When I was a junior in high school, my history teacher, Jimmy Johnson, tried to liven the subject with a series of debates. The most verbally agile in the class, I was always assigned the unpopular side: the Loyalist side at the Revolution (if I had only encountered Samuel Johnson’s “Taxation No Tyranny” then instead of a decade later) and opposition, like Lincoln’s, to the Mexican War.
The inclination to try to see history whole thus got early encouragement, and it leaves me seeing doubly during gusts of patriotic oratory. You may imagine that I nodded vehemently when I came across this line of Kipling’s that Sarah Vowell quotes in Unfamiliar Fishes, her book on American imperialism in the McKinley era:
“I never got over the wonder of a people who, having extirpated the aboriginals of their continent more completely than any modern race had ever done, honestly believed that they were a godly little New England community setting examples to brutal mankind.”
The Fourth of July, particularly in a year when a presidential campaign is beginning to lumber toward cascades of hoopla and distortions, is a time when the exceptionalists tend to give the “city on a hill” line a workout. Aspiration is a good thing. The national ideals are a good thing. Attempting to live up to them is a good thing. But it is also a salutary thing to recollect, amid the gassy exhalations of the holiday, that in our role as an example to the rest of unenlightened humankind, we have sometimes made a shoddy job of it.
ADDENDUM: Before you invite me to leave for Russia, Blighty, Scandinavia, or wherever you would like to consign me, I do not aspire to be an expatriate. I’m an American citizen (birth certificate proffered on request). I’ll be at the Towson Fourth of July parade on Monday. And on Sunday, at Memorial Episcopal Church in Bolton Hill, as the temperature climbs toward the nineties, I will be at the console of the wheezing Casavant, accompanying the congregation in the singing of “My country, ’tis of thee” and playing for the postlude a march by John Philip Sousa. Spare me any air-conditioned patriotism.