History, properly told, is the story of real life — complicated and messy. It is anything but inevitable.
As we celebrate the 4th of July, America’s Independence Day, we do well to honor those who came before and made this country possible. But we dishonor them when we oversimplify them, turning them into caricatures acting out a pre-scripted pageant. A false telling of history leads us to misunderstand our present.
Let us pause and reflect.
Our Founding Fathers committed treason against Great Britain when they declared independence in 1776. Franklin was right when he said, "We must, indeed, all hang together, or most assuredly we shall all hang separately." Indeed, the signers of the Declaration of Independence took great risks. A third of them served in the military during that conflict. Many of them lost their homes and property. Several were captured.
Why would these men take this drastic step? They listed 27 complaints in the Declaration, but we tend to forget that the shooting part of the American Revolution began at Lexington and Concord in April 1775, more than a year before. To this day, we still have no idea who pulled the trigger first. What happened in the intervening year? Debates, petitions, and an agonizing period of indecision.
It wasn’t until Thomas Paine published “Common Sense” in early 1776, arguing for revolution in religious tones, that public opinion in colonies that would become the United States shifted decisively in favor of war. Still many remained Loyalists, committed to the crown as British subjects. We fought amongst ourselves as well as against the British. It was messy.
Though the winners write the story, we create history as the result of our collective decisions. The stories we tell and remember are the ones involving struggle, especially when the underdog wins. But that win is never guaranteed. In the American Revolutionary War, we defeated the most powerful military in the world thanks to wily American ingenuity, effective leaders like George Washington, and help from French allies.
We fought for our rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and we celebrate these freedoms today, as we should. But the struggle continues.
On this Independence Day, as we celebrate the 56 white men who declared independence and the thousands of soldiers, sailors and militiamen from all walks of life, immigrants and adherents to diverse religions who fought for our freedoms, let’s also reimagine our future and create a larger table where all are welcome today.
We have not yet achieved Dr. King’s Dream. Not all Americans enjoy the same degree of freedom. Though we have made tremendous progress over the past 50-plus years, we are not yet truly equal and the pandemic has exposed many areas where we still must improve.
But I, for one, believe in the greatness of America, rooted in our optimistic spirit of looking to a better future and taking action to create that better world. We did it in 1917, 1932, 1941, in the Civil Rights era, and throughout the Cold War. We are strengthened by immigrants who refresh that optimistic spirit in the American psyche and we truly are better together.
Now it’s our turn to do it again — together. New Americans and generational. Black, white and every other color in the kaleidoscope of humanity.
And so, this Independence Day, let us celebrate the Declaration that stated our ideals and the war we won to establish them as the foundation of a long-lasting democratic system. Let us also consider what we might do to stand on the right side of history in our current struggles for racial equality in the midst of a pandemic and breathlessly partisan election year. We will be asked about 2020 by our children and grandchildren. What will we tell them?
I believe in Liberty and Justice for all. Let’s build a better future, together, where Black Lives Matter and where we wear face masks to protect each other from the novel coronavirus. These simple acts will protect life, strengthen liberty, and accelerate our economic recovery so we might all pursue happiness. Then, we will once again shine as a beacon of hope to the rest of the world.
Happy Independence Day!
Deborah Gatrell, West Valley City, is a candidate for Salt Lake County Council District 2. She teaches in the Granite School District and has served as a Blackhawk pilot and intelligence officer in the Army National Guard.