The American nation changed the world on the 4th of July. Remember that as the fireworks crackle from all around and the parade floats pass by. Amid the back drop of barbecues and red white and blue banners lies the memory of a Declaration and a Revolution unlike any before it.
Sure, we cannot ignore that the American Revolution wasn’t perfect. And, the Declaration left many without the rights it affirmed. But, holding those failures to be self-evident, the 4th of July does have one saving grace. It represents one undeniable and monumental victory: justice over colonialism and empire. The Revolution didn’t free any slaves, protect Native American sovereignty or enfranchise women, but it unquestionably ended oppressive British rule.
Through its decolonization, America escaped the tyranny of being ruled without its consent by an empire an ocean away. For better and for worse, revolution allowed the country to forge its own path. The nation battled and bled for the right to do things differently. In a literal sense, it revolted to be something other than Britain. It fought to define itself in fundamentally different ways - forsaking monarchy and empire to build a country of laws, democracy and freedom.
However, this triumph – the single victory of the Revolution – became meaningless. Its singular claim to real justice – overcoming colonialism - was made worthless once the United States acquired colonies of its own. The young, scrappy and hungry nation eventually grew out of its anti-imperialist zeal, and turned to acquire islands all over the world. The colonized was now the colonizer. The Sons of Liberty were now King George. This nation sacrificed so much to eradicate the evils of empire only to reproduce those same evils.
To this day, most of these islands are still American colonies. Under the euphemism “Unincorporated Territories”, these colonies face taxation without representation, the unilateral imposition of laws and the destruction of their land.
Given that, what did the American Revolution actually accomplish? Freedom? Yes, the freedom to crush and rule in the same manner as the British. Democracy? Sure, the same democracy blatantly denied to over 3 million citizens in the U.S. territories who can’t vote for President or vote for representatives in Congress.
Imagine what the 4th of July must look like in their eyes. What might stir in them as they see the U.S. commemorate its decolonization while it simultaneously denies them a real decolonization process? How can America celebrate its right to self-rule and democracy as it continues to unilaterally call its colonies to heel by stripping them of power, undoing their laws and bombing their land? U.S. territory citizens are not dumb. They can read the Declaration that is being celebrated. They can see that celebrating it makes little sense.
If we take a look, the Declaration brings up a list of wrongs. Most people only remember the lofty language of the preamble, but the heart of the document lists numerous objections against the actions of the tyrant King George. Ostensibly, these oppressive measures were so appalling that they demanded immediate action. They justified the Revolution.
Among these wrongs, was a list of oppressive and intolerable legislations including:
“For imposing Taxes on us without our Consent” much like the U.S. imposes on its territories in the case of many federal taxes.
“For depriving us in many cases, of the benefits of Trial by Jury” As the U.S. did in 1922, by holding that Puerto Rico’s citizens did not have the right to trial by jury.
“For taking away our Charters, abolishing our most valuable Laws, and altering fundamentally the Forms of our Governments” as the U.S. government did in 2016, by imposing a Fiscal Oversight Board that can unilaterally overturn the government’s decisions. This Board effectively stripped the Puerto Rican government of its power to legislate freely and according to the will of the Puerto Rican people.
“For suspending our own Legislatures, and declaring themselves invested with power to legislate for us in all cases whatsoever.” In all cases whatsoever, Congress can legislate for any U.S. territory or undo any local legislation without its consent. Further, the President can veto any law passed by a territory’s local legislature. In 1947, Pres. Truman vetoed a Puerto Rican bill that would have allowed the island to hold a local self-determination vote on potential political futures like statehood or independence.
“He has plundered our seas, ravaged our Coasts, burnt our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people.” The Federal government frequently uses territory land as a bombing range. These bring dire health and environmental effects that continue to plague territory citizens. Previous ranges have included Vieques and Farallon de Medinilla. In recent years, despite protests, the Department of Defense seeks to expand bombing in the Northern Marianas territory.
The Declaration ends this section by stating: “In every stage of these Oppressions We have Petitioned for Redress in the most humble terms: Our repeated Petitions have been answered only by repeated injury.” These colonies have been colonies for more than 100 years. They have repeatedly asked for the freedom to self-determine their future relationship to the United States in order to no longer be colonies. Yet they continue to be denied any path forward towards either integration or independence. Thus, they are kept as colonies, doomed to suffer much of the same wrongs that the 13 colonies had to endure.
If the Declaration of Independence birthed a country that exactly replicated the evils it condemned in its text, then it’s a worthless document. Its Revolution doesn’t represent any freedom worth celebrating. Not only does the fourth of July lack meaning for so many marginalized groups, but even its one undeniable triumph now means nothing. Colonial oppression was overcome only to then impose the same oppression on others. That is not a revolution won, that is a revolution surrendered.
Why is that worth celebrating?
(Edoardo A. Ortiz graduated this year with a Masters degree from the University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy.)