I tend to avoid paeans to the Fourth of July on the Internet. Many of them celebrate an America that is not the one I have lived in and served or want to live in. They tend to envision a regression into the very morass of human meanness that the country has struggled to surmount. The founding of America was announced with a goal for which the new country would strive, not with a summation of what it then possessed: "that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." It would take much arduous and patient work to reach that goal.
America, to be America, would always be in a state of becoming as it sought to define and realize what liberty, equality, and true justice would entail. Revolution is a continuous process in American life of striving to realize those goals it has announced. However, the opening words of the Declaration of Independence do not merely announce a separation from Britain in the quest for those conditions of life, but they state a political principle that might be invoked again should America fail in realizing its stated mission: "When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them..." Human events may require that people dissolve their political bands in the future if those events prove unsatisfactory to Americans. Revolution is a continuing presence in America, and dissolving nonfunctional bonds and severing human connections is an imminence.
The Fourth of July is the day to acknowledge the birth of our nation, but the day after is more significant, for that is when we go to work on the measures directed toward realizing the potential of that birth. That is when we set the course for what we will actually become.
Our celebrations of the Fourth tend to take on a militaristic cast and ignore the fact that the Declaration is not merely a shout of independence, but is a literary document that grew out of the emerging American history and it records the words that drive that history.
The writer of one of the earliest histories of the American Revolution (1789), David Ramsay, states, "In establishing American Independence, the pen and the press had a merit equal to that of the sword." In many observances of the Fourth of July and other political holidays, the soldier is held up as the hero of Independence to the belittlement of the people whose work with words motivated, defined, and provided the intellectual energy for the revolution. Fireworks are more exciting than the scratching of pens and the articulation of precise words, but they are gone in a flash and bang while the words endure and continue to do their work.
Those words influenced the direction of my own life. My graduate education was in modern letters, which covered British and American literature from 1800 to the present. However, one is required to have course work and be examined over all the eras of English language literature to provide a sound background for ones specialty. My studies were directed toward doing scholarship in Native American literature, so I found that American letters exerted a strong pull. The courses at the University of Iowa, where I did my work, cover not just the literature, but also examine the history and the culture, and, therefore, the contexts of the works. I found that in the literature of the two countries, there was a breaking of old bands of thought and expression, that America was going about the business of creating a new culture that often repudiated the assumptions of the Old World.
The Revolution began in Europe with writers who saw the lingering culture of feudalism as a barrier that kept most of its people in virtual work camps in which they had to live out their lives in servitude. As the French writer Crevecouer observed, the seeds of hope and vision were planted in the new soils of America where they bloomed and came to fruition.
In my first teaching job, I was assigned to teach the survey course in early American literature. The college had a tradition of rigor and thoroughness to which all faculty were held, and the interest and general knowledge I had about early American literature became part of a vocation, and I found myself immersed in a time and place through a body of literature unlike any other in the world. It is often said that America has the most thorough, diverse, and well-crafted account of its founding in its literature. Many students, who prefer imaginative literature of fiction, poetry, and drama, are dismayed to find that the early American course is filled with journals of colonizing and settling, letters, essays of exploration, and documents such as the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. It is a literature not written just as artistic expression, but artistic expression with a purpose: formulating and building a new kind of nation, creating a New World.
|Whitman as a young man.|
The United States are destined either to surmount the gorgeous history of feudalism, or else prove the most tremendous failure of time.Whitman details the obstacles of human meanness and social injustice that America must surmount to realize its promise, and he sees the key factor to be that Americans perceive that they possess in themselves the power to create that New World:
How much is still to be disentangled, freed! How long it takes to make this American world see that it is, in itself, the final authority and reliance!
That lingering hold of the Old World ways is one of the major obstacles:
For feudalism, caste, the ecclesiastic traditions, though palpably retreating from political institutions, still hold essentially by their spirit, even in this country, entire possession of the more important fields, indeed the very subsoil of education, and of social standards and literature.And he saw enlightenment, which to people of his time meant liberalism, as what would create the conditions for true liberty, equality, and justice:
The true gravitation-hold of liberalism in the United States will be a more universal ownership of property, general homesteads, general comfort--a vast, intertwining reticulation of wealth.
Whitman fully acknowledged a churlish and backward streak in many of his countrymen. But, like the founders and intellectual political philosophers of the time, he saw education as the means of lifting the populace to a higher state of literacy and thought. He advised young people to fully participate in politics, but not in partisanship:
America, it may be, is doing very well upon the whole, notwithstanding these antics of the parties and their leaders, these half-brain'd nominees, and many ignorant ballots, and many elected failures and blatherers. ...I advise you to enter more strongly yet into politics. I advise every young man [note; women could not yet vote, but he does foresee that eventuality in his essay] to do so. Always inform yourself; always do the best you can; always vote. Disengage yourself from parties. They have been useful, and to some extent remain so; but the floating, uncommitted electors, farmers, clerks, mechanics, the masters of parties--watching aloof, inclining victory this side or that side--such are the ones most needed, present and future.After the fireworks, pseudo-patriotic ritualism, and celebratory gatherings of the Fourth of July, the thoughts, words, and deeds memorialized in our literature must be fronted to understand the constant effort needed to surmount those attitudes that linger from the feudal world. The cliches and banalities that pervade cable news, talk radio, and so much of the Internet need to be countered by a rebirth of true literacy if our republic is to continue its upward ascent. To do so requires, as Whitman suggests, for us to step away from the trite, the small-minded, and the misinformed language of partisanship and ponder those words that have lifted America in the past so we know how much heavy lifting is required in the future.