It was 1776. Over two days, I interacted with scores of people while “enlisting” them for the Maryland militia. Quite a bit of pen work was involved, and my quills and skills (such as they are) got a serious workout. I even repointed a couple of quills in the field — a first, and necessary when the “recruiting” includes handing them over to a motley assortment of harried parents, urchins and random passersby to sign the muster roll.
But there were more serious matters to consider, too, specifically the question of how to interpret a site connected with both enslavement and the Declaration of Independence.
Let me be clear: I love my country. I love it as much as anyone who views initiatives such as the New York Times’s 1619 Project and the teaching of critical race theory as threats. But I also love history and believe the histories of too many Americans have been left untold, while much of the rest has been prettified to make the more privileged among us feel better about ourselves.
So I found myself explaining, for example, that the Declaration itself lists among King George’s sins that “he has excited domestic insurrections amongst us” — a direct reference to the escape or revolt of enslaved African Americans. And further, that the Southern colonies that depended on the labor of enslaved people would not have agreed to sign the Constitution without representation in the House based on partial credit for such “property.”
Moreover, while I like representing a defender of our independence, I also know that as a militiaman I served as the muscle of the 18th-century White middle class, equally ready to browbeat striking dock workers, despoil indigenous peoples and repress the first sign of resistance among the enslaved. An honest interpretation requires embracing the moral ambiguity of participating in that day’s systemic racism.
That’s not what many have learned, nor perhaps what they want to hear on their day off. But were I to fail to mention it, I would be betraying the memory of those less-remembered Americans, as well as that of the fellow I would have been nearly 250 years ago. He wasn’t a two-dimensional “patriot” entirely composed of virtues, but a faithful servant of his community at both its best and its worst.
Ideally, one presents these truths without shame for what can’t be changed, and with an invitation to reflect on today’s realities in light of the lingering damage. Because it’s quite possible to love our country while allowing for new, critical narratives just as we love others despite their faults because of their saving virtues.
And one truth about the United States is that we all should know enslavement was an unmitigated evil with toxic consequences to this day, and that an “independence” and “republic” in which only a small number of White male property owners wielded power was rife with hypocrisy, violence and oppression.
Yet my job doesn’t end there. Because the other truth is that we still love the United States because its virtues include existential promises that can be neither effaced nor ignored: All people are equal, a democratic republic is the optimum form of government, and a government of “we the people” is the truest, most effective way to collectively achieve the essential goals of the “common defense” and “general welfare.“
Our shortfalls wouldn’t matter so much in other countries because the same promises aren’t the very reason for their existence. And it’s the commitment to these promises that makes us Americans.
To recoil from examining the gap between the promises and the reality is an American trait, too — perfectly natural, though not as likely to move us toward an ever more perfect union. Examining the faults and shortcomings accompanying those promises shouldn’t divide us or make us hate each other. Such examination is a basic function of citizenship. And it comes with the responsibility to overcome our imperfections and carry on the eternal struggle for equality.
Immersing ourselves in the fullest version of our history is one way to take responsibility. Another is to keep the essential promises we make to each other as fellow citizens — and to keep each other honest about it.