American Independence Was Limited

American FlagIt’s Independence Day! Hooray! It’s the day we got independence from England. Well, it’s the day we declared independence from England. Well, it was the day that the document was ratified. It isn’t even clear whether the official document was ready to be signed for another two weeks. And then it seems to have been mostly signed in August. Although there were a number of people who were there to ratify it who never signed it at all. And at that point, it had been almost a year and a half since the war had started. And the declaration really didn’t mean much of anything in the context of the war, although it did give the English Tories a good laugh about the rich white folk calling for liberty while they held millions of Africans in slavery.

So we have another holiday of dubious importance. And we can add to this an even larger dose of American jingoism than we usually get. Despite appearances, I’m not anti-American. I love my country as I love my mother. And that means I don’t pretend that either are anything that they are not. There is a great deal to like about America. But there is a great deal to be embarrassed about. Our bombing campaign, including the two atomic bombs, against Japanese civilians was shameful. I don’t especially blame our support of despots throughout the world, but our rhetoric about liberty makes such behavior shameful. Our recent torture program that our government hasn’t even been willing to admit to is disgusting. It is still “enhanced interrogation” rather than torture. That’s like calling murder “enhanced spiritual processing.” And, of course, I don’t know how anyone can’t refrain from taking down their flags today after seeing the smiling Americans in this picture:

Abu Ghraib

I could go on and on and on. Countries don’t become dominant empires without being evil. The problem the government had with the Abu Ghraib pictures was not that these things were going on. The problem was the American people saw them. It didn’t really matter that the rest of the world saw them; they already knew in a general sense. But as usual, the government made a show of punishing a couple of low level people and sweeping the rest under the carpet. “This isn’t who we are!”

And indeed, that’s true. We are much, much worse. But that’s not to say that many of us do not try to do better. After all, that’s why atrocities like Abu Ghraib and the My Lai Massacre have to be kept from the people. Most people (not just Americans) are decent. Of course, those in power claim they do what they do for the good of the people. This is rarely true. What they do, they do for the good of their rich and powerful friends—and for themselves.

The Declaration of Independence was not a general document. It didn’t apply to women or blacks or poor whites. Most of the rich white men who signed it didn’t want to get rid of aristocracy; they wanted to get rid of English aristocracy. Men like John Adams explicitly wanted an American aristocracy. Because, you know, whoever is rich right now are the people who should be in charge forever.

Native Americans Fighting Terrorism Since 1492

But do you know who the Declaration of Independence really didn’t apply to? The native peoples. Before Europeans came, there were many millions of natives in what is now America. But by 1800, there were only 600,000. And by 1890, there were only 250,000. Not all of that was due to an intentional genocide, but quite a lot of it was. In 2000, the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) released a formal appology. It’s quite a document, because it is so not like what I hear from conservatives (and sadly many liberals as well) that wronged minority groups should just, “Get over it!” The BIA noted, “And while the BIA employees of today did not commit these wrongs, we acknowledge that the institution we serve did. We accept this inheritance, this legacy of racism and inhumanity. And by accepting this legacy, we accept also the moral responsibility of putting things right.”

Here is a small bit of that document:

We must first reconcile ourselves to the fact that the works of this agency have at various times profoundly harmed the communities it was meant to serve. From the very beginning, the Office of Indian Affairs was an instrument by which the United States enforced its ambition against the Indian nations and Indian people who stood in its path. And so, the first mission of this institution was to execute the removal of the southeastern tribal nations. By threat, deceit, and force, these great tribal nations were made to march 1,000 miles to the west, leaving thousands of their old, their young and their infirm in hasty graves along the Trail of Tears.

As the nation looked to the West for more land, this agency participated in the ethnic cleansing that befell the western tribes. War necessarily begets tragedy; the war for the West was no exception. Yet in these more enlightened times, it must be acknowledged that the deliberate spread of disease, the decimation of the mighty bison herds, the use of the poison alcohol to destroy mind and body, and the cowardly killing of women and children made for tragedy on a scale so ghastly that it cannot be dismissed as merely the inevitable consequence of the clash of competing ways of life. This agency and the good people in it failed in the mission to prevent the devastation. And so great nations of patriot warriors fell. We will never push aside the memory of unnecessary and violent death at places such as Sand Creek, the banks of the Washita River, and Wounded Knee.

Nor did the consequences of war have to include the futile and destructive efforts to annihilate Indian cultures. After the devastation of tribal economies and the deliberate creation of tribal dependence on the services provided by this agency, this agency set out to destroy all things Indian.

This agency forbade the speaking of Indian languages, prohibited the conduct of traditional religious activities, outlawed traditional government, and made Indian people ashamed of who they were. Worst of all, the Bureau of Indian Affairs committed these acts against the children entrusted to its boarding schools, brutalizing them emotionally, psychologically, physically, and spiritually. Even in this era of self-determination, when the Bureau of Indian Affairs is at long last serving as an advocate for Indian people in an atmosphere of mutual respect, the legacy of these misdeeds haunts us. The trauma of shame, fear and anger has passed from one generation to the next, and manifests itself in the rampant alcoholism, drug abuse, and domestic violence that plague Indian country. Many of our people live lives of unrelenting tragedy as Indian families suffer the ruin of lives by alcoholism, suicides made of shame and despair, and violent death at the hands of one another. So many of the maladies suffered today in Indian country result from the failures of this agency. Poverty, ignorance, and disease have been the product of this agency’s work.

Perhaps surprisingly, this makes me proud. I don’t expect anyone or any country to be perfect. But the first step to improving our behavior is to admit our wrongs. I so wish that we could outlaw the chant, “We’re number one!” For one thing, in many bad ways, we are number one. I would replace that chant with something that many of us would embrace, “We’re trying to be better!” Because all the proclamations of how great we are only arrest us in our efforts to improve.

If freedom is what Independence Day is really all about, then we should see the Declaration of Independence as a deeply flawed beginning of a very long road we have traveled and must continue to travel. We have very far to go.

See Also: Previous Independence Day Articles

2013: Four Independence Days
2012: Happy 4th: American Imperialism
2011: I Felt Like a Gringo

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

0 thoughts on “American Independence Was Limited

  1. I just get sick of every holiday being "support the troops," which once meant "be on the side of grunts even if you hate war because they have it tough and were spit on after Vietnam which was wrong" (even though the "spit-upon thing is is myth). Now it just means "better support the troops if you like freedom," where "freedom" equals enough gasoline for your car. Or not having evil Muslims tell you thow to live (evil Christians are preferable, I guess.) Support the troops or kiss your bacon goodbye, ingrates.

    Memorial Day, the 4th, and Veteran’s Day are all "support the troops" holidays. Thanksgiving is quickly becoming such. Even Christmas, which used to have the dubious virtue of being devoted to tithing for consumerism, cause if you don’t, the economy will collapse. The only non-empire holidays we have left are the candy one and the alcoholism one.

    Personally I’ve always thought all workers should get to choose a set number of holidays a year. People could pick their own religious ones, or birthdays, or the baseball opener, or whatever. Once a year (like open enrollment for health plans) you could submit your holiday list — days you either got full pay for skipping, or in case of emergency, your employer was forced to pay you through the nose for making you show up.

    Did you know that the average Middle Ages peasant (in Catholic countries) got far more days off than we do? It was because of all of the saints’ days; a way the Church strengthened its support among the poor (and hence real power with the rich as a bargain for keeping the poor mostly docile.) And back then labor was far more necessary than it is today . . .

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