Of course, slavery existed throughout the country when the Declaration of Independence was signed, and we should not forget how that institution shaped our country. Nevertheless, for their time, the Founders also created an egalitarian and inclusive government in ways we now seldom appreciate. For example, unlike many of the state and foreign governments of the time, the United States had no property qualifications to hold office. In an era when they were common, no religious tests were required for holding office. And we seldom notice that the new country paid its officials. Many governments did not, so only the rich who could afford to be uncompensated could hold office. Unlike in other countries, all whites, or at least all white males, could hold office
The new country also broke from history and the practices of most countries by having no hereditary offices. A formal aristocracy died in the United States. Revolutionary America also moved to a more equal society by repealing primogeniture laws, which dictated that the firstborn male child would inherit his parent’s entire estate. This extraordinarily egalitarian reform, whose importance is seldom noticed today, was led by Thomas Jefferson in Virginia.
A related change in property law was also happening during this time. Under English law, aliens could buy property, but they could not inherit it. Aliens could sell the land they owned, but they could not grant it in a will. Instead, on death, an alien’s property went to the state. Revolutionary America began to repeal such inegalitarian laws helping to make the country more inclusive and prosperous.
The country’s first naturalization law had some of the same characteristics as the Declaration of Independence. It showed simultaneously both racial restriction and inclusiveness. The law limited naturalization to free, white citizens who had lived in the country for two years. We, of course, notice that nonwhites were excluded. (“Free” meant indentured servants could not be naturalized until they completed their periods of indenture.) Blacks could not be naturalized until 1870, and other nonwhites could not be naturalized until well into the twentieth century. (There was no legal definition of whiteness. When areas of Mexico became part of the United States in the early1850s, the former Mexicans of those lands were made citizens, and there was an implicit recognition that they were white. The Supreme Court dealt with whiteness and naturalization several times and concluded that Asians and South Asians were not white but that Syrians and Armenians were. In 1922 the Supreme Court held that a high caste Sikh was neither white nor black and could not be naturalized. He had fought for this country in World War I.)
However, in addition to noting the racial restriction, we should also consider the inclusiveness of this law. It did not impose a property requirement. The rich and the not rich could become citizens. Aristocratic origins did not matter. There was the racial limitation, but no national origin requirement. There was no religious test. At a time when Catholics could not become citizens in England and Jews could not become citizens in many places, they could in the United States.
We should keep both racial restrictions as well as these inclusions in mind when we consider this country’s origins. The founding era accepted an institution whose ramifications have troubled us throughout our history, but it also gave us foundations for much of what is good in this country.
I am sure that some will mostly criticize America on the Fourth, which is their right. And I am sure that some will call such critics unpatriotic, which is their right.
Patriotism has often been a tenuous concept. Vicksburg, Mississippi, offers an example of its fragility. Exactly four score and seven years ago to the day after the signing of the Declaration of Independence, confederate General John C. Pemberton surrendered Vicksburg to American General Ulysses S. Grant after a forty-seven–day siege. This was certainly one of the most important actions of the war because it gave control of the Mississippi River to the Americans and severed the confederacy.
Thus, July 4, 1863, is another Fourth of July for patriotic Americans to celebrate, but Vicksburg didn’t see it that way. The town did not honor the Fourth of July for the next eight decades. They continued to identify as confederates, not as Americans. Vicksburg simply ignored Independence Day until after World War II when General Dwight Eisenhower visited the town on the Fourth. Even so, Vicksburg did not want to celebrate the United States. It called the celebrations during Eisenhower’s visit a Carnival of the Confederacy, a title I am told that was dropped only when the country and Vicksburg celebrated the Bicentennial in 1976. I’m not sure what to make of their tenacious grasp of a different brand of “patriotism.” I guess I’m just glad that they finally celebrate along with the rest of us.
And I hope all Americans can find something to celebrate this Fourth of July.