‘A Fourth of July Commentary’, July 4, 2000 by, Howard Zinn, howardzinn.org
‘Writing a column to appear in the July 4, 1975, issue of the Boston Globe, I wanted to break away from the traditional celebrations of Independence Day, in which the spirit of that document, with its call for rebellion and revolution, was most often missing. The column appeared with the title “The Brooklyn Bridge and the Spirit of the Fourth.”
“In this year 2000, I cannot comment more meaningfully on the Fourth of July than Frederick Douglass did when he was invited in 1852 to give an Independence Day address. He could not help thinking about the irony of the promise of the Declaration of Independence, of equality, life, liberty made by slaveowners, and how slavery was made legitimate in the writing of the Constitution after a victory for “freedom” over England. And his invitation to speak came just two years after the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act, committing the national government to return fugitives to slavery with all the force of the law.
So it is fitting, at a time when police are exonerated in the killing of unarmed black men, when the electric chair and the gas chamber are used most often against people of color, that we refrain from celebration and instead listen to Douglass’ sobering words:
“Fellow citizens: Pardon me, and allow me to ask, why am I called upon to speak here today? What have I or those I represent to do with your national independence? Are the great principles of political freedom and of natural justice, embodied in that Declaration of Independence, extended to us? And am I, therefore, called upon to bring our humble offering to the national altar, and to confess the benefits, and express devout gratitude for the blessings resulting from your independence to us?
“What to the American slave is your Fourth of July? I answer, a day that reveals to him more than all other days of the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him your celebration s a sham; your boasted liberty an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciation of tyrants, brass-fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade and solemnity, are to him mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy — a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation of the earth guilty of practices more shocking and bloody than are the people of these United States at this very hour.
“Go and search wherever you will, roam through all the monarchies and despotisms of the Old World, travel through South America, search out every abuse and when you have found the last, lay your facts by the side of the everyday practices of this nation, and you will say with me that, for revolting barbarity and shameless hypocrisy, American reigns without a rival….”
‘The Brooklyn Bridge and the Spirit of the Fourth’, hz.org
‘In New York, a small army of policemen, laid off and angry, have been blocking the Brooklyn Bridge, and garbage workers are letting the refuse pile up in the streets. In Boston, some young people on Mission Hill are illegally occupying an abandoned house to protest the demolition of a neighborhood. And elderly people, on the edge of survival, are fighting Boston Edison’s attempt to raise the price of electricity.
So it looks like a good Fourth of July, with the spirit of rebellion proper to the Declaration of Independence.
The Declaration, adopted 199 years ago today, says (although those in high office don’t like to be reminded) that government is not sacred, that it is set up to give people an equal right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness and that if it fails to do this, we have the right to “alter or abolish it.”
The Declaration of Independence became an embarrassment to the Founding Fathers almost immediately. Some of George Washington’s soldiers resented the rich in New York, Boston, and Philadelphia, profiting from the war. When the Continental Congress in 1781 voted half pay for life to officers of the Revolution and nothing for enlisted men, there was mutiny in the New Jersey and Pennsylvania lines. Washington ordered two young mutineers shot “as an example.” The shovelfuls of earth covering their bodies also smudged the words of the Declaration, fives years old and already ignored, that “all men are created equal.”
Enslaved blacks in Boston took those words seriously, too, and, during the Revolution, petitioned the Massachusetts General Court for their freedom. But the Revolution was not fought for them.
It did not seem to be fought for the poor white farmers either, who, after serving in the war, now faced high taxes, and seizure of homes and livestock for nonpayment. In western Massachusetts, they organized, blocking the doors of courthouses to prevent foreclosures. This was Shay’s Rebellion. The militia finally routed them, and the Founding Fathers hurried to Philadelphia to write the Constitution, to set up a government where such rebellions could be controlled.
