I went for a walk this morning. Along the way, I saw an African-American man coming out of his two-story, two-car garage home. We said good morning as we passed, two neighbors just being, well, neighborly.
Anticipating tomorrow’s Fourth of July holiday, it occurred to me that at the time of the first public reading of the Declaration of Independence, this simple encounter could have been life-threatening for both of us—I, a single woman walking down the street alone (even in broad daylight), would have been at risk of attack, robbery, rape, or, at minimum, being socially ostracized; he a black man actually speaking to a white woman, looking her in the eye and smiling? Well, I shudder to think of the punishment meted out in Maryland at that time for such an “offense.”
So often in our political debate, partially informed people speak reverentially of the “Founding Fathers.” They rant about what the Founders said, what the Founders thought; what the Founders meant as if the Founders all said, thought and meant the same thing—and, even more dangerously, as if the Founders were somehow infallible.
I’ve augmented my limited knowledge of the time, gained drudgingly in high school and college American History classes but more joyfully of late, by reading Thomas Jefferson’s autobiography and the letters of John and Abigail Adams.
History books make the work of creating a new nation and its unprecedented system of government seem so neat, so cleaned, so organized, as if there were grand consensus and inevitability to it all. Reading the words of the people who actually lived it—sometimes written while they were living it—shows nothing could be further from the truth. I’ve come to see just how messy it was, how much infighting and bickering and bitter, mean rhetoric dominated the day (see Reason TV’s “Attack Ads, Circa 1800” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y_zTN4BXvYI for some examples—and these guys brought forth the Declaration of Independence together!). How strong the opposition to separating from Great Britain was, how certain each side was that if their way wasn’t followed, it would be the end of all that was dear.
Even when they came to a decision, it was anything but clean. Let’s face it, these men before whom so many bow made what we now hold to be terrible decisions in the name of political expediency. Abigail Adams chastised John for his failure to include women as equals in the new republic and was greeted with the written equivalent of a pat on the head. Slavery persisted until it was rent from the land in blood. And today, women still earn on average 77 cents on the dollar to their male counterparts; racism rears its ugly head in more ways than I can bear to count. Our founders’ choices continue today as scar tissue on ancient wounds, preventing our societal body from moving freely and pain-free.
But they also made great decisions, constructing a system that allows us to alter the framework of our government to accommodate our expanding and ever-changing understanding of what it is to be human. I assert that they could not have achieved that greatness without also including the mistakes. Without allowing slavery to continue, without ignoring the rights of women, there would have been no Declaration. There’d be no Fourth of July holiday, with all its pomp and circumstance.
So why do we so fear political compromise? Why are we so certain that our way and only our way is right, that the “other side” is wrong? Why do we descend into petty bickering, cruelty, belittling, and out-and-out meanness?
Perhaps it’s just in our DNA. At least, until we evolve beyond it.
Either way, I take comfort in knowing my forefathers and mothers made mistakes. In each moment, it seems, they simply did the best they could. Sometimes they didn’t get all they thought was right, and it turned out to be a good thing they didn’t. Other times, they made choices for which we continue to pay the price.
In every moment, we stand upon both the stunning successes and the abject failures of the past. And that unlikely combination still gives me the great privilege of walking down the street alone and sharing a smile with a neighbor.
Maybe it’s time for us to trust the process just a bit more; to take the long view of history and embrace the possibility that our choices don’t have to perfect, that our “side” doesn’t have to get everything it thinks it wants, that perhaps we can give a little and still gain a lot—together.