From Krist Boardman:
Mid-July is a memorable season with recent parades, fireworks, hotdog-eating contests, picnics, all part of an underlying appreciation of what a great and unique country we live in and what a great experience it is to be living in these times. The Declaration of Independence containing the elegant and nearly timeless prose of that great statesman and president Thomas Jefferson is a very big part of this tradition, but his words were framed with great ironies such as the words “all men being created equal” at a time when humans were regularly sold into slavery. The noble and high-minded words from the Enlightenment were dawning on the new country in the New World as the republic was being born, but in the background the sinister forces of inequality, oppression and injustice were as strong as ever.
In our current times the words of the great inventor and founder Benjamin Franklin still ring in our ears about “whether we can keep the republic” after it has been created as we struggle domestically with a new president whose interests may be more about power and less about enlightenment.
But even at the founding of our country 240 years ago, our great allies for all their admiration of our noble experiment were struggling on the edges of calamities. The French at the time of Lafayette were still ruled by Louis XIV and Marie Antoinette. I can’t help remembering that our July 4 is followed by the French holiday July 14, Bastille Day, when the prisoners of the Bastille were set free by
the opponents of the Old Regime. Yes, the French admired our revolution but their own was marked by the Jacobins, the Reign of Terror, the Guillotine and then later by the ravages of Napoleon who turned Europe and much of the world into war-ravaged battlefields.
But one of the great outcomes of the Napoleonic Wars is that Napoleon sold the Louisiana Territory to then-President Jefferson for just $3 million. This one land acquisition probably did the most to ensure that the United States would occupy much of the North American continent and contributed to the notion of Manifest Destiny.
Patriotism in America often focuses on the celebration of military undertakings, and there are few greater sacrifices than when men and women give their lives for their country. But such celebrations are usually fraught with caution because just any military undertaking carried under the auspices of the stars and stripes may be the wrong one. I came out of the Vietnam era, a war-scarred time where there were patriotic soldiers and protestors who questioned the legitimacy of that war. The Vietnamese “won” that war if losing 2 million Vietnamese to our 58,000 could be categorized as a victory. Vietnam remains under communist rule but the so-called domino effect which was the inevitability that we would be fighting communists on California’s beaches if we did not stop them in the Indo-Chinese rice patties, remains to this day a fiction, and a reminder that war psychology can be tragically misleading to the well-intentioned. I also have trouble getting my mind around the campaigns of Andrew Jackson against Native Americans which have long-stained relations between the First Americans and the white immigrants from Europe.
Yet, for all of our imperfections America remains a great country as we struggle to remain true to our democratic institutions and ideals. The ideas of the Enlightenment are the ruling standards for our democracy, even though it is a challenge to live up to them, and they will continue to frame the debates and struggles of the future. We can be very proud of that.
At the same time, we cannot help but marvel at the abundant bounty and beauty of our country. That is why my favorite anthems are “America the Beautiful”and Woody Guthrie’s “This land is your land, this land is my land.”