This year, as every year, we celebrate the bravery of those founders who quite likely would have been executed had their Declaration of Independence not prevailed in battle. It is noteworthy that that theirs was not the only independence declared during those uncertain days.
Of General Washington’s 100 or so slaves, 17 stole into the night in search of freedom. Thomas Jefferson, who unsuccessfully sought to retain a condemnation of slavery in the American Declaration, lost 23 of the 200 slaves he owned. They escaped slavery and fled their celebrated owners.
Several blog sites, Daily Kos and others, have revisited the famous 1852 speech by escaped slave Frederick Douglass. “What to the Slave is the 4th of July?" was his quite reasonable question. Douglass gave his speech in Rochester, NY. I grew up near that site, and I have had occasion to think about his impassioned words and about the nature of patriotism.
That slavery is America’s Original Sin is so commonly accepted, that it has become a cliché. Michael Medved and Pat Buchanan are fairly isolated in trying to justify slavery. Both believe the enslaved and their descendants were actually liberated from the relative poverty that freedom in Africa would have provided them. In this, their followers number literally in the tens. To everyone else, the truth is obvious. If the benefits of slavery were so great, voluntary enrollment would have been used. No fences or force, or fugitive slave laws would have been needed to perpetuate the exploitation.
Slavery has provoked contrasting reactions. One has been racism against the victims. Guilt is not necessary if there was no real crime, if the victims were not quite humans. Another has been a condemnation of America and patriotism itself as hypocrisy: how can we celebrate the freedom that was won only for the pale of skin?
The traditional response, one in which I deeply believe, is that the founders defined an ideal. Patriotism is the province of those who have moved America in the direction of that dream. Martin Luther King described the Declaration as a promissory note, and offered his faith that American Justice is not so bankrupt as to avoid eventually making good on the promise.
But I cannot help but wonder about those 40 slaves who escaped from just two of those we celebrate. It is our loss that their stories are not known to us, and that we cannot celebrate their own quest for freedom.
We appreciate the founders who made the promise. Our appreciation should take the form of making sure their promise was the truth.
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There is a lot of power in not knowing.
It reminds me of what Robert Louis Stevenson said about the Dumb Soldier:
Not a word will he disclose,
Not a word of all he knows.
I must lay him on the shelf,
And make up the tale myself.
Incidentally, I believe the toy soldier about which Mr. Stevenson speculated, was a British Soldier.
At first, it seems a little wrong to make up the tale; but the American’s won the Revolution, and with that victory, all rights to invent the history of what followed.
P.S. I invite Mr. Deming to make up the story. I think I would be highly entertained by that.
I've heard it said that one of the flaws of the French Revolution was not so much that they attempted to envision a perfect society, but that they tried to put it in place immediately. Its spectacular failure gave Napoleon his opportunity to become Emperor.
One of the curious things about our founding documents is that delicate balance beteen the ideal and the practical, who they wanted to be as opposed to who they knew they were. They set down two marks: one said, "We are here," and the other, "That's where we're going." Every generation since has taken a sight on that far marker, and planned its march in that direction.
We're not there yet. But we've not given up yet, either.
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