The Spirit of Liberty (Part 2)
These days, the name conjures images of fortitude and patriotism, but before 1860, Paul Revere was a relatively unknown Boston silversmith. Revere was one of about a dozen riders who rode out of Boston warning the New England countryside of the invasion of American port towns by British regulars, but by 1860, that incident and those actions had been relegated to the back pages of American history books. Then the Civil War began, and the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote "Paul Revere's Ride" to rally support for the Union against secession and slavery. Now, the name of Paul Revere is honored, or at least well-known, despite his relatively small role in American history.
The Spirit of Liberty is encapsulated in the sentence that begins, "we hold these truths to be self-evident...". And yet, no matter how self-evident those truths were when those words were written, the method of applying them was not. How to apply those self-evident truths has been fiercely debated by politicians and people of conscience ever since then, even into the modern day. It's in this debate that we are allowed to see both the owners of slaves, and of men like Benjamin Franklin and Frederick Douglass inspiring us to abolish slavery. It's in this debate that we see both the subjugation of women as second-class citizens, and of women like Sojourner Truth and Susan B. Anthony inspiring us to treat our mothers, wives, and daughters with the same dignity and respect with which we treat our fellow men. It's in this debate that we expose our shortcomings as a nation and work to overcome them.
It's in this almost 250-year debate about how to apply these self-evident truths that we have settled many starkly American arguments - most of which have involved a long and difficult struggle - because that's just who we are. We are Americans, and we are meant to engage in this debate to improve our society - civilly, democratically, and peacefully - not as enemies, but as fellow citizens. THIS is the essence of the Spirit of Liberty.
"We are now engaged," stated Lincoln, "in [...] testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived, can long stand." 160 years later, that test has become more insidious because of one over-arching idea: righteous intolerance.
"Fool that I was, a goddess with wings on her heels. All my illusions projected on her. The ideal I wanted to see."
There are some modern groups of people who look at our U.S. leaders from previous generations and, instead of seeing those qualities that inspired their generation to achieve the successes that they did, they see only the flaws that they believe should disqualify these people from our veneration. Quoting from a movie, "They've got you looking for any flaw that after a while, that's all you see." These critics maintain that to continue honoring these men and women is to condone racism. Or sexism. Or homophobia. Or any other characteristic that this modern group reviles.
Other groups of people look at the same leaders seeing only the virtues that should shield them from any such criticism. To call attention to their flaws, they say, is to hate the America that they helped to create. Their efforts would cleanse all of American history from anything that might be remotely controversial so as to shield future generations from the discomfort of learning that their heroes are also flawed human beings (just like the rest of us).
Each "side" scorns the other with their own righteous indignation, but here's what neither side will tell you: it's not a binary choice. The fact is that we can honor the good deeds of the past generations of Americans and still be critical of their flaws. But according to these groups, "you HAVE TO choose a side" because to do otherwise would be un-American. This is "tribalism", and it's something with which I wholly disagree.
"Fool that I was, little by little I burned. Maybe sometimes there might be a flaw, but how pretty the picture was back then."
About a year ago, we moved into a new house. When we sold the old house, we told the purchasing company all of the issue that we had encountered (and worked to correct) that had not been told to us when we purchased the house years before. Things like the continually-filling lake of drainage water washing away the soil underneath the house's foundation. This one issue was the cause of so many other more obvious issues throughout the house like uneven flooring, doors not fitting into their frames, and cracks in the walls. All of these more obvious issues were covered over by the previous owner in a manner that my wife had taken to calling "putting lipstick on a pig". The previous owner's use of these facades did not correct the problem. They only made the house look enough like the problems had been fixed for the next sucker (me, as it turned out) to buy the house. I suspect that the whole "it's their problem now" mentality came into play at that point.
One of the reasons that we were candid about the house's issues with our purchaser was so that they would have the opportunity to correct what we could not. We knew that, in doing so, there was a strong possibility that the purchaser could back out of the contract, but we thought it better that they have the option than to leave the house's issues to be discovered the same way that we discovered them.
"Fool that I was to profit from youthful mistakes. It's shameful to tell how often I fell in love with illusions again."
We are not a perfect country, and I hope that we never will be because every time we face our mistakes and our failures, we grow stronger. The Spirit of Liberty does not require perfection from the past - or even its semblance. It requires honesty in the present. The same is true with "Paul Revere's Ride". What Longfellow omits from his poem are some of the now-known sights that Revere or any of the other riders would have seen during their rides, such as the skeletal remains of an executed enslaved man hanging from a tree. Revere would have galloped past it, just as freedom had galloped past generations of enslaved Americans for another 100 years. That does not mean that we should stop celebrating what Revere and the others did, or stop reading Longfellow's poem. It just means that we should create new literature that is reflective of our time now.
Each generation is called upon to refresh the Spirit of Liberty; not rewrite it, but revisit it, recast it, and reclaim it. And then pass it down - cracks and all - to a new generation of Americans so that they can repair the cracks that we cannot - not to cover them up, or to pretend that they did not exist - but to continue "to build a more perfect Union."
The legend of Paul Revere continues to endure because the fight for freedom and equality for all has never ended. And we still need those Paul Reveres, those who hang their lanterns high in the steeple for everyone to see, and call on the citizens to rouse from their slumber when the Spirit of Liberty is threatened, and for the young people of our next generation to see that the story of America is now theirs to write as they carry on the time-honored tradition of debating these "self-evident truths" - and putting their faith in their fellow Americans even when they passionately disagree with them.
THIS is the "Spirit of Liberty". This is how we can be better.