Yesterday was the 244th birthday of the United States. We are in the midst of social upheaval, a pandemic we haven’t got a clue how to manage, and facing an election that will determine the viability of a democracy that has systematically been dismembered and devalued by people claiming to be patriots. We are in an economic nosedive that will take years to recover from and facing environmental catastrophe if we don’t do something about our poor land management. Actually, things haven’t changed all that much from July 4, 1776.
America in 1776 was faced with political uncertainty, loosely organized factions of secular and religious zealots, economic downturns, and catastrophic crop failures. Labor costs were at an all-time high, and a small pox epidemic was killing so many people that some Colonies required that people stay quarantined and wear masks. What we celebrate on July 4th every year is, in reality, a fictional story written by revisionists and handed down as fact. It all depends on who writes the story.
The land claimed to be discovered by Europeans between 1492 and 1600 was “discovered” by privateers and slave traders seeking to add resources to the coffers of European nobility. These “explorers” found a solidly established Confederation led by the Haudenosaunee who had lived together peacefully and in economic and environmental harmony since the mid-1400’s. Their Confederacy pulled together most of the land now known as the Midwest, the Northeast, and the Mid-Atlantic states.
By 1776, the influence of the Confederacy was such that Benjamin Franklin used their governing structure as his model for this new upstart collection of independent-minded anti-establishment (ANTIFA?) businessmen and landholders who wanted nothing more than to ditch the British Crown and their silly taxes, and just be left to their own devices. Unfortunately, “own devices” was understood to be vastly different things between the northeastern coastal merchants and the southern landholders. It all depends on who writes the story.
The geographic and economic disparities that exist between North and South today have their roots in the economic trade that sought new markets to line the coffers of the monarchies that ruled Europe at that time. The raw goods and materials that were desired by Europeans needed to be harvested, mined, and loaded by physical labor. The colonies offered an endless supply of valuable resources as long as there was cheap labor to be found. That labor was found on the African continent and harnessed by the original distribution magnates – the Sam Walton and Jeff Bezos of those times – and put to good use to insure goods got to market. According to Thomas Fleming, “In the northern colonies, . . .the top 10% of the population owned about 45% of the wealth. In some parts of the South, 10% owned 75% of the wealth.” The wealthy ran the government even then.
George Washington was a huge landholder in Virginia, as were James Madison and Thomas Jefferson. All three were slave-owners. In the North, John Hancock and James Morris were merchantmen and John Adams was a lawyer. Hancock owned slaves, but freed his and John Adams never owned slaves. They may have been considered “enlightened” by 18th century standards, but their politics and business practices reflected their stalwart defense of slavery as an economic essential. Truth be told, we were as racist and divided as we are today when we declared our independence on July 4, 1776. But we don’t learn that in school because it all depends on who writes the story.
The history I was taught in public schools during the 1950’s reflected a whitewashing of history that had gone unchallenged for generations. The words “Latino”, “Native American” and “Asian” were not found in common parlance. I was taught about “The Founding Fathers” (all sexless, white men), who met in Philadelphia and signed a Declaration with bold signatures. While we are now more sensitive to the power of naming and just how painful labels can be, how far have we come in our 244 years of maturing? It all depends on who writes the story.
Today’s students are learning about what happened in our nation’s early history by watching “Hamilton” on streaming media. My generation learned about the birth of the nation by listening to the cast recording of “1776” or perhaps seeing it onstage. My parents learned about the founding of the country by watching “Birth of a Nation” at the movie theatre. The story has legs!
But what really happened? How can we reconstruct what was in the hearts, minds, and souls of those individuals who found themselves making decisions in a world that seemed out of control? Lin Manuel-Miranda, the Puerto Rican-American who wrote the latest version of our birth story, asks an essential question, “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story?”
Our nation is 244 years-old and our story continues to be revised. New truths are uncovered. Hard evidence is no longer hidden or glossed over. At 244 years-old, we are being asked to face our shadow and bring to light not just the noble mythology, but all the shameful, ignorant, racist, aggressive, and cruel things that have been done in the name of our Country. Things that literally hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children have died for, and continue to die for. And not just the dark legacy of racism and intolerance. But also those things that have brought so many from so many different lands to our country and have made us better for it. Promises made and not yet kept, but that remain a debt unpaid and are worth keeping. Things that bind us together instead of driving us apart. It’s time we re-wrote our nation’s story.
Hamilton was a man most of us only know in passing because his face is on the $20 bill. In “Hamilton”, Miranda asks and answers the question, “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story?” by having Hamilton’s wife, Emily share his story. We learn he was someone who was a womanizer, a complicated but brilliant thinker, moody, arbitrary, and passionate. A man who had a story to be told.
Emily asks, “And when you’re gone, who remembers your name?” It is an important question. We all have a story. Maybe not one that would play on the grand stage that Hamilton strode, but certainly one that is worth repeating and memorializing. Whose names do you remember? Do you share their stories? These threads are what truly bind us as a nation. Giving voice to these stories keeps them alive and helps us reclaim truths that were buried or hidden by those whose intention was to silence others. Who lives? Who dies? Who tells your story?
“Hamilton” by Lin Manuel-Miranda is available on streaming media.