Every 4th of July, I make sure to fit in a few minutes to put on one of my favorite Dave Alvin songs, “4th of July” (which is better known as an X song). It’s a bittersweet tale of two lovers trying to make their way through life. After pulling a holiday shift, a man comes home from work to find his lover crying in the dark and he ponders their fate:
On the lost side of town
In a dark apartment
We gave up trying so long ago.
On the steps I smoke a
The Mexican kids are shooting
Hey, baby—it’s the fourth of July.
So dry your tears
And baby—walk outside
It’s the 4th of July
Written in the midst of the Reagan eighties, this song captures the reality of many Americans’ lives—the struggle, pain, and alienation beneath the patriotic bombast of “morning in America.” For those who’ve given up trying, the 4th of July is just another day. Only the “Mexican kids shooting fireworks” reminds them that they are supposed to be happy.
I love this song because it’s about the struggle to be happy in contrast to the affectless official “happy” of the holiday. It celebrates the forgotten losers trying to get by rather than the sanctified heroes. Like all great American music, it’s a kind of blues–a personal catastrophe expressed lyrically, an effort to work through the tragedy of everyday life in order to transcend it. Work it out, then, “Walk outside, it’s the 4th of July!”
Declarations of Independence: An Episodic History
If you know your history, you know it’s not just alienated punk rockers who have observed our nation’s birthday with something other than the usual perfunctory patriotic gestures. In 1852, Fredric Douglass, on a more political note, ranted:
What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer; a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciation of tyrants brass fronted impudence; your shout of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanks-givings, with all your religious parade and solemnity, are to him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy — a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices more shocking and bloody than are the people of the United States, at this very hour.
For Douglass and his fellow abolitionists, the Declaration of Independence, not the Constitution was the key founding document of the United States. It was the unfulfilled promise of American democracy. The creed they could point to and say, “Live up to this.”
Others on the outside of American life have evoked the spirit of the Declaration (America’s birthday song) by noting the discrepancy between the American creed and American deeds. In 1848, the suffragists at the Seneca Falls Convention declared their independence à la Jefferson:
When, in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one portion of the family of man to assume among the people of the earth a position different from that which they have hitherto occupied, but one to which the laws of nature and of nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes that impel them to such a course.
We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men and women are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; that to secure these rights governments are instituted, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. Whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of those who suffer from it to refuse allegiance to it, and to insist upon the institution of a new government, laying its foundation on such principles, and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shown that mankind are more disposed to suffer. while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same object, evinces a design to reduce them under absolute despotism, it is their duty to throw off such government, and to provide new guards for their future security. Such has been the patient sufferance of the women under this government, and such is now the necessity which constrains them to demand the equal station to which they are entitled. The history of mankind is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations on the part of man toward woman, having in direct object the establishment of an absolute tyranny over her. To prove this, let facts be submitted to a candid world.
The history of mankind is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations on the part of man toward woman, having in direct object the establishment of an absolute tyranny over her. To prove this, let facts be submitted to a candid world.
He has never permitted her to exercise her inalienable right to the elective franchise.
He has compelled her to submit to laws, in the formation of which she had no voice . . .
Now, in view of this entire disfranchisement of one-half the people of this country, their social and religious degradation–in view of the unjust laws above mentioned, and because women do feel themselves aggrieved, oppressed, and fraudulently deprived of their most sacred rights, we insist that they have immediate admission to all the rights and privileges which belong to them as citizens of the United States.
Before Seneca Falls, in 1829, the Working Man’s Party issued their own Declaration, which also mimicked the Declaration of Independence but then went on to note that working people needed their own party because “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” were things that “the rich enjoy exclusively.” In The Rights of Man to Property, Workingman’s Party founding member Thomas Skidmore explains why this is so, trying to refine the Jeffersonian creed along the way:
Of all these, no man, more than Mr. Jefferson, deserves to be considered, as possessing in his own mind, not only “the standard of the man,” but the standard of the age. If there was any one capable of ascending to first principles, it was he; and if it was not to be expected of him, how was it to be expected of any one else? Yet Mr. Jefferson speaks of the rights of man, in terms which when they come to be investigated closely, appear to be very defective and equivocal. I do not mean, that he thought or meant them so; for it is evident that the contrary was the fact. Let us quote him, however; let us weigh his expressions; let us arrive at his intentions in the most legitimate manner: and then see, if I am borne out, in my declaration. If I am, I shall be sustained. If I am not, I shall fail, and deserve to do so. He says: —
” 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.”
