These days, the Fourth of July seems mostly to be about barbeques, beer and fireworks – all for the celebration of freedom. That’s the popular narrative for the birth of our country. But the truth is, the United States had many parents. Democracy was one. Slavery was another, property a third, patriarchy a fourth, and genocide a fifth. These were all the essential ingredients for the birth of our nation.
As much as democracy was heralded in the Declaration of Independence with “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”, the new constitution codified inequality and slavery, with people, owned by other people, counting as three-fifths of a person. Women could not participate in this democracy. White men without property were likewise excluded.
Not only was this a democracy for white men with property, only. The federal government and individual prospectors, farmers, and hunters continually encroached upon native peoples, taking their land by force, destroying their cultures, and killing the majority through warfare, disease, and starvation.
Slavery provided the essential fuel for capitalist development in our country. Northern financiers did not invest in cotton production because they felt good about it. They invested in cotton to make money from the toil of slaves.
It went all the way to the top. Our first, third, fourth, fifth, seventh, tenth, eleventh, and twelfth presidents were all slave-owners while they were president: Washington, Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe, with 19th century leaders right behind them: Jackson, Tyler, Polk, Taylor.
Washington enslaved more than 300 people, Jefferson 200. Jackson was a slave trader. Jefferson appointed Jackson to take over the Creek and Cherokee Indian lands. He did, massacring Indian men, women, and children, and stealing 23 million acres for plantation slavery. As president he legalized ethnic cleansing with the Indian Removal Act.
King County was initially named for William King, elected as United States Vice President in 1852. This King and his relatives owned 500 slaves. The King County Council remedied this recognition of an enslaver by renaming the county after Martin Luther King Jr.
The legacy of racism and second class citizenship is reverberates in our country. The citizens of Washington DC, a majority-minority city, are not allowed voting representatives in the U.S. Senate and Congress. In Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina and Tennessee you can request a state-issued license plate with the confederate flag. Carved into the largest bas relief sculpture in the world at Stone Mountain, Georgia are the silhouettes of confederate generals Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson and the President of the Confederacy Jefferson Davis.
Just as the founders of our country could not bring themselves to mention the word slavery in the constitution, but lived their lives as well-heeled enslavers, today’s defenders of the symbols of the confederacy say they just want to honor southern culture. At the bottom of that culture is the practice of enslaving other people.
There is a truth to this: our country was built on freedom and slavery, on democracy and genocide, on the entrepreurial spirit and patriarchal domination. For three centuries we have been taught to see the other in our fellow residents of these United States. Instead of being one of us, they are one of them. They may be black, or gay, or Latina, or trans, or Muslim, or Jewish, or women, or native Americans. Their families may have been here for generations and generations before ours, or for years after our own arrival. They may be poor, or working class, old or young. Their wages may be compromised, as may be their health and wellbeing.
Privilege for the elite in our democracy rests on keeping people apart from each other, in culture, in prejudice, in mindset, in where we live. The elite benefit when social solidarity disintegrates. They don’t want to see the words on the seal of the United States, “E pluribus unum” that is, “out of many, one”, become the reality of our democracy.
One hundred fifty three years ago President Abraham Lincoln proposed that “our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” Lincoln also foresaw that through the civil war, “this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
We are not there yet.