July 4th weekend has always been a happy time, a source of fun, relaxation and celebration. It is the day we offer thanks to our forefathers who declared independence from England and created the shining light of democracy that inspires people around the world.
It did not begin with that as a goal. It began as an expression of people who wanted to be free from rule by a foreign colonial power, religious and political strife.
We have always been a people united as one in times of economic upheaval and war, with one major exception. That exception, the Civil War, resulted from the economic disparity between an industrialized north against a poor, agrarian south, where success depended totally on Black slave labor. President Lincoln freed the slaves, not to gain economic advantage, but because it was the right thing to do. The Civil War decimated the southern economy, but Lincoln’s aim was to reunite the country. So instead of harsh punishment for fighting against our nation, he hoped to bring southerners back into the fold with forgiveness and a plan to recover their economy. It was the same policy our nation followed after World War II when we forgave our opponents, Germany and Japan, providing them with the means to recover instead of punishing them. Today, they are two of the most successful democracies.
But back in the post-Civil War, Reconstruction ultimately failed because of strong opposition, especially in the south, to the freedoms and guarantees provided to former Black slaves. That fight continues today although economic circumstances for Black Americans has greatly improved thanks to federal Civil Rights legislation over the years.
We became the world’s most prosperous nation because we welcomed talented and hard working immigrants here with the promise of freedom and a better life. We became the most powerful nation, not only because we had the strongest army, but because the combination of our economic and political system could not be matched by any totalitarian regime.
So, what lessons have we learned about ourselves as we celebrate Independence Day in 2020?
Without a common enemy over the past decade, we have become more partisan and divisive, not unlike the run up to the Civil War. But this is not due to the differences between two economic systems. The divide today is between two views of how we should co-exist with ourselves. Republican and Democratic values have created battle lines instead of respect for the system that created both parties. Having a diversity of people and views are expressions of our democratic origins and should be cause for celebration, but they are not. Being a Republican or a Democrat, we choose how to express our common values. But for some reason, we are opposed, often violently, to the other party’s expression of those same values.
The Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic was an opportunity to reunite as one nation under God, but so far we are far from united. The coronavirus is a health crisis that has instead become a political crisis. One side embraces the warnings of our health experts, the other side rejects those warnings. Americans fight each other over wearing a mask, social distancing and testing, everything designed to protect ourselves – and more importantly – each other.
Racism has always been an ugly stain on our national conscience. But it may turn out if racism is ever defeated, it will happen because of one man, George Floyd. His death at the hands of a law enforcement officer sparked outrage from all races. Defeating racism is a worthwhile cause, but we are once again defining it along political lines, each side moving away from decisions that will unite us.
The Declaration of Independence and US Constitution are the ties that bind us, but if we continue to elevate our personal views above those that have united us for more than 240 years, then yes, they are merely words written on parchment. So, what will we be celebrating next July 4th?