Arguing for the Constitution, James Madison said it would hold back “a rage for paper money, for an abolition of debts, for an equal division of property, or for any other improper or wicked project…” The Constitution took the stirring phrase of the Declaration, “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” and changed it to “life, liberty and property.” The Declaration was only a historic document. The Constitution became the law of the land.
Both documents were written by whites. Many of these were slaveholders. All were men. Women gathered in 1848 in Seneca Falls, New York, and adopted their own Declaration: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men and women are created equal…”
The Constitution was written by the rich, who set up a government to protect their property. Gerald Ford is still doing it. They say he is a “good guy.” He certainly has been good to big business. He has arranged for gasoline prices and heating bills to go up while the oil companies make enormous profits. He vetoed a bill to allow an interest rate for homeowners of 6 percent while the nation’s ten biggest banks made $2 billion in profits last year.
Unemployment, food, and rent are all rising; but $7 billion in tax breaks went to 160,000 very wealthy people last year, according to a congressional report.
No wonder the spirit of rebellion is growing. No wonder that even police, paid to be keepers of law and order and laid-off when they have served their purpose, are catching a bit of that spirit.
It is fitting for this Fourth of July, this anniversary of the Declaration of Independence.”
From Chapter 6, “Means and Ends,” in The Zinn Reader: Writing on Disobedience and Democracy.
From 1970: “Transcript of my opening statement in the debate at Johns Hopkins. It was included in a book published by Johns Hopkins Press in 1972, entitled Violence:
The Crisis of American Confidence. – Howard Zinn, via Zcomm.org, ‘The Problem is Civil Obedience’; three passages from a lengthy treatise:
“And our topic is topsy-turvy: civil disobedience. As soon as you say the topic is civil disobedience, you are saying our problem is civil disobedience. That is not our problem…. Our problem is civil obedience. Our problem is the numbers of people all over the world who have obeyed the dictates of the leaders of their government and have gone to war, and millions have been killed because of this obedience. And our problem is that scene in All Quiet on the Western Front where the schoolboys march off dutifully in a line to war. Our problem is that people are obedient all over the world, in the face of poverty and starvation and stupidity, and war and cruelty. Our problem is that people are obedient while the jails are full of petty thieves, and all the while the grand thieves are running the country. That’s our problem. We recognize this for Nazi Germany. We know that the problem there was obedience, that the people obeyed Hitler. People obeyed; that was wrong. They should have challenged, and they should have resisted; and if we were only there, we would have showed them. Even in Stalin’s Russia we can understand that; people are obedient, all these herdlike people.
But there is another part of the law that doesn’t get ballyhooed- the legislation that has gone through month after month, year after year, from the beginning of the Republic, which allocates the resources of the country in such a way as to leave some people very rich and other people very poor, and still others scrambling like mad for what little is left. That is the law. If you go to law school you will see this.” [snip]
Well, that is our topic, that is our problem: civil obedience. Law is very important. We are talking about obedience to law-law, this marvelous invention of modern times, which we attribute to Western civilization, and which we talk about proudly. The rule of law, oh, how wonderful, all these courses in Western civilization all over the land. Remember those bad old days when people were exploited by feudalism? Everything was terrible in the Middle Ages-but now we have Western civilization, the rule of law. The rule of law has regularized and maximized the injustice that existed before the rule of law, that is what the rule of law has done. Let us start looking at the rule of law realistically, not with that metaphysical complacency with which we always examined it before.” [snip] the finale:
“What we are trying to do, I assume, is really to get back to the principles and aims and spirit of the Declaration of Independence. This spirit is resistance to illegitimate authority and to forces that deprive people of their life and liberty and right to pursue happiness, and therefore under these conditions, it urges the right to alter or abolish their current form of government-and the stress had been on abolish. But to establish the principles of the Declaration of Independence, we are going to need to go outside the law, to stop obeying the laws that demand killing or that allocate wealth the way it has been done, or that put people in jail for petty technical offenses and keep other people out of jail for enormous crimes. My hope is that this kind of spirit will take place not just in this country but in other countries because they all need it. People in all countries need the spirit of disobedience to the state, which is not a metaphysical thing but a thing of force and wealth. And we need a kind of declaration of interdependence among people in all countries of the world who are striving for the same thing.”
