cover people in their dealings with the states. Its best known and most litigated provision, Section 1, went even further, guaranteeing for the first time the basic equality of all people, no matter their skin color, station in life or citizenship.

Not to pick nits, but that’s not remotely accurate. Section 1 of the 14th Amendment doesn’t “guarantee equality for all people.” It guarantees due process and equal protection of the laws.

All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.

Characterizing the 14th Amendment as “hitting the reset button” is the sort of trite and trendy characterization that confuses the issue. The Equal Protection Clause was a monumental shift in America. It began the correction of America’s “original sin,” slavery. And that correction continues to this day, and will likely continue well beyond my lifetime, as it should until every human being in America enjoys equal protection of the laws.

What that means, “equal protection,” is the core issue raised by this reboot, this Other Independence Day, that denies any virtue of our existence beforehand. My view was expressed in my Bastardized Herzberg Theory, but others who believe that if outcomes don’t match ideology, then equal protection has been denied, vehemently disagree.

And because everything about the United States, our traditions, our history, our small-town parades and fusion cuisine, is tainted by our original sin, it must be rejected, hated, as built upon a foundation of racism. And anyone who refuses to hate us enough is complicit, even if your ancestors came over last week and you’re poor as dirt.

The Equal Protection Clause was, and is, a critical correction of a society that accepted slavery. But there is a question whether it is a more important piece of our Constitution, the most important piece, that when any conflict, real or rhetorical, arises, it trumps all other rights. Of all the tacit foundations for social justice ideology, this is the one upon which everything relies.

Equal protection of the laws has morphed into guaranteeing equality. And guaranteeing equality has become the foremost right guaranteed by the Constitution. Perhaps now one can appreciate the “reset” analogy, that it was reset to create a super constitutional right that was foremost among all others. Of course, if one doesn’t view Equal Protection as guaranteeing equality, but as guaranteeing that no person shall be put at a detriment by law, but left to his own devices to achieve greatness, then there is no conflict.

The Constitution, for all its imperfections, reflects a brilliance that seems impossible to replicate today. Some will tell me that I “fetishize” the Constitution, that my appreciation is slavish and wrong as it fails to achieve the overarching goal of compelling the majority of Americans to acquiesce to their values.

Today is the Fourth of July. Honoring my country, its traditions, its freedom, even if there remains more freedom to be tapped, is what I choose to do because I could not be more fortunate and privileged than to be an American. Nor could you, no matter who you are. It’s not that there aren’t huge and important battles to be fought ahead of us to make America better, as there always will be, but for all who tell yourselves about how horrible America was and is, today is still a day to celebrate for our Independence. The original Independence.

*This link goes to a New York Times editorial, the headline of which reads “America Started Over Once. Can We Do It Again?” The link url, however, reads “trump-supreme-court-nominee.” Apparently, no one thought to change the url, reflecting its real message, when trying to bury its lede.

**Yes, they fail to show any grasp of the Three Fifths Compromise, but what else is new?

26 thoughts on “July 4th and the Other Independence Day

  1. the other rob

    Some tossers aren’t happy unless they’re taking a dump on everything people hold dear. Fuck ’em, say I.

    Happy Independence Day, Scott. I came by my P&I the second way, the flag is flying at our house and we’ll be grilling this afternoon. Nothing wrong with that at all.

    1. SHG Post author

      Nothing at all. Few things have made me appreciate America more than efforts to destroy what makes it America.

      1. Frank

        This shouldn’t surprise you. After all, Facebook considered the Declaration of Independence a violation of their ‘community standards.’

  2. Skink

    The charcoal (always lump) is settin’ up for dogs. The smoker is in place for later. The wife and dog are nappin’, I have a little time.

    There is an ignorance, some real, other adopted, regarding our history. That history is clear; it’s immutable. But folks, for all kinds of foolish reasons, try to alter the immutable. To sell it, they pander to the ignorant, telling them that what is and was isn’t and wasn’t. They know nothing of history and care nothing of their ignorance. They scream the Constitution is a horrible thing and this Country is an abomination–but they can’t say why in a real sense because the history they spew isn’t real. They don’t understand the simple stuff, like the Articles fed a two centuries-long battle over federalism and the Three Fifths Compromise was an anti-slavery device. They don’t get it and don’t care.

    I care. I think most others care. And I thank you, Scott, for taking on a battle where very few others are willing . It is the noblest of ventures, and on this Independence Day, I salute you.

    I love my Country, even with it’s faults. It is the last great chance for freedom on Earth, and if it fails here, there will be no other. The flag flies on a 25-foot pole in front of my house every goddamn day. On these special holidays, I fly the flag from my dad’s casket. It’s getting faded and a little frayed, but it’ll fly until I die, even if I have to sew it to the rope. Those that don’t like it can kiss my cracker ass.

    1. SHG Post author

      Inquiring minds wonder whether James Bennett, the editorial board editor, is this ignorant of American history or has a different agenda?

  3. Denverguy

    Kurt Vonnegut saw this coming — Harrison Bergeron was published 57 years ago (and is public domain).

      1. the other rob

        How sad is it that my first instinct was to ask a technical question re copyright law?

  4. KP

    “I could not be more fortunate and privileged than to be an American”

    Ahh.. none so blind as those who don’t see..
    I’d suggest a course of “Person of Interest” followed by some overseas travel. Some fine ideals written down have not translated into a country any better than those without them.

    1. SHG Post author

      I’ve enjoyed a great deal of overseas travel. The best part is coming home. Then again, sex with sheep doesn’t interest me.

      1. the other rob

        I had something, typed it out and everything. But it wasn’t as good as the sheep thing, so I won’t bother.

  5. Nemo

    While I have nothing **useful to add, I will finish my day at SJ by saying, “What Skink said”. This is a good day to set aside arguing, and celebrate all the good things about America. We still have a lot of them, but if you can’t find any, I refer those folks to Skink’s closing line.

    May everyone have a safe and happy Independence Day, including those I dislike and disagree with.



  6. maz

    I’ve finally gotten around to reading Edward Rice’s “Captain Sir Richard Francis Burton: A Biography,” which, among other things, suggests how nearly incomprehensible 18th and early 19th Century conceptions of slavery — and citizenship, for that matter — are to 21st Century Americans.

    OT, but the mismatch between the headline and URL are most likely a symptom of the ‘stealth’ echo chamber: A/B testing, in which multiple headlines are tested for the same article. The one that proves most successful becomes the chosen one, locking the publication into a self-reinforcing bias, unless one is careful. Which almost no one is.

    1. SHG Post author

      “Presentism” is a terrible intellectual sham that grossly distorts history, but is easily digestible to the hard of thinking and leads them into all manner of stupidity.

  7. Lee Keller King

    “In 1776, America’s founders declared that human equality was not only a self-evident truth, but a fundamental premise of their new nation; barely a decade later, they officially rejected that premise, writing inequality and subjugation directly into the Constitution.”

    I guess the editorial board would prefer that the slave-holding states have had COMPLETE control of the House of Representatives.

    Ignorant people are annoying.

  8. Jay

    Frederick Douglass’ 1852 Speech: The Meaning of July 4 for the Negro

    “What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer; a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sound of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciation of tyrants brass fronted impudence; your shout of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanks-givings, with all your religious parade and solemnity, are to him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy — a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices more shocking and bloody than are the people of the United States, at this very hour.”

    1. SHG Post author

      Is there a point to posting this that you failed to mention or was this just your gratuitous paean to Douglass because you lack self control?

          1. Ron

            Not even an inkling of recognition of how moronic he comes off. Another generation sacrificed to the gods of stupidity. Deal with it.

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