This 4th of July, I’m not afraid to admit I’m not a patriot. I don’t turn a blind eye to 239 years of institutional racism continuing to this day through drug war sentencing imbalances, police departments, redistricting, and the fact the median white household has 13x the net worth of the median black home. But today Americans ignore inner issues to focus on the greatness of the revolution that created our nation. Let’s discuss this history and mythology.
Before the American Revolution, the thirteen colonies rarely acted in unison. While some benefitted from boycotting British goods, others artisans were greatly hurt. Rebel soldiers were treated poorly by their superiors, many colonists fought for the British, and others, such as the Quakers, were pacifists often stripped of property by the patriots for refusing to fight. Many slaves fought for the British after being offered freedom, and after the British lost, they were granted passage to the old world and given it. The American Revolution did not drastically improve the lives of the common people.
The colonists had various reasons to be unhappy with the British. The Stamp Act required a taxed stamp on all published material, and various taxes, including one on tea, were put in place to pay for the French and Indian War. Additionally, the British were beginning to clamp down on local democratic experiments with the Massachusetts Government Act, and were requiring families to house soldiers with the Quartering Act. Tensions began to rise among the colonists and many chose to fight against their own nation. Wealthy lawyers, plantation owners, and bankers, with their great fortunes at the whim of British tax authority, channeled discontent at a system of monarchy to their advantage, putting themselves in power. In order to gain support from the large and vocal minority of land owning white men, influential figures such as Thomas Jefferson used strong language declaring all men equal and with the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. These freedoms did not benefit or even apply to everyone. Native Americans were generally treated more fairly by the British, who frequently restricted colonial westward expansion and had greater respect for tribal organizations. Slaves were offered freedom by the British if they fought, while Americans viewed stealing property, which included people, as a violation of that liberty.
While the Declaration of Independence was written to inspire collective rebellion backing the Founding Fathers, the Constitution was written as a largely dry, inapproachable document with broad and confusing language. It allowed the continuation of the slave trade while avoiding usage of the word ‘slave,’ and created a system with little representation and no mention of voting. In my cynical view, the Constitution, written by bankers, plantation owners, and lawyers, created a system to benefit their own interests and prevent democracy from taking away their power. Only the House of Representatives was initially elected by popular vote, while state legislators elected the Senate, and electors elected by the Senate voted for the President, who instated Supreme Court Justices. Certain issues, like repaying war bonds and paying in kind, were also set up to increase the rich’s wealth at the greater public’s expense. This complex, distant republic preserves the status quo and doesn’t reflect the trend for the common folk.
The Bill of Rights acted as clearly readable, though broad, set of amendments to the Constitution, meant to signify freedom as an inherent right to Americans, an idea not found in other countries at the time. While the freedoms stated have been violated numerous times throughout the United States’ volatile history, they remain relevant to this day as the ideals politicians feel a duty to uphold. Modern issues, like same-sex marriage and abortion, have been clearly answered in the Supreme Court because of these rights declared inalienable.
This hopeful viewpoint definitely does have some valid ideas. The system created by the Founding Fathers was more democratic than almost any other at the time, even though they profited greatly from it. The values of liberty and equality decreased indentured servitude and eventually were used to fight against slavery and for feminism. However, children are taught a story of history that respects leaders like Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, Paul Revere, and Thomas Jefferson as the sole bastions for justice. The narrative told ignores the American public’s collective uprising, including many declarations of independence long before Jefferson’s, the Paul Revere story we tell having no basis in reality, and slaves literally fighting for their freedom against plantation owners.
These are issues still fought to this day, often using the hollow words of the Bill of Rights and Declaration of Independence. The same kind of power structure exists today with tactical voting towards the two main political parties, a process that maintains a status quo and prevents people from voting for what they truly believe is right in all but local referendums. This keeps a political class in power without true democracy, just as the writers of the Constitution intended. Educators should teach lessons of direct action without glorifying flawed figures from the past to instill patriotism. Glorifying these figures is a disservice to the values we’re told they represent. It also ignores the great social and economic issues that existed in both the British-ruled and post-Revolution systems.
We’re morally obligated to our country (city, state, and world too) to execute on the promise of doing better than our descendants at treating others, and that includes the figures we deify. This does not come from patriotism or nationalism, but rather compassion, respect, and recognition of historical and present wrongs in our country and elsewhere. In order to be proud of your place, you need to be part of what’s right to be proud of. Recognizing and doing your part at fixing inequality and injustices is the only thing that can make our country, or any place, a better one.
We can have great appreciation, or love, for the beautiful geography, people, accomplishments, and opportunities a country has. Our country has an incredibly diverse landscape, from Mt. Rainier to Yellowstone, and from great deserts to great rainforests. We can even appreciate the Constitution and Bill of Rights for what they are, documents that have established human rights above any democratic or oligarchic process, able to be used effectively in the modern world, including gay rights and abortion, if we recognize that our system is far slower than parliamentary forms of government with an impartial executive unable to declare legitimacy, like a monarch. We’ve had countless influential artists, authors, philosophers, inventors, activists, and thinkers of all kinds. We should appreciate these things, that’s how we protect them. This does not necessitate patriotism. Patriotism is a word that for most people specifically means looking the other way at inequality and injustices because of allegiance towards the state causing or allowing them to occur. National Parks are created from this appreciation, not the profit motive that defines everything from post-Citizens United elections to water access. States should constantly be under scrutiny to do the compassionate, respectful, right thing. That’s how we can love our country without being patriotic towards it, and that’s how the population becomes more informed.