This July 4th we celebrate the 244th year of our nation’s independence. Independence is many things but plainly it is not freedom from worry. Today, our worries are seemingly remote from those of 1776, but the Founders’ generation also faced epidemic diseases, urban riots, political extremists, and ideological assaults on cherished ideals. We can still learn something from their intrepid responses and their courage in the face of adversity.
On this July 4, numerous public figures have called for reflection on America’s so-called “original sin”—slavery. It is good to be mindful of that terrible history, but being truly mindful of it requires a commitment to accuracy and understanding of context. We are unfortunately in a moment when wildly inaccurate and de-contextualized claims about slavery are widespread.
The dampening of this year’s Fourth of July celebrations may not rate as the most serious consequence of the current mood of self-recrimination, but it is nonetheless serious and something to reckon with. The crowding of the public square with accusations against and apologies for America is a descent into weakness and distrust.
Consider the W.E.B. Du Bois, who during a former period of unrest, wrote: “With other black boys the strife was not so fiercely sunny: their youth shrunk into tasteless sycophancy, or into silent hatred of the pale world about them and mocking distrust of everything white; or wasted itself in a bitter cry, ‘Why did God make me an outcast and a stranger in my own house?’”1
In his day, Du Bois insisted that the question of a larger, more just, and fuller future depended on whether millions of Americans could keep from brooding over the wrongs of the past and the difficulties of the present. Today such brooding has become fashionable—literally, as in the fashions emblazoned with the words, “Black Lives Matter,” as if anyone believes they don’t. Can we hope for a better future?
Du Bois was a political radical, but not a destroyer of monuments or a demolisher of standards.
He wrote, “The foundations of knowledge in this race, as in others, must be sunk deep in the college and university if we would build a solid, permanent structure. … Can there be any possible solution other than by study, and thought and an appeal to the rich experience of the past?”2
One of Du Bois’s reflections concerned the equality he felt in the company of great writers: “I sit with Shakespeare and he winces not. Across the color line I move arm in arm with Balzac and Dumas, where smiling men and welcoming women glide in gilded halls. From out the caves of evening that swing between the strong-limbed earth and the tracery of the stars, I summon Aristotle and Aurelius and what soul I will, and they come all graciously with no scorn nor condescension. So, wed with Truth, I dwell above the Veil.”3
His eloquence contrasts powerfully with the scrawls of aggressive ignorance that have spread from the covers of magazines to vandalized city halls. But those scrawls will have the lifespans of cheap fireworks: they make their noise, burst, and are gone.
This Fourth we still celebrate 244 years of our nation’s independence, and we will continue to celebrate for hundreds of years to come. Provided, that is, that we rouse ourselves from this cultural torpor masquerading as righteous indignation. We must rededicate ourselves to the hard work of self-government. Independence has never been cheap, not in 1776, and not today. To that end, the National Association of Scholars celebrates those Americans who turn away from comic book-style “histories” and enticing “narratives” that are all around us to pursue instead a genuine, and because genuine, complex understanding of our common history.
A virtuous republic worth fighting and dying for is also worth thinking and reading for. But it is not to be gained by morose apologies and fatuous regrets that our forebears failed to anticipate moral pieties that had not yet been invented. Let’s celebrate this year’s Fourth of July by exploding those grim conceits and letting their embers fall into the night where they belong.
Peter W. Wood
President, National Association of Scholars