Some of the comments on my Independence Day post, like some other discussions I’ve seen, argue that we shouldn’t celebrate the Fourth at all because the Patriots weren’t consistent in their love of liberty. They kept slaves, didn’t let women vote, and were in the process of ethnically cleansing Native Americans. Many of their grievances involved interference with smuggling, an activity heavily connecting with slave-trading. And so on.
Some of this (about slavery and grabbing Indian land) is perfectly legitimate criticism. Some is hopelessly anachronistic. (I’m not aware of evidence that women felt the deprivation of voting rights as a diminution of liberty. Should we criticize the Patriots for neglecting gay rights as well?) In a history course, these debates are well worth having, and even in celebratory mode there ought to be time for reflection.
But Nietzsche was right about the use of what he called “monumental history.” If we take the critical stance to the point of rejecting our own Founding, then we weaken the basis of republican government. Moreover, if progressives in particular do so they can’t then turn around and appeal to the founding documents as authority, as Lincoln so brilliantly deployed Jefferson against Jefferson Davis.
To claim the authority of the founders and subsequent heroes in contemporary disputes is to claim the rhetorical high ground. Had the antiwar movement of the Vietnam era carried images of Lincoln – who opposed the Mexican War and paid a terrible political price for it – rather than NLF flags, it would have been harder to dismiss the protesters as unpatriotic.
Every tradition, whether political or religious, has within it resources for progress. It’s the rare case where critics are better served by utter rejection than by the attempt to forge a usable past from the materials at hand. Those who oppose the contemporary movement to establish hereditary plutocracy – eliminating estate tax, increasing income inequality, decreasing social mobility, and strengthening the political power of the wealthy few against the non-wealthy many by unleashing the full power of concentrated money in politics while weakening those institutions (trade unions most of all) that might compete with corporations and the rich in the contest for political influence – have a far better claim than the Tea Partiers to be the true carriers of the Revolutionary tradition. Why cede the high ground to the enemy?