JISHOU, HUNAN — Since I don’t have easy access to baseball games, parades and big fireworks displays here, I have had a little time to contemplate our nation’s 233rd birthday. My mostly rambling thoughts follow.
Roughly one-fourth of my ancestors were colonists in New York, New Jersey and New England. The rest of my family emigrated from Sweden in the late 1800s. So I like to think of myself as a representative of two kinds of American: the “founders” and the immigrants who came after the nation was founded.
[The third kind are the original inhabitants. As as I know, there are no Indians among my ancestors, but my family research has turned up surprises before.]
My great x 3-grandfather served in the New Jersey militia during the Revolution, and his in-laws — mostly seamen — served in the navy (or were pirates — the distinction is a bit murky). One was held prisoner in a British warship in New York Harbor.
Unfortunately, we don’t know why they came to the colonies. My family has never been especially religious, though those colonial ancestors were Baptists and Quakers. It’s possible they came to the colonies to worship freely, or to take advantage of better farmland and fishing waters, or to break away from less-than-ideal economic circumstances in merry old England, Scotland and Wales.
The more recent immigrants’ reasons are more clear. Sweden in the 19th century was overpopulated, and farmers were just barely able to eke out a living. The state Lutheran Church was oppressive, and the government was autocratic. Millions of Swedes left for the USA and Canada, lured by promises (some unmet) of rich farmland and abundant job opportunities. Some came for religious reasons, but the majority just wanted better lives for themselves and their children.
It’s the same reason why people still come to the USA, whether legally or not.
I’m one of those weird students who actually liked history. I did not end up majoring in it, but I still study US history for fun. The colonial and Revolutionary periods are among my favorites, since I have a family connection to those times.
The development of the USA from a ragtag collection of tempestuous colonies is a fascinating story. Some of the colonies had little in common with each other. Their delegates to the Continental Congresses were a mix of personalities with a range of political philosophies. A few wanted to retain a monarchy, but most wanted a representative democracy with an elected head leader.
None — and historical evidence supports this statement — wanted a State Church. They were Christians of various stripes — deists, Unitarians, Catholics, even agnostics — but at no time did any suggest the USA have an official church or religion. When they drafted the Constitution, they drew upon mostly secular source material, and made it a point to keep religion and government separate.
The first president, George Washington, was a remarkable fellow, with the kind of humility and statesmanship lacking in many of our modern politicians. He surrendered his commission as general and commander-in-chief of the Continental Army at the end of the Revolutionary War, though he probably could have kept both appointments for the rest of his life. He returned to private life, only to be drafted as the first president under the new Constitution in 1789.
He voluntarily stepped down as president after two terms, though he could have stayed in office for as long as he was physically able. With no precedents to guide him, Washington could have made the presidency into a pseudo-monarchy, could have used the loyalty of the army to overthrow the civilian government, and could have made the USA into a newer version of an Old World country.
He didn’t. In fact, he retreated from the idea that the president has some kind of executive privilege that trumps the legislative and judicial branches of government.
Since Washington, we have had a succession of a few excellent presidents, some good ones, a few awful ones, and a lot of obscure ones. And while our history books in school focus on the presidents, we should also recognize the roles of the Supreme Court and the Congresses in shaping the nation.
And the press. Governments of all kinds hate the light of day, so the founders deliberately giving Americans the right of a free press, free assembly and free expression was a radical move. Without it, I am not sure whether the USA would be the same country we are today.
There are some in the US who would like us to believe that illegal immigrants are the biggest threat to the stability of the nation since the Brits invaded in 1812. I doubt it.
There are some who say we should make English the official language, apparently fearing those awful immigrants from the south will make us a bilingual nation. English is already the unofficial world language of communication, so the USA is not going to be fully bilingual anytime now or later. So, there’s no need to make it our “official language.”
There are some who insist we are a “Christian nation,” that the founders drew on the Bible to design our government and write our laws, and that the USA somehow holds God’s special favor. The founders would have been appalled at the merest suggestion of a theocracy; they fled those conditions.
And finally, there are some (actually most of talk radio, or so I hear) who predict that the USA is going to hell in a handbasket under the presidency of Barack Obama and a Democratic majority in Congress.
The USA has survived several inept presidencies, assassinations, corrupt Congresses, several wars at home and abroad, the Great Depression, the Cold War and orchestrated terrorist attacks. There is nothing that one man can do to bring the country to its knees.
To suggest otherwise betrays a lack of trust in our form of government, and the “American Way.” And that is more un-American than sneaking across the border, speaking Spanish, being atheist, or being the son of an immigrant African and a white American.
So, if you happen to be one of those people who actually pay attention to the radio hotheads or the talking (empty) heads on Fox News, ignore them. In fact, celebrate the birthday of the USA by boycotting them for a week, or more, … or ideally, forever.