In his ‘A Fourth of July Like You’ve Never Seen It Before’, by Mike Ferner at Counterpunch, the author features Zinn’s final speech in Wellfleet, Massachusetts before his death.
“…by examining what he called America’s “Three Holy Wars,” specifically the Revolution, the Civil War and World War Two, “Three wars in American history that are untouchable, uncriticizable…” as he characterized them.
If something’s unquestioned, it means we’re not thinking about it, Zinn said. But the historian was quick to add that his reason for doing so is not to learn what ‘really happened’ in the past. “The past is past,” he exclaimed. “The important thing is what does it tell us about today…and about what we might do in the world? There’s a present and a future reason for going into the past.”
He advised doing something never done in history textbooks: put each of these wars on its own balance sheet – costs on one side, benefits on the other – and then make a judgment.
Without that examination, he said, we and our grandchildren will be prone to accept wars as possibly good. “Because once you have a history of ‘good wars’ fought for good causes to point to, you have a model…it’s possible to have good wars. And maybe this is one of them”
Questioning the good wars undermines the possibility of having a good war.
The acknowledged “bad wars” like Vietnam and Iraq are justified by pointing to the “good war.” Words like “We mustn’t appease Saddam Hussein. Munich. Chamberlain. Ho Chi Minh is another Hitler,” are repeated each new generation, suggesting maybe we need another “good war.”
He’d mentioned a scrutiny of ‘the balance sheets’, i.e. the number of dead, who profited (blacks? First Americans?), who was betrayed by it (Shays Rebellion), who was paid, who not, and possible alternatives to a full-on armed revolution with growing local push-backs to British occupation. (again, the rest is here.)
Bonus: ‘Commemorating Emma Goldman: ‘Living My Life’, howardzinn.org
“The following is an excerpt from Chapter 10 of Howard Zinn Speaks, “Emma Goldman, Anarchism, and War Resistance,” in which Zinn recounts the Haymarket Affair, commemorated as May Day, an event that led to Goldman’s life long commitment to activism. Zinn had written a play about her titled Emma.
““I wrote a play about Emma Goldman, and I had to make a decision. Her life was so long and full, and there’s always in any work of art a problem of what do you leave in and what do you leave out. And there’s so much to her life, so I started with her as an immigrant girl, a teenager living in Rochester, New York, and working in the factory. Her political awareness taking a leap in 1886 at the time of the Haymarket Affair.”
Here’s da Wiki on ‘Indpendence Day’, reading in part:
“Independence Day is commonly associated with fireworks, parades, barbecues, carnivals, fairs, picnics, concerts, baseball games, family reunions, and political speeches and ceremonies, in addition to various other public and private events celebrating the history, government, and traditions of the United States. Independence Day is the National Day of the United States”
Among the various images (the rockets red glare/s, fife and drum parades, etc.) these were my absolute favorites: ‘lookit those li’l darkies and indun chirren with the Spirit of 1776!’
American children of many ethnic backgrounds celebrate noisily in 1902 Puck cartoon
(Puck had the veddy dubious distinction of being purchased by Wm. Randolph Hurst in 1916; who can guess what they were satirizing there; the truth?
Zo….while millions upon millions of amerikans are havin’ tailgate parties for fireworks watchin’, slammin’ down 40s and big gulps to wash down their li’l smokies and red, white, and blue frosted cupcakes, salute Old Glory…
…and yellin’ “USA! Independence Day! We showed them British, didn’t we?”…lets imagine…
(à la shoot that arrow), that instead…millions will be marching on every Capitol in every capital in the nation, shouting ‘No more war! On strike! Shut it down!”
Yeah, j; we’ll put our lights on!