There is no question that 1776 marked the beginning of America's feeling that it was exceptional and that its moral voice coupled with its growing economic strength gave it a place on the world’s stage. But what of freedom and prosperity?
We all know the famous lines from the Declaration of Independence, crafted primarily by Thomas Jefferson ... “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men.”
These were truly revolutionary words. They have given America’s elite something to crow about. And they have given the mass of Americans, especially the disadvantaged, something to hang their hopes on for more than two centuries. This was the basis of the American dream. But what were and are the facts on the ground?
Those that benefitted from our independence were primarily those with business interests, who were now free of the yoke of English taxes and control. Then as now, business interests were the main “client” of government ... indeed, back then you could only vote if you owned land or had enough wealth to be taxed, so those were the constituents ... and they prospered then as they do now.
As of the first census in 1790, 18% of the US population (700,000 out of 4,000,000) were slaves. Their status certainly did not change with American independence. That would have to wait another 85 years for the Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation. Of the Founding Fathers who were slave holders, only George Washington freed his slaves, upon his death. Jefferson did not even do that.
The status of women ... the wives of the founders and the mothers of their children ... did not change at all with independence. They remained chattel with no rights for a century, slowly achieving some rights in the later 1800s, and only won the right to vote in 1920 with the ratification of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution.
Over the last century, there can be no question that both women and, to a lesser extent, blacks have improved their status in all areas of American business and life But there can also be no question that even today neither have reached anything approaching equality with white males and that broad discrimination persists.
And then there are the Native Americans. They had a status lower than slaves because they were of no use to anyone. They were just a heathen barrier to be gotten rid of when their presence interfered with American interests. Our genocide of the Native American (and what else can it honestly be called) is breathtakingly chilling. Manifest Destiny had no room for equality.
And as for general prosperity, while it is true that we all have more now than we did … more education, more modern conveniences, creature comforts … it is also true that there is greater inequality between the richest Americans (top 5%) and the rest then at any time. If you look at broader groups ... top 20%, middle 40, and bottom 40 ... the income distribution has remained pretty static since independence. So we really haven’t achieved much of anything on that point.
So what are we celebrating? Some moving, aspirational words which we have still not managed ... or if truth be told, even tried very hard ... to implement. As President Obama said, “We can do better.”
We are celebrating the birth of a nation whose unbridled capitalism was able to take full advantage of the opportunities presented by the natural resources of this vast country and a bottomless pool of cheap immigrant labor to make this the richest nation in the world. We are celebrating a rapacious America which, while being the leader of the free world, despoiled the environment and took advantage of the mass of its powerless citizens, leaving a damaged people and landscape in the wake of “progress.”
Instead of celebrating so hard and patting ourselves on the back for how great America is, we should use this opportunity to rededicate ourselves and our institutions of government to implementing those words of the Declaration of Independence: “that all men are created equal,” “that they have the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” and that the role of government is to “secure” those rights. We should never forget that in reality most of our citizens have little cause to celebrate if they stopped to think about it.