Sunday, July 4, 2010

The National Narrative and the Fourth of July

Happy Independence Day. I saw a great article in a local news source revisiting the whole Jefferson being reduced in textbooks scandal (not being able to link to the local news source, I give you Gawker instead). The best response, I think, comes from recent Onion headline: Area Man Passionate Defender of What He Imagines Constitution to Be.

We're all guilty of it. We all remember different traditions of the Constitution as upholding the best of our American spirit, whatever we feel it to be. You'll hear very little about the 3/5ths Compromise. It's not part of the usual narrative.

However alluring downplaying Thomas Jefferson as a Founding Father would be, I do think there's an opportunity for the Tea Party to work their values into the founding myth more strongly without needing to detract. Particularly, rather than isolating the Framers of the Constitution (whose expressed purpose was to recreate a government with more centralized powers and effectiveness, able to levy taxes and redistribute wealth and resources) and preaching some "returning to the Founding Fathers", I think they could use this holiday to highlight their real forebears: the Anti-Federalist Founding Fathers.

There is a more powerful argument to say that, for instance, many of the fears of Patrick Henry ("Give me liberty or give me death!") and Sam Adams (key to both the Tea Party and the Boston Massacre) had for the new Constitution have come to pass. I don't particularly think Adams, Washington, or Madison would be shocked or horrified by our government, if they had the time to look through the 200 years of history they missed since their deaths. But Patrick Henry and Sam Adams and their contemporaries would go insane, tear their hairs out.

Furthermore, I think that bringing those fears and criticisms of the Constitution into the daylight would be a net positive for patriots who want to reflect on the meaning of America. Rather than tossing out the baby with the bathwater, examine both sides of the coin.

For instance, Thomas Jefferson may have separated church and state, but he also believed in constant revolution ("The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants") and was the godfather of the strain of legal thinking that provided the foundation for the South's secession. And of course the easiest pot-shot to take at him is that he owned slaves and had illegitimate children with them.

So as you have your hot dogs and launch your illegal fireworks (seriously, Brooklyn?), take a moment to think of the checks and balances that make our country strong, and the long divided history our national narrative has been -- oh screw that, go have fun!

Happy independence day.

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