Cheap Seats 2018
A Long Time Ago - 07/04
By Rich Trzupek
It was a long time ago, two-hundred-forty-two years to be exact, but the galaxy was not far away. It was rather close to home. In fact, it is home.
It happened in an isolated corner of the Milky Way, on a rather unimpressive planet orbiting an inconsequential star. As the concept of civil discourse continues to fade away, and history is rewritten at an ever-accelerating pace, let’s take another look at that fateful day: July 4, 1776.
The Second Continental Congress met in Philadelphia to discuss the rebellion against England. The rebellion was a response to British tyranny, although it was surely one of the most benevolent forms of “tyranny” that any people have been subject to.
It was a gathering of white men, most of whom were at least well-to-do and all of whom owned property. Some owned slaves. All would be described, to a greater or lesser extent, as both racist and sexist if judged by today’s standards.
That is, of course, the problem with applying modern standards to the past. Heroes quickly turn into villains, their virtues and accomplishments fading into a murky history that seems to embarrass more Americans with each passing year.
It’s not fair, of course. It’s also rather ego-centric. Consider, as just one example, slavery. Yes, many of the founders owned slaves. Yes, slavery was legal. Yes, many slaves were badly treated. All true.
But, when those white men got together in Philadelphia in the summer of 1776, the fledgling United States was not alone in allowing what was known as “the Peculiar Institution” to exist. Slavery existed all around the world. Some nations, like Britain, Mexico, Greece and Chile would abolish slavery before the United States. Others, like France (in its colonies), China and some Middle Eastern nations would not do so till long after the United States did.
Thomas Jefferson, a slave-owner, put pen to paper and famously wrote: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal…” To the modern ear, Jefferson’s bold statement smacks of hypocrisy. How could a man holding other men and women in involuntary servitude, say that everyone is created equal?
And he not only said that all men are created equal, he declared that proposition to be “self-evident.” That is, from a philosophical point of view, a powerful descriptor. A self-evident truth requires no proof. It is a fact. It is inherent to nature and creation. It is law that, as Jefferson put it, is “endowed by their Creator.”
So was Jefferson and that small band of rich white men who signed the Declaration of Independence hypocrites or heroes? The answer is the same in this case as it is in every case involving fallible human-beings: They were both.
They were both because they were human and all human beings (with one Notable Exception, if you happen to be a believer) are sinners. We remember great people and great accomplishments and, if we’re honest with ourselves, we remember them without rancor, no matter how flawed the people who accomplished them might be. They’re human. We remember Dr. King for his courage, his leadership, his commitment to non-violence and his remarkable way with words. We do not, nor should not, diminish his legacy because he was a philanderer in his personal life. Heroes get to have feet of clay.
And so it was with the founding fathers of this great nation. It takes no great skill to pick apart their personal legacies and find flaws, some that are artifacts of the times in which they lived and others that are timeless personal failings. That’s not what matters. What matters is what they set in motion on July 4, 1776.
It was a first step on a journey that continues to this day. It has been a long journey, and often a frustrating and difficult one, but it has been a journey guided by the love of liberty and personal freedom that motivated those old white men to dare found a new nation based on the idea that all men are created equal.
But, you may retort, all men are not treated equally in America. And I would have to admit that is true, while pointing out that is true in every other nation on the face of the earth.
What makes America special, and what makes this day so special, is the value we place on that goal. Some believe we’ve lost our way. I say not. We may disagree on how to get there, but the bold goals of equality, life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness remain the lights that guide us on our journey that those remarkable men in Philadelphia set this nation upon, two-hundred-forty-two years ago.