Endowed by Our Creators With a Propensity for Squabbling

For the Valley News
Wednesday, July 04, 2018

East Montpelier

Many years ago, stealthily fishing a wooded brook trout stream in the spring, I watched two bears, unaware of me, following a logging road. Every 10 or 20 yards they stopped to snarl and fight, and then walked on. I thought at the time how much quicker they'd get along if only they got along.

Of all our national holidays, the one we’ve been celebrating this week is probably the most confused. Memorial Day, Thanksgiving, Veterans Day (né Armistice Day) — they're all pretty easy to scope out, if we wish to. But Independence Day, while on its surface seeming to be a simple celebration of our declaration of independence from Great Britain, is freighted with ambivalence for many of us who can rehearse the history of our republic.

I think it's important to remember that our British progenitors were profoundly disgruntled, rebellious and dissatisfied people. Granted that some were upper-class entrepreneurial types who hoped to make their fortunes in the New World, most were grumpy lower- and middle-class folks sick to death of the multiple autocracies of crown, church, caste and bureaucracy. They first tried emigrating from Britain to the Netherlands, but found it too attractive to their kids, who, like kids everywhere, itched to try a more liberal lifestyle. Finally, after a nearly disastrous series of leaky vessels, seasickness, and pestilence, they slogged tentatively ashore in Massachusetts Bay at the worst time of the year, and by the skin of their teeth survived — half of them, anyway — till spring.

They weren't the first Americans by a long shot; others had been here for millennia. But just as the native Americans had no natural immunity to European diseases, they also had no understanding of the European notion of property. Peter Minuit, for example, “bought” Manhattan Island for about $24 in trade goods, but the nomadic natives who “sold” it didn't realize at first that it wasn't theirs to use anymore.

The British routed the Dutch (giving us the term Janke, a derisive word for a Dutchman and the origin of "Yankee"). The colonists, still British subjects — though of diminishing zeal — fought the natives on their frontiers and the French to the north. Fred Anderson's The Crucible of War is a valuable resource for this period. Essentially, the new American ideal of individuality and meritocracy conflicted profoundly with the British caste system (only a gentleman could be an officer, no matter how ill-suited to the task) and colonists smarted under slights from self-appointed social betters. Add to the mix a few unpopular taxes, and within a couple of years a few daring colonials were fomenting rebellion.

We're all familiar with the next events: Boston Massacre, Tea Party, Lexington and Concord; cannons sledged overland from Ticonderoga; and on July 4, 242 years ago, the approval by the Second Continental Congress of the declaration we celebrate this week. It essentially tells the king of Great Britain he's pushed us too far and abused our good will. We're fed up, and we're not going to take it any longer.

That was the easy part, and it would be tempting to say that our patriotic forefathers and mothers represented America at its best. But this is where the ambivalence creeps in. If, for example, you were a patriot and coveted the property of a neighbor who argued for rapprochement with the crown, you contrived to have him denounced and driven away to Quebec — after which you cheerfully assumed the deeds to his properties. In addition, among his properties, as likely as not, were slaves, who weren't granted the rights of citizenship. The franchise was afforded to only white male property owners.

We chased the British home (with significant help from the French), fought them again a few years later (they burned the White House, but we won); and then, deprived of a common enemy, began to fight among ourselves. A growing public revulsion against the institution of slavery — Vermont, during its brief stint as an independent republic, was the first to ban it — led to an abyss of difference much like the one today, which ended in civil war. It was during this time that Theodore Parker, a Unitarian minister, published some of his sermons, which included this: "I do not pretend to understand the moral universe, the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways. I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. But from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice." Martin Luther King, Jr., repeated the idea, almost wistfully, more than 100 years later.

That curve today is all but imperceptible. The awful caps urging us to make America great again assume an idyllic America that exists only in the imaginations of their wearers. There's no doubt we've made strides in our never-ending efforts at liberalization; but as long as any of us try to thwart the progress of others, America, for all its chest-beating, will remain unfulfilled and as brutish as those two bears.

Willem Lange can be reached by email at willem.lange@comcast.net.