On this Fourth of July, I can say I’m happy to be an American, but not entirely proud to be an American.
Happy, because it’s undeniably pleasant to be a citizen of the most-powerful and wealthiest nation in world history. I like my mid-sized SUV and big flatscreen TV, and greatly enjoy the high level of comfort, safety, and freedom that being American affords me and my family.
Not proud, because I am acutely aware that the garden of “American exceptionalism” was heavily watered with the blood and tears of Native Americans and blacks. Our Founding Fathers may have stood for liberty, but they didn’t include Native Americans or African Americans in their bold Declaration of Independence. Instead, they rebelled against a repressive regime and then immediately created one of their own, embarking on what they saw as a divine mission to tame the land and use its resources for profit by subduing the people who had lived on it for thousands of years before the white man’s arrival. Yes, they championed some lofty and noble aspirations, but they were also warmongers and slavers of the worst sort, and we’re still stumbling through the gloomy shadow of their legacy.
It’s important to remember that Native Americans suffered miserably when our European ancestors showed up. Foreign plagues like smallpox initially killed an estimated 45-90 million Indians, about 90 percent of their population. We couldn’t have predicted or controlled that devastation, but we could’ve prevented expansionist-minded white men from going after the rest of the Indians and their property with brutal, self-righteous vengeance.
In my home state of Colorado, for instance, 700 U.S. militia surrounded a sleeping encampment of Cheyenne and Arapahoe Indians in November 1864, and then opened fire without warning or cause. Some of the soldiers under Col. John Chivington’s command protested the surprise attack, but he urged them into battle with the cry, “Damn any man who sympathizes with Indians…Kill and scalp all, big and little; nits make lice.” And so they did, cutting fetuses out of the women while they were still alive, slaughtering infants by stepping on their heads with their boots, slicing the genitals off men and women, and decorating their horses and wagons with scalps and other body parts before parading them through Denver to celebrate the wanton murder.
Our fury against Indians knew few bounds.
For example, we went after their main food source, the buffalo, with unprecedented ferocity. A herd of some 30-60 million bison was cut to just a few hundred creatures in a couple of decades. We did it partly to sate our bloodlust, shooting them from trains and leaving their bodies on the ground to rot. We also did it to clear paths through the prairies for railroads and the commerce they fostered. But mostly we did it to starve the Indians out of existence.
It worked, too, and when the remnants of their battered tribes finally surrendered, we rounded up their people and herded them like cattle to reservations on some of our new nation’s most-barren and inhospitable lands. Many of them still live there today, often in crushing poverty, our miserable treatment of them largely forgotten or ignored by the dominant culture we established.
Blacks didn’t fare any better under American rule, and our history is tightly enmeshed with slavery. About 450,000 to 500,000 Africans were brought to North America between 1619 and 1866 to work in our homes and on our farms as slaves.
Twelve of our first 18 presidents owned slaves, nine of them while they were in office. Presidential attitudes toward blacks seem horrifying by modern standards, and hypocritical and illogical even by the period’s standards.
George Washington complained before the American Revolution that oppressive new British laws would make Americans “as tame and abject slaves as the blacks we rule over with such arbitrary sway.” Ten years after the Declaration of Independence was signed, he criticized Quaker abolitionists for fomenting unrest by encouraging slaves who were “happy and content to remain with their present masters…to leave them…”
Andrew Jackson bought his first slave in 1788, and by 1794 he owned 16 slaves and his business included slave trading.
Martin Van Buren said, “I must go into the Presidential chair the inflexible and uncompromising opponent of every attempt on the part of Congress to abolish slavery in the District of Columbia against the wishes of the slaveholding States, and also with a determination equally decided to resist the slightest interference with it in the States where it exists.”
John Tyler said, “(God) works most inscrutably to the understandings of men; the negro is torn from Africa, a barbarian, ignorant and idolatrous; he is restored civilized, enlightened, and a Christian.”
Even Thomas Jefferson, who described slavery as a “moral depravity” and was the key author of the Declaration of Independence, which argues “that all men are created equal” and are endowed with unalienable rights, to “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness,” held blacks in poor esteem. He was one of the largest slaveowners in West Virginia, with more than 600 at his Monticello plantation. He believed blacks were racially inferior and “as incapable as children.” He also wrote that slavery was like grabbing “a wolf by the ear, and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go.”
