Well, it’s not quite July 4 in this neighborhood, but it will be soon. This year, I have extremely mixed feelings about this holiday. Am I grateful to live in the US of A? Prior to 2016, I most likely would have answered yes without hesitation, despite the fact that I was certainly aware of the vast inequalities that lie underneath the surface of “we the people” and “all men are created equal.” This year; however, it’s going to take me a long time to answer that question. So I will digress a little.
“Normally” on July 4, I nominally celebrate by watching the movie version of the Broadway musical 1776. I discovered this musical shortly before the actual bicentennial, when I was in high school and becoming active in theater and drama. A friend of mine had the album of the Broadway show and she raved about it and thought I would enjoy it. I did. Later, as a senior, in my first attempt at set and costume design, I chose that play, creating a set of movable ramps and levels, and sketching out the costumes and finding fabric swatches in my mother’s ample scrap bags.
Still later, I introduced my mother to the movie and it became one of our Fourth of July traditions to watch it together. When I first met my roommate, when we worked together at the HMO, I discovered she was a musical theater junkie and 1776 was one of her favorites. In fact, we once regaled the entire medical staff with our spontaneous rendition of “Sit Down, John” out of nowhere, simply because we could.
One of the things I like the most about the film/play is that it does not ignore the fact that slavery was an issue in the forming of this country from the beginning. Jefferson, in listing his grievances against King George III, apparently had passages that referred to the “cruel war” he had waged against “Persons of a different People who never offended him…” In the film, this leads to one of the most powerful performances I have ever seen, “Molasses to Rum to Slaves” performed by John Cullum. If the hair doesn’t stand up all over your body when you watch this, you have no soul. Cullum plays Edward Rutledge, delegate from South Carolina, who wants the above passage stricken from the Declaration, stating that the South’s “peculiar institution” of slavery is a “cherished way of life” and the song points out that people in the North may not own slaves but they certainly profit from the procurement of them by the triangle trade.
After the song, Rutledge and the delegates from all the Southern states walk out, and Ben Franklin tells Adams that if they want the resolution on Independence to pass, they will have to take out the mentions of slavery. Adams rails and refuses, but Franklin says establish America first and then deal with the rest. And “the rest” is history.
Now I wonder. I understand that what those men were trying to do nearly 250 years ago had never been done before. I understand they wanted to be “united” in their break with England, and thereby create a single new country of independent states. But what would have happened if Adams had his way and refused to budge on the slavery item? It’s pretty certain that the south would have left the table right then, and we might have had a civil war before we even had a country. What would that outcome look like? Perhaps we would have a continent that had a Canada that came down to the Mason Dixon line, and a Southern States of America. Would the SSA still practice slavery today? Would the rest of the world have allowed that to carry on? The slave trade was officially ended in 1807, carried out until 1811, but slavery itself was legal until the Emancipation Proclamation in 1862, and in some places until Juneteeth, when the news finally got to Texas. So, if the South had left the Continental Congress and there had been no Revolutionary War, would we have had the migration west? Or would the land mass that is now one country so desperately divided by race, religion and political beliefs have been carved up into different governments, fiefdoms, etc. I’m not one of those people who can extrapolate very well, so I have no idea. But I know we would be looking at a very different “America” if that had happened. Would it be better or worse? Who can say? But taking the time to think about it is sobering. I wonder if one more day or two of argument and exhortation on the behalf of those “Persons of a different People” might have changed everything about what’s happening today. Perhaps we wouldn’t be celebrating “independence” at all but something even greater: The recognition of the humanity of ALL people who live on this planet and perhaps that sometimes interdependence is greater than independence.