Michael Gerson: Why We Keep This Creed (July 4th)

Roundup: Talking About History

[President Bush's speech writer until summer 2006, Michael Gerson then joined the Council on Foreign Relations as a Senior Fellow. He is the author of "Heroic Conservatism", a "first-hand, high-level account of the events of the George W. Bush years as well as his own blueprint for the future of the Republican party."]

One of the great Independence Day speeches of American history was an attack on Independence Day.

On the Fourth of July, 1829, William Lloyd Garrison-- who looked like a shop clerk and set rhetorical fires like an arsonist -- took the pulpit at the Park Street Church in Boston. Rather than celebrate, he said, Americans should "spike every cannon and haul down every banner" because of the "glaring contradiction" between the Declaration of Independence and the practice of slavery. The grievances of slaves, he argued, made the grievances of the American colonists look like trivial whining. "I am ashamed of my country," he concluded. "I am sick of our unmeaning declamation in praise of liberty and equality; of our hypocritical cant about the unalienable rights of man."

Even across the centuries, his gall is startling. But Garrison laid bare the central contradiction of the American experiment: that the land of the free was actually a prison for millions of its inhabitants.

The war that ended slavery, it turned out, did not end oppression. In "Redemption: The Last Battle of the Civil War," Nicholas Lemann recounts how armed paramilitary groups, often consisting of former Confederate officers and soldiers, conducted a violent guerrilla campaign to reimpose race-based rule across the South in the 1870s. In our own period of ethnic cleansing, local officials were assassinated, elections were overturned and resisters were massacred. Lemann tells the story of Charles Caldwell, a black state senator from Mississippi, lured to a bar for a Christmas drink and shot in the back. Staggering to his feet, he said: "Remember when you kill me you kill a gentleman and a brave man." He was then shot 30 or 40 more times.

Why love such a country? Why celebrate its birth? The answer was given from the pulpit of the Ebenezer Baptist Church on Independence Day 1965.

The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. recognized that America has a "schizophrenic personality, tragically divided against herself." But we are redeemed, he argued, by our creed, expressed in the Declaration of Independence, which manages "to forever challenge us; to forever give us a sense of urgency; to forever stand in the midst of the 'isness' of our terrible injustices; to remind us of the 'oughtness' of our noble capacity for justice and love and brotherhood." Americans, he said, believe in "certain basic rights that are neither derived from nor conferred by the state. . . . They are God-given, gifts from his hands."...

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