What are our guiding precepts? By which lamp do we light our way?
Langston Hughes asked a simple question in 1951.
The founding myths of this country are not of twins suckled by a wolf, nor of a magic sword held in wait for the true king, nor of a God leading his people out of slavery, but of, on the one hand, a religious sect fleeing persecution and, on the other, rampant commercial speculation and exploitation of a vast, empty continent, beginning again with a compromise: a declaration of independence and a war for, of all things, Liberty. We are old enough now, 244 by some reckonings, 413 by others, that we could find the clear-eyed courage to face the past, and the present. We are old enough to comprehend that Santa Claus does not fly around delivering the newest plastic parcel from Mattel; we can certainly see the chasm between ideals and practice.
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.The Declaration of Independence (July 4, 1776)
Other minds have left their voices for us to hear. One such is Frederick Douglass who, in 1852, addressed the Rochester Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Society, presumably a sympathetic audience, on the subject of the Fourth of July. It is stern stuff.
The existence of slavery in this country brands your republicanism as a sham, your humanity as a base pretence, and your Christianity as a lie. It destroys your moral power abroad; it corrupts your politicians at home. It saps the foundation of religion; it makes your name a hissing, and a bye-word to a mocking earth. It is the antagonistic force in your government, the only thing that seriously disturbs and endangers your Union. It fetters your progress; it is the enemy of improvement, the deadly foe of education; it fosters pride; it breeds insolence; it promotes vice; it shelters crime; it is a curse to the earth that supports it; and yet, you cling to it, as if it were the sheet anchor of all your hopes. Oh! be warned! be warned! a horrible reptile is coiled up in your nation’s bosom; the venomous creature is nursing at the tender breast of your youthful republic; for the love of God, tear away, and fling from you the hideous monster, and let the weight of twenty millions crush and destroy it forever!Frederick Douglass, “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?” (July 5, 1852)
And then there was a war, a strange one where the losers on the field won the peace. As is the way in politics, power shifts over time. Somewhat.
But look, there is a seed.
that all men are created equal
And invariably there remains a struggle over oppressive power. The downtrodden do not often win, not wholly, but they struggle, sculpting the rock splinter and chip. So that Hughes could send up a plaintive cry,
Let America be America again.Langston Hughes, “Let America Be America Again” (1935)
Let it be the dream it used to be.
Whom is he asking? We, the people.
That the present demand for justice could be considered borderline treasonous, if not positively un-American, indicts those of us who let our comfort blind us to the suffering of the afflicted.
It is for us, the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work,Abraham Lincoln, address at Gettysburg, Pa., November, 1863
to pick up our tools, lend whatever we may, to the task. Lend our voices to the song.
I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear,Walt Whitman, “I Hear America Singing” (1860)
Those of mechanics, each one singing his as it should be blithe and strong,
The carpenter singing his as he measures his plank or beam,
The mason singing his as he makes ready for work, or leaves off work,
The boatman singing what belongs to him in his boat, the deckhand singing on the steamboat deck,
The shoemaker singing as he sits on his bench, the hatter singing as he stands,
The wood-cutter’s song, the ploughboy’s on his way in the morning, or at noon intermission or at sundown,
The delicious singing of the mother, or of the young wife at work, or of the girl sewing or washing,
Each singing what belongs to him or her and to none else,
The day what belongs to the day—at night the party of young fellows, robust, friendly,
Singing with open mouths their strong melodious songs.