By the time morals shifted and the U.S. Congress decided to end slavery in 1860, there were 3 million to 3.5 million slaves in the South. Slavery was entrenched philosophically and economically, and the South reacted by seceding from the Union and launching a Civil War that led to the deaths of about 750,000 people, the bloodiest war in American history.
Don’t let closet bigots or modern-day historical revisionists fool you into thinking the battle was over state’s rights or money.
It’s true that 60 percent of the nation’s wealth was concentrated in the South, which contained just 30 percent of its population, and it’s true the Southern states felt the federal government didn’t have a right to tell them what to do. But in the infamous Cornerstone Address announcing the South’s secession, Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens made the foul heart of the matter perfectly clear. The Declaration of Independence’s assertion that “all men are created equal” is wrong, he said, adding that “Our new Government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and normal condition.”
Or as William Thompson, the designer of the newly controversial Confederate flag, put it, “As a people we are fighting to maintain the heavenly ordained supremacy of the white man over the inferior or colored race…”
I am not raising our ugly past on July Fourth to say America is a broken country or that today should be a day of mourning rather than celebration. We have done both bad and good since our first Independence Day in 1776, and the history of nations everywhere is littered with the corpses of failed political ideologies. Our weaknesses are unique, but not unprecedented.
We have also progressed. Tribes gained significant civil rights and independence as sovereign nations in the early 1800s, and have received some modest reparations since then. Slaves were emancipated in 1863, got the right to vote in 1869, and discrimination against blacks was legally ended during the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. Coupled with recent, hard-fought civil rights gains made by women, people with disabilities, and just last month, gay couples who won the right to get married, America is looking freer than ever.
Still, while we’re grilling hamburgers and waving sparklers today, I believe we ought to be mindful of our troubled legacy of oppression, if only because it’s recent and persistent.
What do I mean when I say racism persists?
Less than 100 years ago, entire Southern towns turned out for “spectacular lynchings,” the ceremonial torture, murder and burning alive of black Americans by whites. Angry mobs would truss up black men suspected of crimes, cut off their fingers, toes, ears, and genitals, sometimes flay them alive, and then tar their mutilated bodies and light them on fire while they were still conscious. Men, women, and children—even judges and police—attended these events like they were county fairs. Body parts were handed out as souvenirs. Food was shared, drinks quaffed. Celebratory postcards were printed and mailed to friends and family.
Just last month, Donald Trump, one of the world’s richest and most-famous men, announced his Republican presidential candidacy by calling Latino immigrants drug dealers, rapists, and killers. He wants to build a 1,989-mile-long wall on America’s border with Mexico to keep them out, like the Great Wall China built more than 2,200 years ago. He was ridiculed by some people and lost business contracts with many former partners, but also jumped into the number-two spot in polls behind fellow conservative candidate Jeb Bush.
Today, some of my neighbors are flying Confederate flags. I’m sure I’d see even more if I lived in Arizona or the Deep South. It’s part of the Mississippi state flag, and waves every day over public buildings in South Carolina, site of the racially motivated shootings of nine black men and women in June at the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston. Some state leaders have called for the flag to be taken down and banned from public buildings. But more than 115,000 people have signed a petition calling for South Carolina to secede from the Union for the second time in American history if that happens.
I can’t believe we’re even debating that flag’s sick symbolism. It’s steeped in racism and the blood of slavery, and I believe our society should strive to portray it only in that light. Not as a proud remembrance of Southern heritage. Not as a commemoration of the brave soldiers who died fighting for the South’s cause. Not even as a jaunty salute to a sort of admirable, playful juvenile, Dukes of Hazard-style rebellion. It is none of those things. It is an emblem of shame, ruination, and hatred. The flag’s heritage is wickedly corrupt, and while the Southern leaders and soldiers who died should be remembered, they shouldn’t be commemorated or revered any more than Himmler or Göring are. Nor should the old South. It was a bad place. One of the worst in history.
This is one reason—there are others—why I’m not entirely proud to be an American. But I am happy to be an American. God bless America, and I hope we all have a happy holiday. I intend to.