My Point of View: Fourth is a day to celebrate and a mission

Published 9:07 pm Monday, July 1, 2019

My Point of View by Jennifer Vogt-Erickson

Jennifer Vogt-Erickson


We are great beneficiaries of people who defied a king and designed a daring experiment.

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We are a nation founded on Enlightenment ideas — including that we are to be ruled by laws and no one is above the law, that our leaders obtain their authority by consent of the governed, that church and state should be separate in order that neither would corrupt the other, that co-equal branches of government must place checks and balances on each other, and that every person has the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Words can hardly express how powerful and beautiful these ideas are, and how brazen they were at the time. Our Founding Fathers fell short, though, in at least one unpardonable regard. The signers of the Declaration of Independence did not intend to abolish slavery.

Thus, we are a nation founded on both liberty and its opposite, and we are the beneficiaries of slave labor. Our Founding Fathers wrestled by different degrees with this paradox. Some, like James Madison, acknowledged misgivings in their personal writings about owning slaves while they championed liberty and right to self-governance for themselves.

Ben Franklin, himself a slave owner of two men, gradually changed his views during the course of his life. As his observations eroded his original belief in the inferiority of slaves, he freed the men and joined the abolition movement. In his final essay, written from his deathbed, he attacked slavery in a biting satire.

He signed off with one of his many pseudonyms: “Historicus.” The voice of history.

Last week I saw a meme posted by a Freeborn County resident that said, “European Christians built this nation.” As a person of Norwegian Lutheran and German Catholic heritage, I reject this lie. It’s the same white nationalist meme that birthed the ideas of “Lebensraum” (Living Space) and the horrific Endlösung der Judenfrage (Final Solution to the Jewish Question). It cuts my heart to see it, reminding me that the people who dutifully and efficiently carried out the Holocaust in the name of racial purity and the Christian God are my relatives.

The kindest thing I can say about the meme is that it purposely discounts the substantial contributions to America of many groups, including Africans.

Africans built this nation, too. They were forced to come here by the millions, in chains, sold at auction, separated from their families, beaten for insubordination. They and their children and their children’s children were owned for life by masters who were virtually all white. Many of our great buildings and monuments were erected by people who never drew a single breath as a free person. Africans had the highest death rate of anyone but indigenous people, who were also at risk of enslavement, driven off their ancestral lands and nearly wiped out by European diseases like small pox. Even with sky high mortality, African slaves were about 20% of the population at our nation’s founding.

We have yet to fully reconcile our past history of both championing liberty and preserving slavery. The U.S. still hasn’t bestowed the full blessings of liberty upon all its citizens.

After legal slavery ended, black Americans were subjected to the Black Codes, Jim Crow, school segregation, redlining (banks not loaning money to people who lived in minority neighborhoods), mass incarceration and other discrimination.

Discrimination is not just experienced in a lifetime, it has cumulative effects over generations, like rings on a tree that is stunted by shade versus given full sunlight. And yet people and groups are often judged only by the fruit they bear, not their endurance and tenacity in the face of adversity.

Step by painful step, our country has extended individual rights to more groups. Despite shortcomings, our nation has persisted through many challenges and thrived because of the strength of the ideas it was founded on. The belief in those ideas have made it possible for any person, no matter what their religion or cultural heritage or color, to be stitched into the fabric of America, like stars in Betsy Ross’s first flag.

Our founding documents are still what bind us together, which makes America unusual in world history. Here we are with this unlikely inheritance, our chance to protect and promote these rights 243 years after 55 colonists dipped quill in ink to “mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor” in support of their bold break from British authority.

We are still working to bestow the full blessings of liberty upon all our citizens. Independence Day is both a holiday to celebrate and also a mission for us to complete. Happy July Fourth, and cheers to every ideal our Declaration of Independence inspires us to strive for, generation after generation.

Jennifer Vogt-Erickson is a member of the Freeborn County DFL Party.