On This Independence Day, Celebrate And Reflect

On a rainy July 4, 1863, the fate of a once unified nation had all but been decided. The Confederate Army of Northern Virginia was in retreat, having been defeated at Gettysburg by the Union Army of the Potomac. Some would believe it was ironic that a once united nation would find itself divided, engaged in a battle on the day normally reserved for America’s yearly Independence Day celebration. Hardly.

It was a predetermined destiny born out of our nation’s original sin of slavery that brought us to Gettysburg. Sadly, to purge our nation of this inhumanity we would again have to call upon our soldiers to bear the burden of not only defending our land, but to free a people held in bondage. It was clear to many this was a time when we needed to rise above our better selves and honor the resolve ordained within America’s birth certificate, the Declaration of Independence.

To achieve this, we would have to ask our soldiers to fire upon our fellow countrymen. To right an injustice, we would need to engage in another cruelty, civil war. What our Founding Fathers could not achieve, and where following generations would only serve to pervert further, now rests at the feet of the American soldier. Time and again the American soldier had been pressed into the service of our nation, but this time was different. The Union soldiers carried with them the heavy weight of a fractured nation as they marched into Gettysburg. The significance of July 4, 1776, and 1863, are bound by two different events on the American timeline: one of birth and the other a matter of our survival as a whole nation.

Looming large over Gettysburg were the words “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.” Some of our Founding Fathers tried to move us away from slavery when they gathered to eventually deliver the U.S. Constitution, but they failed.

Our failure set in motion our future fate. It was naïve to believe the foundation of slavery would just fade away. If history has taught us anything, it is that those who look at the world with a dark heart seldom see the light without force.

You will find no mention of Gettysburg written within the Declaration of Independence or U.S. Constitution. But Gettysburg is there, hidden within our failure, omnipresent for those enlightened enough to understand the magnitude of the depravity of slavery. Not every soldier took to the battlefield at Gettysburg believing they were defending slavery or trying to end slavery. But that is exactly what they were doing.

Staring across from each other at Gettysburg were American soldiers, briefly identified in history as Confederate or Union, but Americans by birth or choice. Their division was defined by more than the color of their uniforms or the types of battle flags they carried, but only one side presented themselves on the battlefield with a moral simplicity, even if they did not realize it at the time, and that would be the Union Army.

Purge from your mind the narrative that the Confederate Army was justified in this conflict, and that this was a matter of “states’ rights.” I fully understand the complexity of this conflict and know some confuse lesser grievances the Confederacy held against the North as a prime driver for the Civil War.

Outside of slavery, the Confederate grievances were minor, and unto themselves would not have resulted in armed conflict. The unvarnished truth is the Confederacy was fighting to maintain the institution of slavery. Period.

Let us neither sugarcoat nor devalue what we should be reflecting upon when we gather on Independence Day. History has a way of either providing clarity or impairing our vision. Revisionism and the purging of history are two sides of the same coin. It falls upon our eyes to see the truth. No one day or single event defines us as a nation.

The small space I am provided each week can hardly do justice to the complexity of our journey as a nation, nor can my short time with you fully convey the indignities and injustice that is mankind’s history. It is easy for all of us to claim the moral high ground today, just as those in the future will find it easy to cast judgment upon us. But that is not the intent of this piece.

Our Founding Fathers set the bar high when they delivered onto a much different world the Declaration of Independence. They hoped a more enlightened nation would emerge and seek to fulfill the promise of the Declaration of Independence. They had faith that each generation would strive to be a “more perfect nation (U.S. Constitution)” knowing one day “that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom (Gettysburg Address)” for all men and women.

Independence Day is our opportunity to celebrate not only our birth but our ability to persevere. The Declaration of Independence set us on our path as a nation, and as tragic as the Civil War and Gettysburg were, they serve to remind every one of us what we do not want to be as a nation. We should neither whitewash nor purge our history, but we must learn from it.

On this Independence Day, celebrate the birth of our nation, but also reflect upon the events of Gettysburg. Remember for a brief moment in our history we were truly a divided nation, in every sense of the word, yet we managed to endure, still struggling today with our imperfection, but stronger from the journey.

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