At Passover, we ask a famous question: Why is this night different from all other nights? This past July 4, we asked a different, perhaps more difficult, question: Why is this Independence Day different from all other Independence Days?
There are many plausible answers. Because of the man in the White House, perhaps. Because of the statues turned to rubble in the streets, surely. Because of the invasion of a virus no one seems to know how to cure or prevent, almost certainly. Because of a sense of national exhaustion, no doubt about it.
For one reason or another, or maybe for all of them, it was an Independence Day like no other.
At the White House, Donald J. Trump presided over an Independence Day celebration that possessed many of the elements of a traditional commemoration. At your house, it was probably different. Fewer guests, if any. A lonesome barbecue rather than a huge buffet on a metal fold-up table that groaned with holiday delicacies, perhaps the traditional New England July Fourth salmon, perhaps a medley of salads. For the first time in years, I am guessing, you may have had leftover wedges of watermelon. Maybe a few ears of corn sat on the platter, uneaten and, alas, unwanted. There may even have been a few slices of blueberry pie remaining, the syrupy sweet wine of the berries expanding with the hours across the pan.
The president sounded some traditional themes in his holiday remarks at Mount Rushmore, but he attracted the most attention when he talked about the people he did not like. The people who do not like him either ignored him or deplored him, probably mostly the latter. The country was divided even on the one day – along with Thanksgiving – it is supposed to be united.
But whether friend or foe of the president – truly, there is no third category in this year of controversy, contention, and the coronavirus – the long Independence Day weekend served a vital function. It focused the mind.
It forced us, for example, to ask – if not exactly to answer – important questions. What is the nature of citizenship? What is the nature of national loyalty? What elements of our national life attract us? Which repel us? How do we deal with history, and with hypocrisy? What is our national character? What is character in our political life?
These questions are enough to set off fireworks at any family gathering. Especially this year, when the other kind of fireworks were mostly canceled or curtailed.
We are both playing out our national character and redefining it as we examine our past, and as we set the country on an uncertain future. This is a nationwide moment of introspection, when we question our loyalties and evaluate what about our country we respect and what about it we revile. These are profound questions, and it was well that we were in social isolation to contemplate them.
In other years, the cardboard patriotism of our rituals – the red, white, and blue bunting, the blare of the brass section in a downtown parade, the reading of the first few lines of the Declaration of Independence but seldom much more of Thomas Jefferson’s greatest work – sufficed. Not this year.
This year, we wondered about the resiliency of our liberties and the nature of the presidency. This year, we wondered about the endurance of our national institutions and traditional alliances and worried about the survival of our political civility. This year, we looked at our heroes from a different angle, in part because some of them lay in rubble in the streets.
Not since Reconstruction, for example, has the country devoted as much thought to the character of Ulysses S. Grant, whose statue was toppled in San Francisco amid questions about his views toward slavery. Grant worked among slaves and owned one he received as a gift from his slave-owning father-in-law who he eventually freed. He also defeated the Confederacy in a military conflict over the survival of slavery. Is he hero, or hypocrite?
This reevaluation of Grant has a Jewish dimension as well. His General Orders No. 11 of 1862 forced Jews in a wide swath of Kentucky, Mississippi, and Tennessee to leave their homes and abandon their businesses within 24 hours. That very year he banned Jews, whom he suspected of being cotton smugglers, from traveling south of Jackson, Miss. Does that brand him as a hopeless anti-Semite – the Haman of the Union? Or was he at least partially redeemed while running for president in 1868, when he said his actions came “without thinking” and then, as the 17th president, appointed more Jews to office than any previous chief executive and became a global spokesman for the human rights of Jews, especially in the perilous lands of Russia and Romania?
“The United States,” he wrote, “knowing no distinction of her citizens on account of religion or nativity, naturally believes in a civilization the world over which will secure the same liberal views.”
And so this is the Independence Day when we began to confront racism, privilege, and the complexity of the human character, to say nothing of the complexity of our national character.
In a famous line from his abolitionist newspaper The Liberator, William Lloyd Garrison said of his passion to end slavery: “I am in earnest – I will not equivocate – I will not excuse – I will not retreat a single inch – AND I WILL BE HEARD.” That sentence from January 1831, with its upper-case bellow, is encountered by every high school student who studies the run-up to the Civil War. What they don’t encounter is the sentence that follows:
“The apathy of the people is enough to make every statue leap from its pedestal, and to hasten the resurrection of the dead.”
Leaving aside for another day the question of the resurrection of the dead, let us – all of us, those who support the toppling of statues from their pedestals as well as those horrified by it – take consolation in the fact that in America today, there is hardly any apathy anymore. That is the Independence Day difference in 2020. That is what made this July Fourth different from all the others of our lifetime.
David M. Shribman received the 1995 Pulitzer Prize for his writing on American political culture. A North Shore native, he was executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette for 16 years and led the newspaper’s coverage of the Tree of Life massacre that won the 2019 Pulitzer Prize.