The Better Letter: Seven Fourths

This week, TBL celebrates the 4th of July

America was built on the backs of oppressed people seeking relief. It’s a story that must keep being retold because it keeps being relived. 

We can, should, and must aspire for better. As Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote, “One flag, one land, one heart, one hand, one Nation, evermore!” May it be so.

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Seven Fourths

July 4, 1776 

Twelve score and four years ago, “our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” This is the American idea and the American ideal, beautifully rendered if imperfectly executed.

Today, it’s easy to underestimate the danger faced by the early Americans to oppose the world’s leading power in order to let freedom ring. Had the Founders not succeeded, they would have almost certainly been executed for treason.

Still, they were hopeful. On July 3, 1776, John Adams wrote to his wife, Abigail, and allowed himself to dream what future celebrations of the great Declaration might be like.

“I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated, by succeeding Generations, as the great anniversary Festival. It ought to be commemorated, as the Day of Deliverance by solemn Acts of Devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more.

“You will think me transported with Enthusiasm but I am not. -- I am well aware of the Toil and Blood and Treasure, that it will cost Us to maintain this Declaration, and support and defend these States. -- Yet through all the Gloom I can see the Rays of ravishing Light and Glory. I can see that the End is more than worth all the Means. And that Posterity will tryumph in that Days Transaction, even altho We should rue it, which I trust in God We shall not.”

As you celebrate the American founding tomorrow, whether “with Pomp and Parade, with Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations” or not, take a moment to reflect on what the Founders risked to allow us to breathe free.

We cheekily expropriated the tune of “God Save the King” for “America,” which most of us call “My Country ‘Tis of Thee,” the words to which later became the driving metaphor for Martin Luther King’s iconic “I Have a Dream” speech (“Let freedom ring!”). “Long may our land be bright | with freedom’s holy light.”

July 4, 1826 

Over the last years of their lives, old friends and political rivals, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson put their long and bitter estrangement aside enough to engage in a lively and illuminating correspondence. It is often tinged with longing and regret. For example, when Abigail Adams died, Jefferson offered poignant words to the new widower. 

“The public papers, my dear friend, announce the fatal event of which your letter of Oct. 20. had given me ominous foreboding. tried myself, in the school of affliction, by the loss of every form of connection which can rive the human heart, I know well, and feel what you have lost, what you have suffered, are suffering, and have yet to endure. the same trials have taught me that, for ills so immeasurable, time and silence are the only medecines. I will not therefore, by useless condolances, open afresh the sluices of your grief nor, altho’ mingling sincerely my tears with yours, will I say a word more, where words are vain, but that it is of some comfort to us both that the term is not very distant at which we are to deposit, in the same cerement, our sorrows and suffering bodies, and to ascend in essence to an ecstatic meeting with the friends we have loved & lost and whom we shall still love and never lose again. God bless you and support you under your heavy affliction.”

Loving and losing go hand-in-glove. Johnny Cash channels similar emotions in “Hurt,” where everyone he knows “goes away in the end.”

“You could have it all, my empire of dirt.”

Most of us have estrangements we ought to mend before it’s too late. Our second and third presidents provide excellent role models on that score and many others. Adams and Jefferson both died exactly 50 years after the founding of the republic, on July 4, 1826. They were united in letters, united in death, and united in the hearts of a grateful nation.

July 4, 1863 

If you have walked the battlefields of Gettysburg, you know how foreboding hangs heavy in the air. Casualties at Gettysburg totaled 23,049 for the Union (3,155 dead, 14,529 wounded, 5,365 missing). Confederate casualties were 28,063 (3,903 dead, 18,735 injured, and 5,425 missing). Gettysburg was both the highwater mark of the Confederacy and the turning point of the Civil War.

Much work still remained, but the tide had turned. On July 4, 1863, Vicksburg, Mississippi surrendered to U.S. forces under Ulysses S. Grant after 47 days of siege. One hundred fifty miles up the Mississippi River, a Confederate army was repulsed at the Battle of Helena, Arkansas. And, in southern Pennsylvania, the Army of Northern Virginia withdrew after losing the Battle of Gettysburg, by heroes proved, signaling an end to the Confederate invasion of U.S. territory. 

Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address got to the heart of the matter. 

“It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us – that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion – that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain – that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom – and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

The cost was high, so very high, but Truth was finally marching.  

July 4, 1895

Katharine Lee Bates, a feminist poet and Wellesley professor, scaled Pikes Peak in July 1893. The view overwhelmed her. She later wrote: “All the wonder of America seemed displayed there.” Two years later, on July 4, 1895, the poem she wrote out of that experience was published. She called it America. It was later put to music by Samuel Augustus Ward, a church organist and choirmaster from Newark, New Jersey. It is a work of high aspiration, an America that might be, that can be, appropriate for the occasion of the celebration of our country’s founding.

America! America! | God shed his grace on thee, | And crown thy good with brotherhood | From sea to shining sea. 

July 4, 1976 

It was already getting late when I saw a girl, already a good friend, sitting on a lifeguard stand by an Adirondack lake, sadly disappointed by another’s unkindness. I climbed up to join her and, like the fog that soon rolled in to cover the beach, had love roll into my heart. For four decades and 45 fourths, our fortunes have been married together as we look for America (and so much more) side-by-side, through the “wonder and wildness” of life. 

I pray – oh how I pray – for decades more with this wonderful woman, the best person I will ever know, ofttimes still a girl to me after all these years. But if it all ended today, my life would be complete and fulfilled, with much joy in the journey. Grace truly abounds.

July 4, 2012 

Crossing this great land, on a clear evening seven miles high, chasing the sun on America's birthday following the annual Adirondack pilgrimage to Hamilton County, New York with my beloved, allowed me to watch *hundreds* of fireworks displays, many at the same time. There are times when seeing beats saying. See what I mean here.

July 4, 2020

On patriotic holidays, it is normal to hear it declared that America is the greatest country in the world. Even more than usual, that claim has political overtones today. In a reversal of the usual posturing, the Republican presidential candidate in 2016 declared that America needed to be re-elevated to greatness again while the Democrat declared America already great. As now-President Trump battles for reelection, his campaign slogan (“Keep America Great”) suggests that his status alone determines American exceptionalism. 

Is America the greatest country in the world?

Aaron Sorkin’s critically lambasted seriesThe Newsroom, lasted for three controversial seasons on HBO, from 2012-2014. It became what was essentially ground zero for hate-watching. It was fascinating and awful while feigning gravity and implying narrative power. It was impossibly frustrating to watch because Sorkin is so incredibly talented.

The first episode of the series famously opened with an homage to Network’s galvanizing “I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore” rant (a precursor to Trumpism) wherein television news anchor Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels) sat on a journalism school panel at Northwestern University and humiliated a doe-eyed undergrad about how “America is not the greatest country in the world anymore“ in the elite informing the ignorant manner that so often dominated the overarching narrative of the show. 

Many people (all on the political left — which is ironic given how the advent of the Trump political movement has flipped the traditional script as to who trumpets and who denies American exceptionalism) have pointed this speech out to me as expressing what they think and believe about the United States of America.

Sorkin (via McAvoy) provided a long list of facts to support his claim and his alternative (and stronger) assertion, that “There is absolutely no evidence to support the statement that we’re the greatest country in the world.” Sorkin’s list was culled pretty much straight out of The World Factbook from the CIA (2010 edition). As he has McAvoy recount, we were seventh in literacy, 27th in math, 22th in science, 49th in life expectancy, 178th in infant mortality (although this one is deceptive because the list counts down from highest to lowest), third in median household income, fourth in labor force and fourth in exports. 

Sorkin is careful to point out, however, that we do lead the world in incarceration rate, religiosity, and defense spending. He doesn’t mention it, but we’re also “number one” in obesity, divorce rate, drug usage (legal and illegal), murder, porn, national debt, and more.

One can even take issue with Sorkin’s claim that America used to be the greatest country on earth. That argument would likely begin by pointing out that despite our republic’s founding being based upon the idea that “all men are created equal” because “they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights,” we still bought and sold people as chattel for nearly a century thereafter and women were not deemed so endowed for even longer. And then, after the Civil War provided freedom (or a modicum thereof) to slaves, we still wouldn’t allow blacks to vote just because they were black for another century or more. We also waged genocide on native Americans and enforced immigration laws made up of quotas that allowed 100 times as much legal immigration from northern European nations as from, say, Mexico or Kenya. 

