What we mean by “all”
The Civil War
Let’s start with a simple question: Who won the (US) Civil War?
In an interview on “Pod Save America”, Anat Shenker-Osorio changed my outlook with her answer, “The United States won the Civil War.”
I would bet that most of you had the same answer that I had: “the North won the Civil War.”
She explains, “When we learned about the Civil War we learned about it as a war between North and South, which it very much wasn’t. It was a war between a seditious faction and the United States.”
If you talk about the Civil War as the North vs the South then this implies a polarization where there is something wrong on both sides of the disagreement.
Her point is that if we use that analogy to step back and view the current battle as being between Democrats and Republicans we end up that same point blaming extremists on both sides and looking for compromises where there are none to be had.
Instead, she says, we need to see that there is “a small and potent and powerful group of people who are determined to silence black, brown, indigenous, young, new Americans so that they can rule for the wealthiest few.”
This movement has found its current host in the Republican party but at one time they occupied the Democratic party. They aren’t a political movement that cares about principles - they care about power.
Check out the episode, I found her framing of so many things refreshing.
OK, here’s another US History question: What year did George Washington become president?
This past weekend we celebrated the anniversary of the founding of the United States on July 4, 1776.
Washington wasn’t president then. He was busy fighting a war.
The US were not the United States in 1776 - we just announced our plans to become an independent country.
Almost twelve years later nine of the thirteen colonies ratified the constitution with two more to follow.
The government was formed and Washington was elected in 1789.
So what is it we celebrate on the fourth of July?
In a way, we celebrate a promise.
More than sixty years later Frederick Douglas would ask “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?”
He had been a slave until he escaped at age twenty. In this speech he would describe the awful truths of being a slave in America and the “gross injustice and cruelty” and insults added to actual injuries of hearing those around them celebrate with “shouts of liberty and equality.”
The Declaration of Independence begins with a phrase that many of us know by heart.
“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.”
Who are these “all men”?
It changes for each of us.
Who of us aren’t included in “all”?
Perhaps it’s people of color.
People who weren’t born here.
People who speak with an accent or who may not speak English at all.
Maybe they draw the line at women and don’t consider them to be fully equal entitled to quite everything.
Maybe they have a line based on religion.
Maybe it’s based on where you live.
Maybe it’s based on who you love and how you express it.
Who speaks for these excluded people?
Who is the Douglass for their groups who speaks to what the fourth means to them?
In the current cultural context, dare they speak?
This year, at least near me, it seemed as if more people felt the need to set off fireworks at home.
They needed to more loudly celebrate this festival of liberty and equality.
From my house, it felt almost like warning shots. It was more of a threat than a celebration.
This threat from people who read the line from the Declaration that says “It is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government” without reading any of the surrounding text that explains that this shouldn’t be done “for light and transient causes”.
It feels to me that we are, as Lincoln said in his Gettysburgh address, “engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure.”
This war is about ensuring that “all” means all.
The gains over the past two centuries have been slow and there have been periods of setbacks after times where gains were made.
I love that we celebrate Independence Day not as the day that our country was created but on the day that we said these are the ideals that should guide us.
The ideals have remained remarkably consistent while we expand the people to whom they should apply.
As Lincoln said, “It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced [, so that] government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
Essay from Dim Sum Thinking Newsletter 67. Read the rest of the Newsletter or subscribe