As we approach the July 4th holiday, I’ve seen several articles celebrating our hard won freedoms while lamenting their creeping loss through – through what? I’m never sure, but most of the complaints seem to revolve around immigration, gay rights, religious freedom, and the perceived intrusion of big government into daily lives.
Perhaps it would be worthwhile to remember that our War of Independence was a fairly conservative affair. Unlike the French revolution that pitted the oppressed and dispossessed of the lower classes against the landed elite, the American revolution was more about protecting the rights of free, white, male land owners from a government in London that failed to adequately recognize or respect them. To be sure, in America it was possible for any free, white male to own land in one form or another, and that was very unlike any other place. It truly was a place of opportunity unlike any other.
That was not a bad thing. The rights we take for granted today had to start somewhere, and the philosophy of rights imagined in the Declaration of Independence would, in time, be understood to reach far beyond the world view of white, male colonists huddled along the Eastern seaboard and living under English rule. In the same way, the rights of Englishmen imagined in the Magna Carta of 1215 began as a struggle of landed barons against the power of the king. British parliamentary democracy emerged from that spring, but it took almost five centuries. The development of American republican democracy proceeded at a faster, if not smoother, pace. It’s only been 228 years since the Declaration. The scope of freedoms first asserted as belonging to free, white, male land owners now extends to almost all. And therein lies the problem, at least as I see it.
Rights and privileges formerly restricted to certain classes, and now deemed universal, begin to erase advantages that had been built into the system and on which the advantaged relied, even if without awareness. The barons at Runnymede asserted their rights, but never imagined they might become the rights of serfs who, once receiving them, would no longer be serfs. Thomas Jefferson, and the rest of them, did not know, nor could they have known, that the Declaration of Independence would become the linchpin of rights and freedoms broadly defined as unalienable for all persons in every condition of life.
We have had many turning points in our history, but perhaps only a few that might be called hinges of history. The War of Independence that led to an experiment in republican democracy ordered by an unheard of Constitution was one of them. The Civil War and its aftermath was another. Some have said that the FDR era of depression, New Deal, and WWII was a third. I suggest that the Civil Rights and anti-war movements of the ‘60s and ‘70s was a fourth, and we are yet struggling with what that means. The current legislative impasse in Washington, recent Supreme Court decisions, and the public attention granted to populist tea party type movements represent, to me, the remnant of free, white, male privilege fearful of losing its place to the riffraff of ‘others’ who may not deserve to share in them and cannot be trusted to respect and protect them.
I don’t know what will happen. Other nations have tried and failed. The British seem to have finally got it down, as have Canada and Australia. The French are on their Fifth Republic. Japan and Germany are new democracies not yet fully tested. China is tottering toward something that could become parliamentary, if not democratic. As for us, we are at a fork in the road. We might embrace rights and freedom in new, expansive ways in a nation where no race or creed enjoys systemic preference. We might embrace a more mutant version in which authoritarianism is masked with the language of rights and freedom. We’ve been at forks like that before and have chosen well. I hope we do again.