I had intended to start this post by noting that I have no genealogical connection to any of the signers of the Declaration of Independence. However in the interest of accuracy and out of some curiosity I took a look at the list of signers of the Declaration, and as it turns out I may indeed have some thing of a genealogical connection to one of them. More about that later on.
A lot of Americans are related to signers of the Declaration of Independence, and many more who are not claim to be. In any event that’s not what’s really important. What’s really important is the fact that all Americans are related to people who had the fortitude to come to this continent seeking freedom, whether they came 300 years ago or three weeks ago. And no, I haven’t forgotten that despite the Declaration’s assertion that all men are created equal, that the writers of that sentence were aware that some on this continent were at that point in bondage. I’m related to to those who were in bondage as well as those who held them there. That’s the story of America. But the essential part of the story of America is that unlike any other society that has existed on Earth, America is constantly fulfilling its promise. So those who were in involuntary servitude are no longer. And not because some superior force from outside liberated them, but because Americans themselves corrected the nation’s moral compass. That’s what happens every day in this country: we continue to fulfill our promise as a nation.
The great poet Langston Hughes wrote a poem entitled “Let America be America Again.” The refrain in that poem is “America never was America to me.” I understand why Langston Hughes, a black man, wrote that in the midst of the Great Depression. But for me, America always was the America Hughes longs for in the poem. And perhaps that’s because there were heralds like Langston Hughes. Hughes wrote:
O, let my land be a land where Liberty
Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,
But opportunity is real, and life is free,
Equality is in the air we breathe.
Like no other land in history, America rededicates itself to that promise every single day. While the poem is pessimistic for the most part, Hughes does describe why America is a land that can achieve its promises:
Yet I’m the one who dreamt our basic dream
In the Old World while still a serf of kings,
Who dreamt a dream so strong, so brave, so true,
That even yet its mighty daring sings
In every brick and stone, in every furrow turned
That’s made America the land it has become.
O, I’m the man who sailed those early seas
In search of what I meant to be my home–
For I’m the one who left dark Ireland’s shore,
And Poland’s plain, and England’s grassy lea,
And torn from Black Africa’s strand I came
To build a “homeland of the free.”
But he Hughes makes it clear where he stood when the poem was written:
O, yes, I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath– America will be!
Let me be plain, however, as well. For me to be an American, is to be the descendant of both slaves and slave owners. It means to have sprung from the root of those of many hues who’d dreamt the dreams of freedom. O, yes I say it plain, America has been America to me, and yet I swear this oath — America will be!
I was fortunate enough to reach high office in government and the military. But I’m retired from the all of that now. Only in America could I have reached those heights. And only in America could I leave those supreme offices for a higher one — that of a citizen.
July 4, 2006 Tuesday at 9:08 pm