Two-hundred and thirty-nine years ago, fifty-six men met to commit an act of sedition. Weeks before, five of them had drafted a statement announcing and explaining the crime they were committing against their government to the civilized world, and those fifty-six men had come together in the early days of July to confirm their treasonous intent.
The crime they committed was a divorce at gunpoint: the thirteen British colonies on the eastern seaboard of the North American continent that these fifty-six souls had been elected to represent were fighting to divest their colonies of the British Crown’s increasingly restrictive governance. They sought no bloodshed, but they knew the British Empire would not willingly allow the colonies to become independent entities without conflict, and they wanted the reasons for that conflict recorded for posterity.
We Americans commemorate that conflict – which we refer to as the American Revolution (the British call it the “American War for Independence”) – every July 4th by reenacting the carnage of the cannonades with foreign-manufactured fireworks. Of course, many Americans don’t realize that their pyrotechnic playtime symbolizes those bloody battles that birthed a nation. For them, popping fireworks is simply a fun holiday tradition that looks pretty and scares their pets.
Last year, my sister and I sat on the porch outside the home of some of her friends and watched the neighborhood fireworks displays. While I stared at the shimmering exhibition exploding before me in the West Texas summer sky, I pondered the meaning of the word independence. Why is it so important to us? Why did the founders of this country – that august assembly of enlightened men whose souls were no less flawed than our own, who we Americans proudly praise as pure paragons of liberty and justice – commit the high crime of treason against their former government for it? Why did they have to kill so many of their former countrymen and sacrifice so many of the lives of those serving under them to obtain it?
Webster’s 1828 dictionary (itself a product of an American “Founding Father”, the lexicographer, Federalist author, and textbook publisher Noah Webster, Jr.) first defines the noun independence as “A state of being not dependent; complete exemption from control, or the power of others”. The fifty-six delegates of the Second Continental Congress in Philadelphia who adopted the United States Declaration of Independence on 4 July 1776 sought political independence from the British Empire for multiple reasons, chief among them King George III’s heavy taxation of the American colonies and the colonies’ total lack of representation in British Parliament. The colonists initially attempted a half-hearted reconciliation with King George, but the attempt failed. Ultimately, the colonists believed that independence – complete exemption from the control of King George III and the British Parliament – was the only means the colonies had for future progress and prosperity.
Of course, all of the aforementioned is historical fait accompli. Over the 238 years since the ratification of the Declaration of Independence, the concept of independence has come to mean so much more to Americans than freedom from political oppression.
As Noah Webster originally defined the term, independence also means, “A state in which a person does not rely on others for subsistence; ability to support one’s self,” and “A state of mind in which a person acts without bias or influence from others; exemption from undue influence; self-direction.” These ideas form the essence of the so-called “American Dream”: every individual’s inborn and inalienable rights to “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness,” however each individual defines it.
An American citizen can work any job they are qualified for, provided the citizen can get hired. If that citizen is not qualified, then the citizen can find ways to train or educate themselves enough to qualify for the job they want. An American citizen may be falsely accused of a crime, but they are guaranteed a fair and imperial trial that can exonerate them of all guilt. An American citizen is free speak their mind, live any lifestyle they choose, and subscribe to any belief system they desire without fear of persecution or reprisal. In America, you can do what you want, say what you want, and be what you want.
That’s the theory, anyway. The American Dream hasn’t always worked that way, and it doesn’t always work the way we think it should.
For some – especially women, minority groups, and some foreigners – the Dream has been more like a nightmare. African Americans were originally brought to this nation in chains; they did not know the “blessings of liberty” en masse until the Reconstruction Amendments (the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments) were adopted between 1865 and 1870, and the full benefits of those amendments were not guaranteed to African Americans with the support of the American legal system for another ninety-five years. For one-hundred and forty-four years of American history, women were not allowed to vote in elections until the Nineteenth Amendment was passed in 1920. Native Americans, whose ancestors made their homes on these shores long before the arrival of European settlers, would not be recognized as United States citizens until the Indian Citizenship Act of 1924, but they would be denied their full rights as citizens in many states until the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the Indian Civil Rights Act of 1968, and the American Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1978. The rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender individuals in the United States are still under debate.
The true beauty of the American Dream
As the fireworks danced before my dazzled eyes, each brilliant bombette screaming toward the stars then dying out like Icarus striving for the Heavenlies, I remembered the words written by Francis Scott Key in 1814:
O say can you see, by the dawn’s early light,
What so proudly we hail’d at the twilight’s last gleaming,
Whose broad stripes and bright stars through the perilous fight
O’er the ramparts we watch’d were so gallantly streaming?
And the rocket’s red glare, the bombs bursting in air,
Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there,
O say does that star-spangled banner yet wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?