Friday, July 2, 2010

On the eve of another July 4, America still has far to go

Two hundred and thirty-five years ago, 13 British colonies infuriated with mercantile restrictions and petty taxes levied on them by the Kingdom of Great Britain took first steps toward gaining their independence. As the sun rose on Wednesday, April 19, 1775, British soldiers marched from their Boston encampment to Lexington in search of a weapons cache the colonists had ostensibly hidden. Colonial minutemen were waiting for the Brits, engaging them in the first skirmish of the American Revolution.

In the years that ensued, the colonists fought for their independence. On July 4, 1776, in declaring liberty, a Declaration of Independence was adopted. Despite the fact that most of the delegates signed the Declaration on Aug. 2, 1776, July 4 is the day we celebrate the birth of our nation.

Four years after the war’s end, delegates meeting at a Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia drafted a Constitution, which was ratified on June 21, 1788. And, on Dec. 15, 1791, the 10 amendments of the Constitution’s Bill of Rights were certified.

As in 1776, life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are still central to American ideology.

However, the framers were affluent white men. Their purpose in forming a new government was not founded in a belief that human beings are born free with equal dignity and rights, but rather it was to make certain that folks like themselves enjoyed life and liberty and that there was no interference in their pursuit of happiness. The Constitution did not apply to the indigent, Native Americans or women, nor did it embrace the abolishment of slavery.

In 1776, the impoverished had to fend for themselves. American Indians were made hopelessly destitute and relegated to a state of hopeless dependency. Women did not have the same rights, legal or otherwise, as men. The Civil War did emancipate slaves, but it was not its purpose; it was an unplanned consequence.

It may not be perfect, but America has legislatively righted those wrongs. Today, we attend to the needs of the less fortunate; American Indians have been granted citizenship and tribal sovereignty; women have the right to vote; and through the Equal Rights Amendment and the Civil Rights Act of 1964, many of the loose ends have been made right.

Wisely, our founders established three branches of government, separating the powers to provide checks and balances on each, and established that government derives their power from the consent of the people. Even with greater prescience, they established that the military would be under civilian control with the President as Commander in Chief — as General McChrystal found out — while giving Congress the power to declare and fund war.

However, in celebrating the Fourth of July, we should not pat ourselves on the back — we still have a long way to go. I am not sure we have evolved to our betterment. We gained our independence, but not much else.

The United States of the 21st century, as the Britain of the 18th century, has created the most formidable, imperialistic, military power in the world — a power we have not used morally or effectively, but to our detriment.

As with our founders, affluence remains an American passion. Americans also are profligate. Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness is measured and defined by the extent Americans achieve self-gratification. We are imperialist. We believe in American Exceptionalism. We believe that in our military lies the solution to solving all conflicts. And, we continue to have the weight of unacceptable taxes levied upon us.

Except in number, scope and complexity, and the unacceptable influence of lobbyists, politicians and their politics, as with the Brits, have not essentially changed.

It seems, in many ways, America has become the Britain we so despised in 1776.