Questions for the Fourth of July, or Any Day

The summer community’s Fourth of July traditions have included an ahistorical “Paul Revere” ride through the streets at daybreak; fireworks one night, a communal picnic another; and a small parade that leads to the swimming pool where people plop and populate the hills for a ceremony that has included the singing of songs; children reciting the names of the signers of the Declaration of Independence; the release of thirteen doves (pigeons?); an address from a community resident. All attendees pin on a badge with the year that person first came to the community. During the ceremony attendees are asked to indicate whether they have an ancestor who signed the Declaration of Independence, and a surprising number of people stand.

In anticipation of the Fourth, a community group prepared a questionnaire expecting that the tabulated results would be presented at the July celebration. It asked not only the ancestor-signing and when-did-you-come-here questions but also whether residents had met their significant others in the community; whether respondents had gone to the summer camp held annually here; and other questions of a similar sort. Since the community was founded by Philadelphia Quakers, residents were asked whether they or their ancestors were Friends. And a question asked whether community members had ancestors on the Mayflower. Although the questionnaire was written in January, it only went out last week. Many residents have responded without comment, but a few people objected that in this time of Covid-19, peaceful protests, and riots, the survey was tone deaf by focusing on a white American heritage.

I was surprised, and a bit pleased, that some questioned the questionnaire. The community prides itself as an oasis of tranquility and civility, which is frequently remarked upon. Less often do we reflect on the fact that we come from a privileged, narrow slice of society. Primarily this a community of second homes, and second homes signify affluence. Wealth is seldom overtly flaunted here, but there are no working class people. We have heads of companies, but no one who works on the factory floor. Dues are high and property prices are higher than in the surrounding area. You need more money than most people have in this country to live here.

And the community is overwhelmingly white. In my three decades here, there have always been a smattering of Asians, but the black and brown residents have never comprised more than the fingers on one hand.

I do believe that the Fourth of July should be a day to celebrate our independence, but it should be more. We should recognize that the Founders, like all humans, were flawed, and we should go beyond just a consideration of Jefferson, Adams, and Franklin. The day should also commemorate America, American history, and all Americans. It is a time for patriotism, but we should stress that the true patriot wants not only to protect the country but to make it better. And we should recognize that throughout our history, from colonial times until today, this country has struggled with race and class issues that have not been resolved. We are not a perfect union, and all patriotic Americans should think about how to make it better.

          Such ruminations got me thinking about questions I might like to ask of my fellow residents of this privileged, white summer community, questions that I, too, should ask of myself. For example:

Have you ever eaten dinner in the home of someone who was non-white? How often have you entertained a non-white in your home? How often have you entertained more than one non-white person or couple at the same time? What percentage of your neighbors at your primary residence would you estimate are non-white? Have you ever looked for a place to live in a neighborhood where the majority were non-whites?

How many of your neighbors are not in the top echelons of wealth? How much income do you think that it takes to lead a middle class life?

Have any of your bosses been non-white? What percentage of your co-workers at roughly your level are non-white?

Did any of your ancestors hold the opinion that Italians or Jews were not white? Were any of your ancestors concerned about the “Yellow Peril”? Did any of your ancestors oppose independence? Did your ancestors own slaves? Did any of your ancestors support abolition? Did any of your ancestors, or you, support or oppose any the civil rights movements throughout our history? Did your ancestors in this country face discrimination or racial, ethnic, or gender slurs? Have you faced discrimination or racial, ethnic, or gender slurs?

Are people less American if their ancestors were not here in 1776? Have you had a DNA test to find out more about your ancestry? Why? What reactions did you have to the results?

Have you ever taken part in a protest rally? How often and what for? How often have you been arrested? How often have you had in an encounter with the police where you felt afraid? How often have the police injured you? Have you ever been stopped and frisked? Have you ever been tear-gassed or pepper-sprayed? Have you ever been followed around in a store by security personnel?

What was your reaction when the Black Lives Matter movement emerged? Did you object when Colin Kaepernick and other athletes “took a knee” during the playing of the National Anthem?

Do you have ideas about how to bring more non-whites into this community? How do you think your neighbors would react if there were more non-whites here?

Do or did your children go to public schools, religious schools, or private schools? How many of their classmates are non-white? How many are in the lower half of income. What kind of schools did you go to?

Do you have any relatives in law enforcement? How would you feel if a child of yours said they wanted to be a police officer?

And a question that I feel I should regularly confront: In what ways would you say you are most hypocritical about race, class, and law enforcement issues?

It’s the Fourth. Celebrate Lincoln, Too

John Adams predicted that the fireworks and other hullaballoo would be held annually on the second day of July, for it was July 2, 1776, that the Second Continental Congress unanimously adopted the Lee Resolution for independence from the Kingdom of Great Britain. John was close, but give him no cigar. (Did the founding fathers smoke cigars or only pipes?) We, of course, instead celebrate the Fourth of July, which this year lands on July 4. July 4, 1776, was not the date on which the thirteen colonies declared independence; it was, however, the date when the Declaration of Independence was adopted.

The Declaration now plays a frequent role in our Fourth of July celebrations, but that was not true in the eighteenth century. The act of independence was considered important, but not so much the document that proclaimed it.

In the early nineteenth century, the Declaration of Independence produced controversies. Slavery was at the core of the disputes. At issue was the Declaration’s most famous passage: “We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.” The apparent hypocrisy of that pronouncement in a slaveholding country was almost immediately pointed out by the British.

Abolitionists in the nineteenth century maintained, against much evidence, that the Founding Fathers had been opposed to slavery in principle. Those who supported the extension of slavery into American territories argued that the Declaration was irrelevant because it was not the Constitution. Moreover, they maintained that the assertion “all men are created equal” was false, that it was not a self-evident truth, but a “self-evident lie.”

In the famous Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858, Stephen Douglas maintained that the Declaration referred only to white men. Abraham Lincoln said that the Declaration did not “declare men equal in all respects. . . . They defined with tolerable distinctness in         what they did consider all men created equal—equal in ‘certain inalienable (sic) rights, among which are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.’ This they said, and this they meant. They did not mean to assert the obvious untruth that all were then actually enjoying that equality, or yet that they were about to confer it immediately upon them. In fact, they had not power to confer such a boon. They meant simply to declare the right, so that the enforcement of it might follow as fast as circumstances should permit. They meant to set up a standard maxim for a free society which should be familiar to all, constantly looked to, constantly labored for, and even, though never perfectly attained, constantly approximated, and thereby constantly spreading and deepening its influence, and augmenting the happiness and value of life to all people, of all colors, everywhere.”

 

Whether historically correct or not, Lincoln’s view of the Declaration became widely accepted. He further cemented that reading with the Gettysburg address’s opening sentence: “Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” When I learned what a score was and subtracted eighty-seven from 1863, I realized that he was referring not to our Constitution, which does not contain a broad statement of equality, but to the Declaration of Independence. The Declaration had been seen by many as a dead instrument that had accomplished its purpose—separation from England. Lincoln, however, saw it as still living in all ages providing a goal for which we should always be striving.

On the Fourth of July we should honor Thomas Jefferson and the others who signed the document, but we should also honor Lincoln for reviving the Declaration of Independence so that it remains relevant today and tomorrow as an expression of what should be best about America.