This Sunday is Independence Day. Let us enlarge the joy of independence beyond a colonial insurrection a long time ago.
It is human nature to rebel against authority, especially unjust authority. Our hymn “Where Is Our Holy Church” contains the line:
What is Independence?
Independence is a wonderful thing. It’s a form of liberty contained within the larger concept of human freedom.
For a young person, it means being able to make one’s own decisions, to begin taking control of one’s own life from one’s parents. This usually happens over time, but sometimes it happens all at once. The legal process of becoming an emancipated minor, if successful, makes one independent immediately.
Independence is having a car. Now you can go where you want and when you want. What a joy.
Becoming financially independent is a very good thing, but it takes some doing, and seems to require some luck, and usually getting help is required.
Owning your own company is an excellent independence. The only downside is that the demon employer can become yourself, and you can find yourself putting in 50-60 hour weeks. This is not the only common cost of independence. One can miscalculate and find that your independence has come too soon.
Becoming a political Independent confers a kind of freedom. Bernie Sanders of Vermont is the longest-serving Independent in Senate history, and with Angus King of Maine, is one of the only two.
We are almost free of the strictures of COVID, and that feels like an injection of independence.
Independent filmmakers make some of the best, most-needed films, because they are more free of the financial constraints of the movie-making business.
United States Independence
Today is Independence Day. One this famous date, the fourth of July, 1776, 245 years ago, the Second Continental Congress proclaimed the 13 American colonies independent of the control of, and subordination to, and colonial-style exploitation by, the Kingdom of Great Britain.
With the defeat of General Cornwallis at Yorktown, Virginia, the new American republic was established, and there was great relief and great celebration. No more English King in Parliament. No more English nobles. No more King-appointed governors. No more American taxes sent across the sea to London. No more English control of who enters the former English colonies, and no more English control of where the new arrivals must settle.
Inequality in Independence
It is sobering to remember that the independence, the freedom from coercion these Colonists sought was quite limited, as Dave’s reading earlier pointed out. Only propertied White men got the full benefit, and everyone else got less or nothing. It didn’t make womenfolk independent, nor men without property, nor indentured men or women whose contract of indenture had not expired, nor transported criminals, nor, of course, the enslaved.
However, the ringing affirmations of the Declaration of Independence fueled movements for equality, here and abroad, and gradually “all men are created equal” came to include women, and men lacking property, and people in all states of voluntary and involuntary servitude, and finally, the enslaved.
Thomas Jefferson’s Imperfect History
Thomas Jefferson, despite his genius and defense of the separation of church and state, and contribution to the Bill of Rights and its adoption, was a slaveowner, and it is muttered he had “troubling” views of Native Americans and women. And anyway, he wasn’t really a Unitarian. His views about race and class were common then, but are troubling now. Jefferson has been pretty much “canceled,” as the current term has it, within our denomination. He is no longer in our pantheon. The UU District named for him was renamed the Southeast District in 2011, by enthusiastic vote of that District. Oh, alright, but let’s not forget the good things.
President Kennedy remarked at a gathering of Nobel laureates in 1962, ” I think this is the most extraordinary concentration of talent, human knowledge, that has ever been gathered together in the White House, with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone. Someone once said that Thomas Jefferson was a gentleman of 32, who could calculate an eclipse, survey an estate, tie an artery, plan an edifice, try a case, [tame a wild] horse, and dance the minuet.” And we can add, he could write a pretty good Declaration of Independence.
The Louisiana Purchase
Among other things not already mentioned, he seized an opportunity – and ended a threat – that not everyone recognized, and negotiated the Louisiana Purchase with Napoleon, who desperately needed the money for his wars in Europe, and on the high seas. And for the young United State, Jefferson added to the work of the American Revolution with the Louisiana Purchase, by freeing us from one of the most important of the many constraints placed on us by the mother country, for Jefferson’s act removed English control over who got to go west.
Jefferson made it possible for America to extend itself from sea to shining sea. Bad luck for the Native Americans and the Mexicans, but it set the stage for future greatness of the USA. By the way, we should remember that “greatness” does not mean “goodness.” Greatness refers to size, not virtue. The Great War, the Great Depression, the Great Famine, the Great Lakes, the Great Barrier Reef, the Great Wall, and so on.
Jefferson-Jackson dinners used to be an annual fundraiser for the Democrats, but a majority of State Democratic Parties have renamed it. Fine with me, especially as regards Jackson, who engineered the Trail of Tears, a consequence of his Indian Removal Act of 1830. It’s been an easy call for many of us regarding replaced Jackson on the $20 bill with Harriet Tubman. She had an independent way about her; she famously carried a pistol on her rescues, and used a sharp-shooter’s rifle during the War. She gave freedom to the dozens of enslaved people that seh brought north on the underground railroad.
The Courage to Take Risks
Because of the fearsome risks, it took extraordinary courage for the so-called founding fathers to sign the Declaration. They were offering “Our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor.” George III appears silly on the stage in Hamilton, but his government and military men were very serious people indeed. I learned in my research that five signers were caught by the British and fatally mistreated. Twelve of the signers had their houses sacked and burned, two lost their sons in the war, and one had both sons captured. Nine of the fifty-six signers died from wounds or hardships from the war.
It is fitting, therefore, that on this day, we imagine their courage and suffering, and honor them and their families.
We must always remember too, that no matter how much progress has been made toward honoring the promises of those ideals – and it is better than it used to be, and getting a little better all the time – no matter the progress, we still have, in Robert Frost’s famous line, “promises to keep, and miles to go before we sleep.” That doesn’t mean we can’t celebrate what we did, and how far we have come since.