These are his words in the declaration of American Independence.
Whoever looks over the face of the world, and surveys the population of all countries; our own, as well as any and every other; will see it divided into rich and poor; into the hundred who have every thing, and the million who have nothing. If then, Mr. Jefferson, had made use of the word property, instead of “the pursuit of happiness,” I should have agreed with him. Then his language would have been clear and intelligible, and strictly conformable to natural right. For I hold, that man’s natural right to life or liberty, is not more sacred or unalienable, than his right to property. But if property is to descend only to particular individuals from the previous generation, and if the many are born, having neither parents nor any one else, to give them property, equal in amount to that which the sons of the rich, receive, from their fathers and other testators, how is it established that they are created equal? In the pursuit of happiness, is property of no consequence? Can any one be as happy without property of any kind, as with it? Is even liberty and life to be preserved without it? Do we not every day, see multitudes, in order to acquire property, in the very pursuit of that happiness which Mr. Jefferson classes among the unalienable rights of man, obliged to sacrifice both liberty and health and often ultimately life, into the bargain? If then property be so essential and indispensable in the pursuit of happiness, as it appears to be, how can it be said, that I am created with an equal right to this happiness — with another, when I must purchase property of him, with labor and suffering — and when he is under no necessity to purchase the like of me at the same costly price? If we are created equal — how has he the right to monopolize all, or even an undue share of the property of the preceding generation? If, then, even the rights of liberty and life, are so insecure and precarious, without property — how very essential to their preservation is it, that “the pursuit of happiness” — should be so construed, as to afford title to that, without which, the rights of life and liberty are but an empty name?
And Skidmore’s criticisms of the “empty names” of American rights was preceded by Shay’s Rebellion where the Massachusetts farmers fighting debt prison and the erosion of their traditional, community-minded way of life at the hands of the Coastal merchant class that included many of the former revolutionary founding fathers rose up against the new American elite. As historian David P. Szatmary notes in Shays Rebellion: The Making of an Agrarian Insurrection, “the Rebellion represented the reaction of subsistence farmers against an intruding commercial society.” From Revolutionary France, Thomas Jefferson observed of Shay’s Rebellion that, “[W]hat country can preserve its liberties if their rulers are not warned from time to time that their people preserve the spirit of resistance? Let them take arms. The remedy is to set them right as to facts, pardon and pacify them. What signifies a few lives lost in a century or two? The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is its natural manure. Our Convention has been too much impressed by the insurrection of Massachusetts: and in the spur of the moment they are setting up a kite to keep the hen yard in order.”
Of course we know that Jefferson’s tolerance for rebellion was not shared by others at the Constitutional Convention and Madison’s desire to protect “the minority of the opulent against the majority” prevailed. But even Jefferson’s notion that the rebels’ class-based grievances were based on “ignorance” has been proven wrong by history. As Alexander Keyssar notes in his important work The Right to Vote, “class tensions . . . constituted the single most important obstacle to universal suffrage in the United States from the late eighteenth century to the 1960s.” With the ever-expanding gap between the rich and the poor and the decimation of the political power of working people in America, it seems clear that the struggle for real democracy certainly didn’t end with the Voting Rights Act.
Jefferson was also wrong for compromising and allowing the hard anti-slavery language that condemned human bondage as a crime against human nature to be taken out of the Declaration. He was also too morally weak to free his own slaves—even though many of his neighbors had done so. That said, the eloquence of his words about liberty and equality were, as one of my best history professors once said, “political dynamite” planted in the foundations of the country, waiting for others to light the fuse.
Today we’re drifting back toward the kind of plutocracy that the Populists railed against at the turn of the 19th century when they compared the Robber Barons of their time to the king of Jefferson’s era. It was wealth against Commonwealth, they said, and time for a new American Revolution that would give power to the people. Take that Wall Street. Hey baby, it’s the 4th of July—even for those on the lost side of town.
I’ll be off for the next month but back in early August—happy summer, dear reader.