Adirondack Chronicles 2020.2: Freedom Ringing
Why are we even celebrating the 4th of July in this most troubled year of 2020? Flawed as the Founders of this nation were, they gave us the framework for the idea of freedom, the foundational national values of “unalienable rights” for “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” I’ve been thinking about the Founders, their deep flaws, our national values and our current state of sorrow and anger as I’ve had the joy and privilege of spending some time in nature with the beautiful wild things like these hairy woodpeckers….
244 years ago, when Adams, Jefferson, et al. signed the Declaration of Independence in Philadelphia, much of this nation was still wilderness including this vast forested terrain in upstate New York known as the Adirondacks. Bloody wars had ensued along the St. Lawrence River, Lakes Champlain and George as British colonials and French settlers battled for dominion over the land that belonged to the Native American tribes including Algonquin, Iroquois, Lenape, Mohawk, Cherokee and many others. The Seven Years War, was a precursor to the Revolutionary War, and a young George Washington learned command as a British Army officer fighting the French. The British conquest diminished the rights of the Native Americans to the vast wilderness as the conquerors realized the considerable economic advantages of the region’s waterways and forests ripe for logging. Over time, the region became known as the Adirondacks from a Native American word meaning “tree eater” reflecting a belief that some of the tribes ate the bark of the trees.
The men who gathered in Philadelphia in July 1776 wrote high-minded words (Jefferson’s drafts of the Declaration of Independence were edited by John Adams, James Madison and others) about how “all men are created equal” when, in fact, their main object was economic independence from the British rule that they found increasingly injurious to their own financial interests. The wealthy white landowners and merchants who sat in that first Continental Congress were not thinking about the rights of women, nor the rights of the enslaved Africans who had been arriving on the shores of the New World since 1619 as the labor force that generated much of the wealth of the Founders. The Founders asserted independence as a statement of the growing economic power of the American colonies; they wanted to make their own rules and not be subject to King George or the British Parliament.
John Adams, one of the leaders of the Revolution who was not a wealthy landowner, knew that slavery was abhorrent and argued for its abolition after the Americans won the war and started forming their new nation. George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison agreed halfheartedly but could not imagine their own lives without the slaves whose bitter labor made them wealthy men. The southern states were already fomenting rebellion in 1789 when the Constitution was emerging, and the terrible concept of the “3/5 compromise” was enshrined in the original Constitution to entice southern slave owners to support the new United States. The compromise (subsequently abolished by the 14th Amendment) meant that the population of slaves was counted at 3/5 of its size for voting apportionment purposes which was more advantageous to southern states than not counting slaves in the population at all. The other compromise of that era was to award the seat of the national government to the South — the choice of the District of Columbia (winning over New York and Philadelphia) was to entice the southern states to stay in the union. Little did Alexander Hamilton and those who hammered out the compromise on the location of the nation’s capital understand that it would grow into a jurisdiction worthy of its own classification as a state.
Does the fact that this nation was conceived by wealthy white men motivated by economic incentives while reaping their wealth from slavery mean that we should stop celebrating July 4th and stop honoring Washington, Jefferson, et al.? Over two and one half centuries, we have come to regard this day as a national celebration of freedom and liberty, a time for joyful events and some fun. In the right context, we should celebrate and have fun, without such moments our nation becomes even more brittle and fragmented. But we must know the context, we must study the history and extract what we can learn for our present fraught era.
The unfinished business of July 4, 1776 haunts this nation today. We the People have been through a Civil War, Reconstruction and Restoration, the evils of lynchings and racial oppression de facto and de jure, the civil rights movement and Voting Rights Act and Civil Rights Act and Brown v. Board and so many other moments in which the law spoke clearly but the behaviors of governments and people said otherwise. We have a new moment of racial reckoning in our nation, and those who proclaim Black Lives Matter are crying out for the justice and freedom still denied in so many ways 244 years later.
Sadly, at this moment our national leadership is not up to the challenge of the moment of reckoning and reconciliation. Instead, we have a president who seems to take delight in driving wedges further, in encouraging fragmentation and violence against those who are protesting injustice. The president defends statues of confederate generals confusing them with “heroes” and proclaims now that we will have some kind of national park full of statues. We can only imagine what that will look like.
We don’t need more statues, more monuments, more memorials or faces carved on mountains. We do need leaders with the courage and grace to know how to lead us into and through the moment of reconciliation we need so urgently. We must acknowledge our racist history, a history of human oppression that supported the growth of wealth for the White population while leaving far behind the descendants of slaves, the Black population who suffer in 2020 the ongoing economic, educational and social injustices that leave them on the margins of this nation’s promise of freedom, liberty and happiness. We must acknowledge that right now, immigrants and refugees are being held captive in abysmal conditions at the border, children separated from parents, people hungering after freedom being denied the most basic human rights.
Freedom is ringing — we must answer the call. The protests and demonstrations of the last month are a chorus of voices that demand to be heard, command our attention, and urgently need solutions. We are the latest generations to be the heirs of those Founders who wrote such lofty words…. let’s be the generation that makes the words a reality every person, for We the People.