Ours is an enormous country. Little wonder that it is often so difficult to hold all of the disparate regions and states together. We call ourselves the United States but in reality there has always been division based on geography, economics, demographics and other aspects of sociology and psychology. Even those who share common beliefs often have different interpretations of how to reach particular goals or create shared laws. Within a single state there will be cities and towns and neighborhoods with wildly varying political philosophies. We used to call ourselves a melting pot of diversity all blended together, but if truth be told there have always been lumps in that mixture that asked us to accept a single set of views. We’ve almost always known that there were exceptions to virtually every rule that we made. It’s rather difficult to be a country that purports to be a bastion of individualism while also insisting that we march in lockstep to certain tunes. Perhaps the very nature of our nation is to attract people who do not wish to be ruled by the whims of whoever happens to be in charge at any given moment.
Our land was stumbled upon by explorers who saw opportunity in its vast open spaces. They presumed that it was theirs for the taking because the original inhabitants did not appear to be as advanced as they were. Of course we can see in retrospect that it was faulty thinking to assume that nothing actually belonged to anyone person or group when there were no contracts or written compacts. Those original settlers were indeed the invaders even though we do not like to use that kind of language when speaking of them. Thus came hordes of people seeking relief from religious persecution, economic hardship, troubles with the law, the hopelessness of being second or third sons without the chance of inheritance, those with entrepreneurial spirit. Here they saw a way to leave their troubles behind and live without the limitations placed on them in the old world. Over time they and their descendants reached all the way across the country from Atlantic to Pacific Ocean sometimes moving the original inhabitants who stood in their way.
Mistakes were made all the way around. Someone thought it was a good idea to use slave labor to work the fertile land. That was an abominable decision that was often cloaked in uncomfortable attempts to argue that the people forcefully brought from their homelands were actually better off than they would have otherwise been. There were presumptions that they were uncivilized and perhaps even too ignorant to even have the same feelings as the people who bought them and kept them as property by means of brute force. Even back at the beginning there were people who understood that such rationalizations were false and flew in the face of logic and Christian beliefs. Queen Isabella herself told Christopher Columbus that slavery was sinful when he offered to bring her a shipload of native people from the Indies as free labor. That was in the fifteenth century and yet people looked away when slavery became so ensconced in the economy that it was overlooked until the nineteenth century and the country that was barely one hundred years old broke out in civil war.
After the slaves were freed and the warring ended the country was wounded, broken, divided but the people did their best to patch things up. The freedom that the former slaves had gained was only partially honored in some places. There were still those who viewed them as lesser beings. They were more often than not segregated from the rest of society, subjugated by laws that prohibited their freedoms and their rights. At the same time the country was growing. The Industrial Revolution created a need for more workers and so word was sent across Europe that America was the place to be. A flood of immigrants game from Germany, Sweden, Austria Hungary, Britain, Ireland, and Italy, a new wave of people who had lost hope of having a chance to prosper in their homelands. They sailed across the ocean in steamships with dreams of being free but their early days were often punctuated by hard work in dreary conditions while they were taunted by those who had been here before them.
The United States of America was a sleepy country with a vast expanse until World War I when the Yanks went to Europe to help in the war that was supposed to end all wars. Suddenly the whole world took notice of the ingenuity of the country that many had believed would never make it. The country finally decided to give women the right to vote even though John Adams’ wife Abigail had pleaded with him to fight to include the female half of the country when the ink was still wet on the Constitution signed by him and the other founding fathers. It seemed as though the United States was finally earning the respect it had so often desired.
The USA was now a power player and so a newspaper editor came up with the idea of finding a national anthem for a nation that had heretofore been just fine without one. He hosted a contest in which readers might suggest possibilities and then take a final vote on the candidates. That small group of Americans might have chosen America the Beautiful, The Battle Hymn of the Republic, God Bless America, or My Country Tis of Thee but by a narrow margin The Star Spangled Banner won. When a Congressman heard of the novel idea he sponsored a bill to make The Star Spangled Banner the national anthem. Finally in the 1920’s the United States had an official song to use at gatherings. It would eventually be played at ballgames, high school graduations and all kinds of events but few people actually knew how it had come about and what the words to it actually meant.
It was shortly after World War I and in the 1920’s that racism grew across the globe and at the same time monuments of Confederate generals were erected all across the south. With Jim Crow laws restricting Black citizens more than ever the statues served the twofold purpose of whitewashing the treasonous acts of the men they represented and intimidating Blacks who were still being shut out from full inclusion in the most basic rights of citizens. The Ku Klux Klan was flourishing and fear was once again being used as a weapon to keep Blacks from being fully embraced into society.
World War II and its aftermath brought the United States of America to its highest level of worldwide respect . While the rest of the world was repairing the damage from the battles of the war America was booming. It had the infrastructures and the money to invest in progress, At the same time, almost a hundred years after being freed Black Americans still had not achieved that same rights as even the most recent immigrants from other countries enjoyed. After a years long struggle and much violence perpetrated against them a civil rights bill was finally passed in a divided Congress with pressure from a democrat President from Texas and the help of republicans from the north and midwest who would probably not recognize either the democrats or republicans of today.
Anyone who is paying attention knows the rest of the story. The immigrants continue to come from Asia and the Middle East and from Mexico and South America. The diversity of our nation has grown and grown and as it has many have become less and less inclined to appreciate or understand how much the new members of our country are just like the people who first came to the shores of this nation at its very beginnings and through the ensuing years with similar hopes and dreams. Our Black citizens continue to struggle from inequities that we too often refuse to see perhaps because admitting how much they have been wronged is a fate too painful to endure. It would mean looking at our history with an honesty that shatters so many of our pretty visions.
We are once again divided. This time it is between those who would build walls or send children brought here illegally back to places they have never seen and those who believe that we should welcome the people and cultures that seem to enrich our nation. We argue over whether or not Black citizens are being treated unfairly and discuss their protests abstractly as either lawless or peaceful. Some see confederate monuments and place names as history and others view them as an offense to human decency. There are those who would drop the Affordable Care Act in the midst of a pandemic and those who want to end such discussions once and for all with a national health insurance program that assures good health for all. We even quibble over whether or not we should have to wear masks to prevent the spread of the virus that is exerting its power over us. We question whether a national anthem that was selected on a whim is more representative of our country than the freedom of people to use it to shed light on a problem that they believe we all must face. We think that fixing our wounded nation is a matter of this or that, a simple dichotomy of rights and wrongs that pits us against each other.
Perhaps if we all took the time to move beyond the noise and the chatter and to simply concentrate on the issues at hand we might finally find a way to get things right. Perhaps a beginning might be to admit that we are not a melting pot at all and we really should not be. Instead we are a beautiful salad of individuals each of whom add flavor and beauty to the glorious mix. We are a nation built from many nations. If we begin to honor that idea and strive to value each and every person we will all share in the wealth of the ideas set out in our Declaration of Independence. July Fourth will belong to every American when we provide its ideals with compassion and equity.