The evidence Sorkin brings to bear about America’s lack of standing is strong. It suggests that our presumed national arrogance and home-country bias is delusional. Still, Sorkin’s primary claim about the lack of American exceptionalism is hardly the slam-dunk he assumes it to be and, contrary to his bold assertion, there is evidence – powerful evidence – that America really is the greatest country in the world. 

The United States hosts almost 20 percent of the world’s migrants, making it a vastly more popular such destination than anywhere else on the globe. Even more importantly, the U.S. is by far the most desirable destination for the more than 750 million adults in the world who say they would like to migrate to another country permanently if they could. In fact, America is 3.5 times more desirable a destination for potential immigrants than any other country in the world, despite the obvious hostility of the current president to them. 

Aaron Sorkin may not think that America is the greatest country in the world anymore, but people who want to escape the countries in which they live overwhelmingly think it is. Aren’t they in the best position to discern and decide which country is in fact the world’s best?

The most likely reason for that belief is the size, scope, and diversity of the American economy and the wide and deep access to it afforded generally. At 24 percent, the U.S. is responsible for a bigger share of the world’s GDP than any other country. By a lot. The U.S. stock markets account for more than half the world’s market capitalization while domestic bond markets are nearly 40 percent of the world total. Most importantly, overall, immigrants succeed here.

You may not agree if and when somebody asserts, perhaps without much aplomb, that America is the greatest country in the world. There are some good reasons for doing so. But there are plenty of reasons for agreeing, too.

A filmed version of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical, Hamilton, featuring the original cast, begins streaming today. It tells the story of the “ten-dollar founding father,” the “bastard, immigrant, son of a whore” who makes his move and takes his shot, joining up with the revolution and eventually finding his way to George Washington’s right hand. He became Secretary of the Treasury and creator of the American banking system before he was killed in a duel by Vice President Aaron Burr, grandson of Jonathan Edwards. Opportunity knocked and our boy Alexander broke down the door to answer.

The New York Times calls this “young, hungry, and scrappy” Hamilton “an avatar of modern American aspiration.” Indeed, “immigrants get the job done.” He both made his mark and made a difference.

This is not a Hamilton of some soft-focus past. It does not assert a “good old days” of American perfection and purity that never was. It offers encouragement, rebuke, disappointment, and inspiration. It respects history, but confronts it, too.

The New Yorker described its point of view as “righteous, multi-cultural patriotism.” Some thought it insufficiently woke. The more I think about July fourths past and ponder the future — where we are, where we’ve been, and what we might become — the more prone I am to seeing Hamilton as uplifting, promising, and aspirational, current nonsense notwithstanding.

Washington’s “One Last Time” relies, often word-for-word, upon the first president’s farewell address, penned by Hamilton. It speaks of “the sweet enjoyment of partaking, in the midst of my fellow-citizens, the benign influence of good laws under a free government.”

That’s the greatest country in the world.


 Totally Worth It

The most beautiful thing I read last week. The best thing. The most important. The art world’s biggest mysteryBlack and white on Wall Street. He loves his dad. Aggressive rats. The end of retirement. Despite what AP says, the hyphen is correct.

Living in the promiseland | Our dreams are made of steel | The prayer of every man | Is to know how freedom feels

Check out these amazing data visualizations: How the Virus Won and Coronavirus Hits the Developing World.


Benediction

This week’s benediction is the classic Ray Charles rendition of the Bates/Ward masterpiece, America the Beautiful. Note how he begins with the powerful third verse, which calls for liberation so all can share in America’s bounty.

Oh, beautiful for heroes proved | In liberating strife, | Who more than self their country loved, | And mercy more than life! | America! America! | May God thy gold refine, | Till all success be nobleness, | And ev’ry gain divine.

Today, and every day, may God shed His amazing and abundant grace on all of us, and may all of us love mercy more than life.


Contact me via rpseawright [at] gmail [dot] com or on Twitter (@rpseawright). Don’t forget to subscribe and share. Thanks for reading.

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Issue 20 (July 3, 2020)