The 244th anniversary of our nation’s founding promises to be one of the most contentious in recent memory. In the last few weeks thousands have taken to the streets in protests that questioned whether America values all of its citizens with the same worth. They began with decrying police brutality and quickly progressed to violence, fire and rage. The toppling of Confederate memorials escalated to attacks on statues of Washington and Jefferson, and even Ulysses S. Grant - who led the army that swept the scourge of slavery from the land. Meanwhile, a pandemic rages and a fractious presidential campaign rumbles on. As we mark this Independence Day, Americans are being forced to look around and inside ourselves, and ask if the story we tell ourselves is still worth believing.
The wisest among us have asked this before. On July 5, 1852, Frederick Douglass addressed precisely this point in his oration, “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” Twenty times in the address, in referring to the American Founding, he invokes the phrase “your fathers” - America and the Americans being a thing, he says, from which he and the slaves of America are excluded. “This Fourth [of] July is yours, not mine.” Yet at its close the address takes a turn. Having exposed and excoriated American hypocrisy on Independence Day (and rightfully so), he abruptly situates himself and his story and his hope squarely in the American Founding and its documents.
He dismissed the idea that the U.S. Constitution was “pro-slavery,” arguing that it contained “neither warrant, license, nor sanction of the hateful thing.” Instead he declared that “the Constitution is a GLORIOUS LIBERTY DOCUMENT.” In conclusion, Douglass says: “I, therefore, leave off where I began, with hope…drawing encouragement from the Declaration of Independence, the great principles it contains, and the genius of American Institutions.”
America was not living up to its own ideals, and Douglass was pointing that out in one of the most eloquent and important speeches in American history. The story Frederick Douglass told himself was a story in which he, and the lowliest of slaves, were all included in the American story.
The individual stories we tell ourselves—not just about our hardships but about who we are—combine together to create our American story. Every one of us adds a small thread to the larger fabric of our culture. And as we change and evolve, so evolve our cultural norms. The American story itself evolves. This isn’t a bad thing, either. It is natural and constant throughout history.
But something is changing for the worse. The American story that Frederick Douglass believed in is being threatened by people who have lost sight of his message. The fortitude that helped Douglass escape slavery, fight for its abolition and work to push America toward a fuller expression of its founding ideals is sorely lacking today. Now, powerlessness is a virtue. Weakness is strength.
People are told that not only are they powerless and oppressed, but there is a specific other group to blame for it. The phrase “check your privilege” becomes the favorite tactic used to discredit opponents and subvert real discourse. Groups are promised more power over other groups in the form of wealth redistribution, reparations or wage regulation. The resentment that individuals may have silently felt for one another is encouraged and even elevated as a virtue. Anger is good. Wear your oppression proudly. Resist. Seek revolution.
The politics of grievance and resentment become mainstream and arrive in full force. The institutions that our society is built upon – law enforcement, religion, the financial system, the government– are labeled as fundamentally oppressive and become shamed and discredited. And if our institutions are always to blame, then the next and final ultimate oppressor should be obvious: America itself.
In the search for oppressors to target, the identity politicians and outrage specialists have found the ultimate boogeyman: our American founding. In a growing number of circles, cheered on by major publications such as the New York Times, America is the vessel and origin of evil, the embodiment of sin against a more enlightened progressive ideal. This is the heart of the new culture war, which is the fundamental question of whether America is inherently good or inherently bad.
Take, for just one example, the New York Times’ 1619 Project, explicitly designed to reframe the American Founding around slavery, instead of its actual foundation in 1776 and the promise of liberty. Among many other historical inaccuracies, the Times conveniently ignores the fact that America’s founding documents were consistently used by abolitionists - like Frederick Douglass - as a primary argument for ending slavery. Grievance reaches back a long way to make its case in the pages of the Times, even blaming modern traffic jams on the legacy of slavery.
It is up to us—all of us—to reverse this trend. We must decide to tell the story of America that embodies the founding ideals and gave us the miracle of opportunity that we have today. Like many stories, it is filled with villains, heroes, dark times, proud victories, sadness, overwhelming joy, failures, and triumphs. It is a human story, after all. It carries with it all of the inescapable imperfections that are inherent to the human condition. But just as your story does not end with your suffering or your failings, neither does ours. America is a fabric woven from the threads of human history’s best stories, best attributes, and greatest ideas. In “The Roots of American Order, Russell Kirk wrote: “Whatever the failings of America…the American order has been a conspicuous success in the perspective of human history.”
We can tell the story of our sins—and we should, for greater perspective—but we must also recognize that these sins do not render corrupt the foundational ideals of America. Our imperfections do not define us. What does define us is the greatness that America has generated.
Dan CrenshawDaniel CrenshawEarly redistricting plans show GOP retrenching for long haul GOP lawmaker fined K after skipping metal detectors The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Alibaba - Gears begin to shift in Congress on stalled Biden agenda MORE, a former Navy SEAL, represents Texas’ 2nd District in the U.S. House of Representatives. This essay is adapted from his book FORTITUDE: American Resilience in the Era of Outrage, out now from Twelve.