Every Fourth of July, some celebrity will attract national attention by denouncing the holiday as a type of slaver’s celebration. This year was no exception. In past years, I have said nothing because these comments reflect understandable conflicted feelings by African Americans and others whose ancestors lived through decades of oppression and discrimination. However, it is time to put part of this criticism to rest . . . at least in part. There is a tendency to ignore those Framers who advocated emancipation at our founding and the recognition of the scourge of slavery that would forever taint our history.
Damon Wayan Jr. was one of the first to raise the familiar objection in a tweet reading “Happy white people proud of their racist ancestors day.” After a backlash, Wayan later said it was “A joke some took too personally. So what.”
For his part, former 49ers Quarterback Colin Kaepernick went to Ghana and said that “What have I, or those I represent, to do with your national independence?” Instead, he traced his roots to Ghana “to visit the sites responsible for myself (and many other Black folks in the African Diaspora) for being forced into the hells of the middle passage. I wanted to see a fraction of what they saw before reaching the point of no return.”
Kaepernick understandably sought to highlight how African Americans are in a strange position when celebrating independence that did not apply to their ancestors. However, that is only if you define the holiday narrowly. The day celebrates the creation of a new nation and the achievements of a people committed to the values of liberty. We created a nation that was flawed in many ways, but none greater than the perpetuation of slavery. The Constitution would not come about for over a decade when it created a system by which we could change not just our laws but ourselves. Less than one hundred years after that declaration, millions of white and black soldiers went to war to end slavery and, long before the civil war, millions of abolitionists fought to end the scourge of slavery.
This is not the first time that Kaepernick has adopted an artificially narrow view of our symbols or holidays. His controversial refusal to stand during our national anthem reflected his failure to understand the flag (and the anthem) represent the promise of a free people. Standing for the anthem is actually a statement of faith in the rights (guaranteed by the Constitution) that the flag represents. Saluting that flag is to reaffirm the rights of equality and liberty that it represents – together as one people.
It is true that many of the Framers were slave-owners and that some like Thomas Jefferson sought the elimination of slavery while retaining their own slaves. Many Framers were not slave owners like John Adams, Samuel Adams, Alexander Hamilton, Oliver Ellsworth, Robert Paine, Thomas Paine, and Roger Sherman. It is also not that the Framers failed to see the glaring contradiction. George Washington, a slave owner, wrote “I can only say that there is not a man living who wishes more sincerely than I do to see a plan adopted for the abolition of [slavery].” Patrick Henry wrote “It is not a little surprising that Christianity … should encourage a practice so totally repugnant to the first impressions of right and wrong.” John Jay, Framer and first Chief Justice, spent his life fighting against slavery. As is often the case, George Mason put it best
“As much as I value an union of all the states, I would not admit the southern states into the union, unless they agreed to the discontinuance of this disgraceful trade, because it would bring weakness and not strength to the union . . . The augmentation of slaves weakens the states; and such a trade is diabolical in itself, and disgraceful to mankind.”
Again, the issue is important to keep in mind when we celebrate our independence. However, the record is not so black and white as suggested. On Independence Day, we celebrate not the people we were but the people we have become. Millions died to end the disgrace of slavery and to fulfill the promise of our Declaration of Independence. We still have a great deal of work to do. That fact however should not keep us from celebrating what we have achieved, together, as a nation. It is not our “racist ancestor’s day” but our day.
In the end, our greatest accomplishment was our ability to not just break away from the Crown but to break away from our own injustices and immorality. Indeed, as an independent people we could no longer blame anyone but ourselves for the rape, enslavement, and murder of millions of slaves in the Land of the Free. That was exactly the point of people like Jay, Henry, and Mason at our founding. They could not overcome the divisions with Southern states while also going to war with Great Britain. Instead, they agreed to principles of liberty and equality that would be the foundation for the abolitionist movement. Their vision would not be realized for another 90 years, but it was a vision passionately discussed among the Framers. The stain of slavery has left an indelible mark on our history but so have the men and women (including Framers) who spoke against it. It is a collective story full of sins and redemption. It is a history worth celebrating.