Today many of us celebrate the birth of the United States of America. If I were to sit down with the typical public school textbook of our history, I would read stirring dramatic accounts of Columbus' discovery of America, colonists fleeing to our shores to escape religious oppression and Patrick Henry's brave speeches. These textbooks, of course, are generally approved by elected bodies that must answer to the will of the people and as is often the case, if the books say something unflattering, these elected officials know they might be accused of being "un-American" (which, somehow, is a grave crime in the eyes of many Americans.)
Knowing this, perhaps I might seek out more authoritative works about the origin of this country; I might seek out authors not beholden to popular opinion, but to their vision of truth. I might read about the genocide that Columbus started (but certainly didn't finish), how many religious colonists were hell-bent on setting up their own particular brand of religious oppression and how the story of Patrick Henry's life is, perhaps, a patchwork of myth and reality. In fact, writer Bill Bryson, in his book Made In America writes of the comments attributed to Patrick Henry in the Virginia House of Burgesses in May 1765 (verbatim quote with original emphasis):
According to one surviving eyewitness account -- written by a French hydrologist who just happened to be present, and found quite by chance in the archives of the National Hydrological Institute of France in 1921 -- Henry did make some intemperate remarks, but, far from being defiant, he immediately apologized to the House of Burgesses if "the heat of passion might have lead [sic] him to have said something more than he intended" and timidly professed undying loyalty to the king -- not quite the show of the thrust-jawed challenge portrayed in countless schoolbooks.
The American Revolution, we soon learn, was not a universally popular notion. The average person often didn't care -- this was a revolution of those with money and power. Many colonists considered themselves English and were quite loyal to the king.
In further research, we also discover that while we most certainly were a Christian nation -- merely by virtue of most colonists being Christian -- our founding fathers most decidedly were not and they tried to build safeguards into the Constitution to prevent religion from being a force in government. Reading through the Constitution and the Federalist Papers makes this clear. In fact, the Constitution was almost not adopted because so many objected to a secular government.
Probably some of the above information is just as fictitious as the history we read in elementary school. Somehow, though, I'm "un-American" for wondering what really happened. What led to nation that we currently have? What efforts shaped our history? Why is it somehow a crime for me to dig for the truth in struggling to understand the past? Should not the love of our country be the love a mother has for her child? Not an uncritical "my child can do nothing wrong" sort of love. That's tragic. Rather, I would see a "I love my child even when he does something wrong" sort of love where we honestly face imperfection and work to improve it. That's what patriotism should be. Ours is not a perfect country and we shouldn't pretend otherwise, but neither should we automatically discount it because we are not happy with everything that has happened. By working together, yet acknowledging out rights to disagree, we can make this a better country and, perhaps, a better world as a result. We've done many terrible things, but we've done many good things, too. Let us not turn a blind eye to that.
Happy birthday, America.