The birthday of America?

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Dr. Ivory Phillips

No, we are not confusing this week’s date. We realize that this edition of the Jackson Advocate covers June 24 – June 30. There may be confusion because many people figured that we were going to refer to July 4th as the birthday of America. Instead, however, we are raising a question about the actual birth of America.

According to the document which currently governs the country – the Constitution – one could quote its preamble, “We, the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect Union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America,” and cite June 21st as the country’s birth date, since America has been governed by this Constitution since that date in 1788.

Of course, many would object to that date, pointing out that the 13 English colonies had been existing independent of England since July 4, 1776, or at least since the end of the Revolutionary War on September 3, 1783. They would indicate that these United States had governed themselves under the Articles of Confederation for nearly 12 years before the Constitution was written and adopted. For them, the birth date should be July 4.

Still, others would object on the grounds that apparently there was enough unity of mind for those colonies to have come together and staged a revolution in the first place. Should the birthday then be considered as May 14, 1607, since that was the date of the first permanent English colonizers in what is now America? The other colonies, according to their reasoning, simply followed suit, making the entire unit America. By starting with Virginia in 1607, they would simply ignore or write-off the Roanoke Colony, which began in 1585 because it did not last as an initiator of this democratic experiment.

Finally, does one consider the birthday November 21, 1620, the date of the signing of the Mayflower Compact? This early document embodied the spirit of democracy or majority rule, upon which America is said to have patterned itself as it developed.

With these dates and events in mind, it may be easier to understand the reason why the question of America’s birthday is being raised. (It may also help put in context the differing opinions surrounding the emancipation of the enslaved Africans in America. In that case, there is January 1, 1863, when the Emancipation Proclamation was issued. There is June 19, 1865, when the last group of enslaved people were notified that they had been freed. There is December 6, 1865, when the Thirteenth Amendment was ratified.) For Americans in general, the question remains, despite the fact that over the years most American leaders have agreed to celebrate July 4th as the birthday of America. For them, it carries the most weight.

At the same time, there is another factor to contend with, whether the birthday is considered July 4th or otherwise. The fact is that it is a real buy-in to white supremacy to accept any of the dates above and ignore the fact that this land was here and being occupied by the Native Americans thousands of years before the English arrived as settlers. The only defense or way around that reality is to say that it was not then called America nor looked upon as a single political entity. (Every victor has his/her manner of rationalizing. That is what happened in this case.)

Aside from and even more important than the matter of what to decide on the calendar for this political creature is contemplating what is the essence of America. Unlike most other countries, America has become a concept rather than just a body of land, or even just a political entity. Most countries have historically developed as an ethnic group or body of related groups. From its beginning, however, America may have been governed by Anglo Saxons, but there were always the Native Americans, Jews, Africans (both enslaved and free), Asians, and other Europeans. It has always been a land of natives and immigrants pursuing an ideal and an opportunity, making it unique and laying the foundation for the concept that followed.

For sure, America cannot be defined or described just by the declarations or professions of those who have political dominance. It must also be viewed by how the people, especially the majority, have conducted themselves relative to one another and to other groups. Finally, it can also be judged by what it commits itself to become.

In the Declaration of Independence, we hear the so-called Founding Fathers declare for equality and the protection and advancement of human rights. Across the years, nevertheless, we witness the different and most negative treatment of non-white people, of non-male people, of non-wealthy people, and of others who are seen as different in other ways. Which is America?

Considering both of those realities, one must look at what has been done to reconcile the two – what has been declared or professed as American and what has been meted out in by the American people. To assist with that task one, can look at the relevant amendments to America’s Constitution, especially, amendments 1-10, 13, 14, 15, 19, 24, and 26. These can be seen as attempts to advance and protect human rights and democracy. They represent America in the making. To the extent that the letter and spirit of these amendments are being implemented, one can say that the American ideal is being fulfilled or perfected. To the extent that individuals, states, and/or other political bodies are able to circumvent their implementation, America’s development is being stymied or arrested. If that condition becomes permanent, America as an ideal is still-born.

With that thought in mind, we would say that America is a concept whose fulfillment is still in the process of becoming. America is what has been built-up in the minds of freedom-loving people over the last several hundred years. Since the country has adopted the concept and frequently re-affirmed rather than repudiate it, while at the same time been painstakingly slow in expanding it, one can say that this is an awfully slow, complicated child-birth. Neither its birth nor birthday have arrived yet.

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The birthday of America?

By Dr. Ivory Phillips
July 11, 2021