Most Colorado cities cancelled their fireworks shows this year. In part because of the cancellations, in part because people are going stir-crazy from the pandemic restrictions, my neighbors lit off a spectacular—and spectacularly illegal—July 4 celebration. This didn’t happen just in Colorado: a news copter captured dramatic fireworks displays in Los Angeles, leading Sam Harris to worry that this resulted in “the worst air quality on Earth.”
Americans love the Fourth, it seems.
Yet “we” are in the middle of a national discussion about what Independence Day means and how we should celebrate it. My family enjoyed streaming the musical “Hamilton” and learned some interesting history from it. Yet Ed Morales asks at CNN, “Is its strategy of non-traditional casting a triumph that allows people of color to ‘rise up’ or are they undermined by the irony of how their embodiment as founding fathers ignores the fact that most of the characters they play were slave owners?” Hamilton did not hold slaves. The play mentions that Jefferson held slaves but not, I think, that Washington did. Meanwhile, some people spent Independence Day burning a U.S. flag near the White House.
The horrific police killings of George Floyd in Minnesota, Breonna Taylor in Kentucky, Elijah McClain here in Aurora, and others have spurred discussion about America’s racist past of slavery followed by Jim Crow oppression followed by continuing legal injustices.
We also debate the monuments to the past. In Denver, vandals tore down statues of Christopher Columbus and of a Union Civil War veteran, leading officials to preemptively remove a statue of Kit Carson. Some people have entered nuanced discussions over monuments—see the 9News report about the complex relationship of the Civil War statue to the Sand Creek Massacre. Others have acted out of nihilistic rage—in Denver someone vandalized the memorial of the Armenian genocide, while in New York vandals toppled a statue of the great Abolitionist Frederick Douglass.
So what is the right way to think about Independence Day? Obviously the Declaration of Independence refers first to the American colonies’ relationship to Britain. That is the historically contingent. At a deeper level, the independence captured by the Declaration refers to the morally universal, fundamental equality of all people with respect to our inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Morally, we each may assert our independent worth as human beings and our independence from the oppressive control of others. That each of us has rights implies that each of us also has an obligation to respect the rights of others.
True, Jefferson and Washington and others were hypocrites who, while owning slaves, helped to lead a young nation built fundamentally on the principle of individual rights. True, the founders of the United States failed to root out slavery, and Americans did not do so for nearly a century. (Yet see Ilya Somin’s case that the revolutionaries, although “far from perfect…did much to advance the cause of freedom” in America and “around the world.”) True, the Declaration refers to “merciless Indian Savages,” even though the United States government itself treated many Native Americans savagely.
True, here in Colorado, for a period prior to statehood, politicians deprived Black people of the vote. In 1864 (before statehood), soldiers perpetrated the horrific Sand Creek Massacre. In 1880, a white mob terrorized Denver’s Chinatown and brutally murdered a man named Sing Lee. For a time in the 1920s, the KKK dominated state politics, and the KKK even published its own newspaper out of Boulder.
So celebrating Independence Day cannot mean loving everything about America’s past. Elements of America’s past are far from lovable and indeed are outright horrific.
Properly, Independence Day celebrates the moral principles at root of what is best about America, the principles of legal equality, individual rights, and independence of each individual from others’ oppression. A proper celebration entails looking soberly at America’s failures as well as its advances. America is fundamentally a moral ideal, and that ideal is what continues to inspire reformers around the world, including the courageous people of Hong Kong, who hoisted the U.S. flag in their struggle against the Chinese government’s oppression.
Here is the critical point: We judge America’s failures as such by the standards of America’s best ideals. We know slavery is a moral atrocity and that Jefferson was wrong to hold slaves, because we know that all people are created equal and that Jefferson was right to say so. The principles of America’s founding helped shift the world away from the tribal barbarism that had marred almost the entirety of human history to the principles of individual moral dignity.
Because we know that all people are created equal and that each individual has a right to life, we know that black lives matter. And the lives of the people in Denver’s Chinatown mattered. And the lives of the victims of the Sand Creek Massacre mattered. And, today, the lives of the Hong Kong freedom fighters, and of the oppressed North Koreans, and of the Uighurs suffering in Chinese concentration camps, and of the Rohingya brutalized in Myanmar, and of homosexuals and women and apostates murdered by theocratic states, and of the millions of people still enslaved in the world, matter.
And the independence that we each enjoy within the American system of Constitutional government enables us to shine the harsh light of truth on America’s sins and shortcomings. We can say and write what we wish, and even burn the American flag, because of America’s First Amendment, the envy of liberty-loving people the world over. Ironically, those who burn the flag out of hatred for America (although that is not the only possible motivation to burn the flag) thereby illustrate the greatness of America and of our magnificent Bill of Rights.
We Coloradans looking for heroes of independence may look to Barney Ford. Born into slavery in 1822, Ford escaped that vile institution and eventually moved to Colorado to become one of the state’s great entrepreneurs. Although barred by racist practices from staking a mining claim, Barney operated successful barbershops, restaurants, and hotels. Ford helped delay statehood until Colorado government got its act together and guaranteed the right to vote for Black people. Even as we look with horror at the racism that Ford suffered, we can also celebrate his achievement of independence. Indeed, when I suggested on Twitter that Coloradans erect a new statue in honor of the early Black legislator Joseph H. Stuart (I hope with voluntary funding), others suggested a statue of Ford. To me the solution is simple: Commission statues of each of these great and fiercely independent Coloradans.
An authentic celebration of Independence Day does not indiscriminately celebrate America’s past. Rather, it celebrates our struggle to fully realize America’s basic moral ideals.