Things must be looking up. When I wrote this reflection on the Fourth of July three years ago, the Tea Party/Nutbag Wing of the Republican Party seemed very strong. Now, with Southerners ditching the Confederate flag, the Supreme Court putting on a rainbow boa, and Donald Trump representing the more idiotic strains of their thinking in stark, undeniable form, it seems like the Republican wave has crested and is leaving behind a beach full of flotsam.
Still, I like this piece, and think it gives something for us to chew on during this long holiday weekend. Have fun. Be safe around fireworks.
But why stop there? After all, not every colonist in 1776 was a patriot, and at this particularly fractured political moment, we might do well to remember that, according to contemporary accounts, one third of Americans wanted revolution, one third were loyal to the crown and one third could go either way. Loyalists did more than talk; they formed Tory regiments and fought alongside the British, against their fellow Americans.
Even those who did support breaking from Britain could be surprisingly lax about it, at least at first. As late as January 1776, George Washington was still leading his officers in raising a glass to toast King George III every night in his mess in Cambridge.
Common wisdom holds that had Americans known what they were getting themselves into when they declared independence, they would never have done it.
"Had Americans been able to anticipate the length and difficulty of the war," wrote historian Samuel Eliot Morison, "they probably would have forced the Continental Congress to end it by compromise in 1776."
It says something of our national character that we celebrate Independence Day, not when independence was achieved on Sept. 3, 1783, when the Treaty of Paris ended the war, but when the real struggle had just started in 1776. A reminder that we both tend to underestimate the effort needed to accomplish anything, and overlook how fractured our nation invariably is while attempting change.
We wave the flag and dab a tear now. But hundreds of thousands of Americans alive during revolutionary times listened to the words of Jefferson and were unmoved, stayed Loyalists, and some 80,000 celebrated American victory by fleeing to Canada, tipping that nation away from the French.
So how surprising should it be that now, in times that try men's souls to a far lesser extent, Americans are also broadly divided when it comes to, well, just about everything.
When I look at the Republicans, I am tempted to dismiss them as the Treason Party. Seriously, were a band of traitors to concoct a series of positions deliberately designed to weaken America, they would be hard pressed to beat the current GOP dogma—hobble education, starve the government by slashing taxes to the rich, kneecap attempts to jumpstart the economy by fixating on debt, invite corporations to dominate political discourse, balkanize the population by demonizing minorities and immigrants and let favored religions dictate social policy.
What gave me pause, however, is that they beat me to it—for 15 years the Republicans have been treating Democrats as if believing in a government that addresses our common public problems is a form of sedition. Given how uniformly wrong they are, I'm loathe to use any of their tactics, even one that has been so stunningly effective, convincing millions of Americans their best interests lie in coddling the rich and their champion is a stiff, dressage-riding multi-millionaire.
And I am reminded that, often in American history, from John Adams to Rosa Parks to the anti-war movement, being branded a traitor turns out to be a badge of honor.
To be honest, I have no concern that Republican ideology will prevail. It can't. The 11 million illegal immigrants will not be expelled. Gays will not go back into the closet. Religion will not trump science. In fact, the only thing that worries me is the triumph of corporate power—then again, wealth always seems near triumph, but government usually has been a dog yipping at its heels, woofing business in a more humane direction, a little bit. We seem in danger of losing even that.
But the American people will correct this misstep—they usually do, eventually. Most Loyalists did not flee after the Revolution, and many who did leave came back with surprisingly few hard feelings. One was elected mayor of New York City. Philip B. Key, whose nephew would write the "Star Spangled Banner," had fought with a Loyalist regiment. After the war, he served as a federal judge while drawing his British military pension. If when our country was new, citizens who had just fought a war for their freedoms could turn around and embrace those who opposed them, how can we do any less now?
The best way to celebrate the Fourth is fly the flag and raise a toast to this country, all 311 million people. All of us, even those so afraid of the future they try to mandate the past. From the Leftiest, most wild-eyed, Occupying, I-wish-there-would-be-a-revolution-so-I-could-be-king radical to the Rightiest, wild-eyed, Bible-waving, Tea Partying, I-wish-society-would-break-down-so-my-guns-would-make-me king conservative. All join in one United States of America. Like it or not, we're all here, all free, and though we don't often listen to or respect each other, we are all bound up in one common enterprise.
—Originally published in the Sun-Times, July 4, 2012