The United States of Aspiration

The Fourth of July celebrations will be subdued this year. And it is not only because the US is in the middle of a devastating pandemic, but because there has been greater awareness in recent months than perhaps ever before of the flawed state of our democracy. Against that backdrop, it is not unreasonable for people to wonder about the usual celebrations we’d normally have on Independence Day. What does it mean at such a time to celebrate America?

A Democracy In Part

The word republic reminded everyone of Oliver Cromwell’s Puritan dictatorship. It reminded them of ancient Rome, and the collapse of that republic into Empire and tyranny. It conjured up images of mob rule and popular excess, all of which were risks to be avoided.

Of course, they did found a republic, but that republic was guaranteed to ensure their prosperity and power. And that republic was full of anti-democratic measures, a number of which persist to this day.

  • Enslaved populations were not given the franchise but three-fifths of their numbers were nevertheless counted as population for the purposes of determining the Congressional delegations of the states in which they were enslaved. Art. I §2
  • Each state regardless of population would be represented by two senators, giving disproportionate power to smaller, less populated states. Art. I §3
  • Senators were elected by the state legislatures of the states they represented. Art. I §3
  • Congress could exercise “exclusive Legislation in all Cases whatsoever” over the federal district constituting the seat of government. However, as this District, by definition, would be outside the “States,” the residents of said District would be disenfranchised. Art. I §8.

And those are just from the first article of the Constitution.

It has been well-argued that the Founders did not intend to create a free-wheeling democracy, but rather a managed republic with democratic features that would preserve their economic and class interests. Give the mob a little involvement but not too much. Get them to shout “Liberty!” with us against the British, but don’t give them too much power in the system they’ll help us create.

But their own words would be the undoing of that plan.

Thomas Jefferson, principle author of the Declaration of Independence and a slaveholder, penned the words “All men are created equal” as part of that same Declaration. A man who himself owned other human beings, put words declaring the equality of all humanity into the forefront of our national political discourse.

The Founders, letting the cat out of the bag

The Framers of the Constitution opened their preamble with the words “We the People of the United States,” not “We the citizens” or “We the States.” We the People. At a time when there were almost 700,000 enslaved people in the United States, constituting approximately 18% of the total US population, these voteless, disenfranchised, oppressed populations were nevertheless comprehended by the language of the preamble—though few of the authors of that document would have admitted as much.

What this means is that at the outset of the American Experiment, there was a disconnect between the language we employed to describe our republic and the reality of the system that actually governed that republic. And there always has been. You could call it hypocrisy, and that would not be unfair. But it is clear that generations of Americans have chosen to see it as something else: aspiration.

And they used that sense of aspiration to change the system, to broaden the franchise. First, to white men without property or landed interests. Then to Black men. Then to the people in the selection of their senators. Then to women. Then to voters in D.C. for the election of the president. From Abolition to Suffrage to Civil Rights to Black Lives Matter.

It is the aspiration that Americans have seized upon. And they did so, not out of hate for their country, but out of a deeper love than is often credited by those who define love of country in narrow, nationalistic or jingoistic terms.

O Beautiful for Patriot Dream

There are three kinds of patriots, two bad, one good. The bad ones are the uncritical lovers and the loveless critics. Good patriots carry on a lover’s quarrel with their country, a reflection of God’s lover’s quarrel with all the world.

The patriots who carry on this lover’s quarrel with their country are the ones who carry in their hearts this aspirational quality of America. They are the ones who critique the United States for its failure to live up to the ideals it unleashed upon our world and our consciousness.

The first kind of bad patriot — the uncritical lover — will often confuse the good patriot with one who “hates America” because as uncritical lovers — much like Jerry Seinfeld’s mother on his eponymous sitcom who couldn’t imagine anyone not liking her son — they cannot imagine that anyone would ever have any critical words to say about their beloved country.

But this perspective is a flawed one. For it imagines that somehow the current state of the United States of America is either identical — or nearly so — with the aspirational vision. One wonders whether it’s wishful thinking or jingoistic blindness that prevents them from seeing the obvious disconnect between who we claim to be and who we are. When one considers the ongoing systemic discrimination on account of race, the disenfranchisement of hundreds of thousands, the prioritization of corporate interests’ speech over those of the citizenry, it is hard to imagine that the lofty visions of “We the People” and “all men are created equal” have been realized in their fullness.

It is sometimes assumed that those who would critique their country have no stomach for patriotic displays like the Fourth of July. And to be fair, it is hard to overlook Frederick Douglass’ scathing indictment of American hypocrisy in “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” But perhaps it is in this very tension between the already and the not-yet that true patriotic observance can take place. Neither the rah-rah “We’re #1!” cry of the jingoist nor the sentimental rosy-colored view of the US as the haven of true liberty and freedom, but the deeper patriotism that remembers the best of what we can be, and in love, calls us to be better than we are.

The United States of America has always had this aspirational element to it. Whether an expression of sincere conviction or of stirring rhetoric that served the aims of independence, the Founders of the Republic gave to us a vision of something that was truly revolutionary: a country where power is based on the consent of the governed, where no person need subscribe to a common religion, where people of all races, ages, sexes, creeds, nationalities, and colors were treated with dignity, respect, and equality. Where all people enjoyed the equal protection of the laws and were afforded equal access to the political mechanisms that governed the nation. Where liberty and law provided justice and equity.

That was not the America of 1776, or of 1787, or of 1865. And it is not the America of 2020. But it is the belief that it is the America that should be that provides the true basis for love of country, and for the ongoing lover’s quarrel that we have with it.

There are many who are struggling with how to celebrate the Fourth this year. The reality of the United States has left so much and so many wanting. But the Founders, whether they meant to or not, didn’t give us a reality, but a vision. That vision of a just, inclusive, equitable society that affirms the human dignity of all is worth celebrating.

And worth embracing as a mission to transform what is—into what could be.

Retired Methodist pastor, lawyer, language nerd, and Red Sox fan. Upstate NY transplant in DC. Author of “The Certainty of Uncertainty.”

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