Friday, July 4, 2014

Independence Day!

A re-run of a blog from two years ago...

Every year on the fourth of July I get up early, fix my coffee, and read the Declaration of Independence.  What a spectacular document! If you haven't had a chance to read it in a while - I recommend taking ten minutes to do so.  It is stunning, bold, and richly layered. 

Read the full text here.

The Declaration of Independence is beautifully written.  It is clear and succinct, but also compelling in its imagery.  So often consensus documents are watered down, vague, easy to interpret in different ways.  Not this one.  It's meaning is unmistakable: our colonies have suffered long enough and we are no longer British subjects.  We will fight off tyranny and live free.

I have sometimes felt like America has somehow not lived up to the vision of our founders.  Their passion for self-rule, and their willingness to assume all of the responsibility liberty requires, comes through clearly in every paragraph. But in 2012 is our education system still producing people with even half as much facility with language? Are our leaders brave enough and responsible enough to set aside individual differences and work together on something so terrifyingly important? Is our vision for our country this clear anymore?  It makes me wonder sometimes what the founders would think about what we have done with their gift to us.

This year my morning with the Declaration of Independence felt different, thanks to Professor Annette Gordon-Reed who wrote a fabulous monograph called The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Story.  I spent two months working my way through the massive, Pulitzer Prize-winning book last summer and could not be more grateful for the opportunity. [I highly recommend it to one and all.  To order a copy, please click on the Abebooks icon at right.  I just found seven copies for less than $5, including shipping.]

In the hot, sticky summer of 1776, Thomas Jefferson was attended in Philadelphia by an enslaved 14 year old boy who was also his brother-in-law.  Called a "manservant" because some of Jefferson's colleagues - most notably John Adams - opposed slavery, Robert Hemings was on hand to see to Jefferson's comfort while both were far from home.  Hemings was the son of an enslaved woman named Elizabeth Hemings and the estate owner, John Wayles, also the father of Jefferson's wife, Martha Wayles Jefferson.  Martha Jefferson is said to have resembled some of Elizabeth Hemings' daughters, especially Sally Hemings, who after Martha's death was to spend nearly 40 years living almost openly as Jefferson's mistress.

How crazy, mixed-up, convoluted is that?  "All men are created equal" clearly did not apply to Robert Hemings, who was likely in the room when his master wrote the phrase.  Like all Americans should, I revere Thomas Jefferson, but what on Earth must he have said to himself in order to justify holding in bondage a family of people he knew to be half-siblings of his wife? (These facts, by the way, are no longer disputed by the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, which did resist this part of the historical record for many years.)  So America was founded by imperfect people.  People who were highly educated.  People who had vision. People who were uncommonly courageous. People who were determined to go forward together on issues they agreed on (independence for the colonies) even as they differed wildly on other issues (slavery.)   But people who were not perfect. 

Maybe they were thinking about that years later when they wrote the phrase "in order to form a perfect union" into the preamble of the Constitution.

A week ago tomorrow I stood on the steps of a federal courthouse and praised the U.S. Supreme Court for finally ending America's discrimination against people who are ill (by upholding a law making it illegal to deny health insurance policies to those of us who have "pre-existing conditions.")  I thanked our president, our US senator, and our local congresswoman for their courage and leadership in passing the Affordable Care Act. I encouraged our state's elected leaders to get busy with the final phases of implementation.  I hope they were listening.  I hope they read the Declaration of Independence this morning.  And I hope they think about their responsibility to perfect our union.

[2014 update:  so I am not feeling quite so happy with the US Supreme Court these days.  Their Hobby Lobby decision has me angry and sad. Our leaders are still imperfect... but we must move forward together to perfect this union.  Happy Fourth of July everyone!]

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