State of Disunion
The Actual Heirs to American Independence
While it may feel like democracy itself is dissolving beneath us, the resurrection of this country won’t come from the Supreme Court or Congress. That power belongs to us.
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The Fourth of July didn’t feel like a holiday this year. In the wake of this late session of the Supreme Court, we have had to confront the contradiction between the stated principles of the nation and the brutal and insufficient practice of them. To celebrate the nation’s birthday felt like an act of grandiose self-delusion: What is there to commemorate in a country that doesn’t recognize our citizenship or humanity?
This, of course, is not a new question for Americans to confront. In the years before the Civil War, free Black Americans would celebrate the holiday on July 5th, as a sign of the lateness and limitations of their freedom. For, of course, the very same men declaring their equality and rejection of tyranny on July 4, 1776 held, collectively, thousands of human beings in perpetual bondage. This moral failure set the baseline for the modern usurpation of natural rights, as the new reactionaries use this founding hypocrisy as the excuse for their revanchism. Treat the Founders as gods, and even their mistakes must be etched into stone.
These extremists would love for us to believe that the men who established this country never meant for us to have an expansive definition of equality, for the nation to include dignity and input from women, Native peoples, or the descendants of enslaved people. They insist upon holding 1776 inviolate, so they can define oppression as transcendent genius while encasing both the Founders’ collective imagination and their biases in amber. In this story, the rest of us—everyone not a white Christian-raised straight, cisgender man—are deviations whose needs and wants are interfering in the natural order.
This is a seductive narrative for its adherents, especially when paired with their legacy of political dominance. It is a neatly packaged affirmation of their own superiority, and a source of discouragement and malaise for the rest of us. So it is a good thing that it simply isn’t true.
The first tell is the elaborate and often self-contradicting theories designed to maintain this fiction. In 1832, this thinking contorted the arguments of the founding into the right of a state to nullify federal law, despite all of the very obvious reference to the supremacy of the federal legislature. In 1860, this movement argued that states could unilaterally leave the Union over a fairly held (for its time) presidential election. And now we see them twist and obliterate plain language and clear concepts—original intent for some over others; rejection of the simple text of the 15th Amendment, and the appalling decimation of the Establishment Clause—all to serve the permanent installation of their own power.
In contrast, those of us left on the lower rung of this hostile hierarchy have a much stronger case for our version of the country. We tell the story of men, not gods, and the limits of their perspective. We interrogate their flaws as much as we do their successes, recognizing unlike our opponents, that the Founders’ virtues matched their atrocities. We do not insist upon the perfection of the Constitution in line with the men who wrote it, defended it, and voted for it. We are not the inheritors of a supreme doctrine, but of a dream of a country waiting to be made real.
In our corner, we have not the willful denial of the slaver but the resilience and determination of the enslaved. We are not afraid of the impotence or loss that has come with the expansion of citizenship, but rejoice in the incredible accomplishments that come from working together. We are not trapped in the past of our ideals, rather committed to the improvement of them.
Perhaps it is true that the Founders never intended for us to be part of this country—but we made it for us anyway. We were the abolitionist who fought for the end of slavery and the Radical Republican who enshrined its death into law. We were the suffragette and the agitator for civil rights. We fought for Double Victory against the forces of fascism, built the equipment that stopped them overseas, and created an impenetrable code to protect US secrets. When we had the chance, we preserved the irreplaceable ecosystems of this continent, and when we were inspired, we launched men safely to the moon. We created the art and music and style that was exported to the world and remains the core of our cultural influence.
It is us—the forgotten and marginalized and ignored—who are the true heirs to the best this nation has offered, and we will be again.
Because on July 4th, I don’t think only of a sweaty day in Philadelphia, but of a Confederate army in retreat and Union control of the Mississippi. On that same date in 1863, Robert E. Lee’s battered Army of Virginia trudged away from Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, dragging behind them their permanently shattered dreams of invading the North and forcing a peace settlement. Meanwhile, across the country, Ulysses S. Grant broke the city of Vicksburg after a monthlong siege, securing the last Confederate holdout on the Mississippi, thus taking the major river and severing the false nation into two parts. This day, like the July 4th 87 years prior, wasn’t the codification of what this nation would become, but it made possible the progress that would follow.
This history reminds me that the Fourth of July isn’t the peak of American excellence; it is merely the inception point. We can choose our own legacy to cherish every anniversary, remembering that we are not beholden to a single memory or a single version of this country. It is worth taking a day, every year, to acknowledge and celebrate what we know to be true: We do not belong to them, and neither does this nation.
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