Sunday, July 4, 2010

Freedom Sought, Freedom Lost, Freedom Won

It was a continent of rolling plains, jutting, snow-capped peaks, surging rivers, thick forests, and lush vegetation, filled with an immense variety of animals large and small. The native tribes of North America could roam it at will, moving whenever conditions called for it, or to avoid encroaching on another tribe. The land was so expansive, so vast, it would be hard to imagine it filled with people over any number of generations. The tribes roamed free, living off the land, content to take only what they needed.

Then the others came. Those of pale faces and bodies covered in strange clothing and speaking an alien tongue. They came in great ships, like giant birds with their sails unfurled. The natives did not know it, but these newcomers were also looking for freedom, freedom from repression and persecution. They intended to start new lives, to live as they wanted, worship as they wanted, and work hard as their God intended. To look at this new land, they would be forgiven for thinking there was no one there -- no cities or ports were evident, no signs they would recognize as portending human habitation.

The new inhabitants and the old inhabitants of North America would become locked in a struggle for the land, with settlers demanding more and more, and the tribes willing to concede less and less. Though many tried to be honorable, the greedy and land-hungry won out, and drove the tribes back, staking their claims to the land they had "found."

Thus it would be, and as the influence of English, Dutch, French, and Spanish settlers grew, the power of the tribes would wane, as they stripped of land, land they never claimed to own, but land they had lived on, planted on, and hunted on, for as far back as their most distant ancestors. Their freedom was slowly being curtailed, so that the settlers' freedom could grow.

And yet, the settlers were soon chafing under the rule of powers across the ocean, back from the lands they had abandoned, the countries that had not wanted them or would not help them. The vise-like grip of England slowly squeezed the Colonies, using them as a source funds for wars against France, and denying them any representation in Parliament. Slowly, inexorably, intolerably, the constant pressure was enough to ignite revolution, and thus it was that we, today, live in the country we do. From independence to the modern day, we have spread to fill a continent, even as we pushed the native tribes into smaller and smaller spaces. Our freedom was the direct result of the loss of freedom of others.

So, think of The Declaration of Independence not as a beginning but a continuation, of the constant and restless impulse to be the people we are, to do the things we want to do, while living in harmony with others who share the impulse. The creation of America was a next act in the drama of the slow erosion of the British Empire and the ascendancy of a new nation, which would then have to fight itself over the true meaning of the freedom proclaimed in that original declaration, and which continues to try and clarify, reshape, and redefine freedom for all time. Though muskets and rifles and cannons are long silent, the revolution continues, in the long, slow, hard march toward true equality for all citizens of the United States.

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