I was in Philadelphia a couple of weeks ago with AB and we went to the brand-new Museum of the American Revolution. It’s a great work of public history. Every American, and everybody else who cares about America, should see it.
The museum scrapes away the layer of inevitability and myth around our founding. Its Revolution is something that might easily not have succeeded. Or that might have succeeded but with different aims. There were deep contemporary disagreements about what kind of nation we should be. The museum puts you face to face with them.
E Pluribus Unum was an aspiration, not a fact. There was a lot of pluribus. The gentility in Massachusetts and the Oneida and frontierspeople in Maryland and the French and the enslaved Africans and their American slavemasters were different people with different interests and each had their own revolution in mind.
Somehow it came together. George Washington gets his due. The museum presents him as a real person, not just a face on the money. A person who knew that the decisions he made, in a hurry and under duress, would reverberate through the lifespan of the new country. We were lucky to have him. And yes, I choked up, seeing his tent, fragile and beaten-up and confined to a climate-controlled chamber, but somehow still here and standing.
The Haggadah tells us that every generation of Jews has to read the story of Exodus as if we, ourselves, personally, were among those brought out from Egypt. The museum reminded me of that commandment. It demands that we find the General Washington in ourselves. In each generation we have to tell the story of the American Revolution as if we, ourselves, personally, are fighting for our freedom, and are responsible for what America will be.
Because we are! We are still in the course of human events. The American Revolution isn’t over. It won’t ever be over. It’s right that we call it a “revolution” and not an “overthrow” or a “liberation.” We’re still revolving, still turning this place over, we’re still plural, we’re still arguing. We still have the chance, and so we still have the obligation, to make the lives of our children more free than our own.
Happy Independence Day.