In the U.S., the 4th of July brings with it a lot of revelry, a lot of gathering, a lot of flag waving, and sometimes some reflection on our national culture.
The founders get referenced heavily. I both understand and respect that. I taught government and history in high schools. Classes on political philosophy in my graduate program were my favorite.
I support the urge to reflect while we celebrate whatever it is that this holiday means for each of us individually and as a group. I especially support the urge to reflect on our ideals NOW, when so many of us feel that we are not living up to them in any way that we want to recognize.
I don’t want to wax too heavily political here, not because I fear losing you or upsetting you, but because there are so many spaces for that. I can engage in these arguments, and get heated about it, but I know that I need spaces for quiet reflection in order to make sense of my world. Maybe you do too. So that’s part of my mission today, and maybe every day, to create a space where we can step away from the raging of the world and check in with our ideals, check in with our hearts, and check in with the path that lies before us. Sometimes those paths include politics.
A friend told me the other day that when the founders were trying to come up with a motto for the baby United States, Ben Franklin suggested (with humor as he did most things) that “Mind Your Business” would make a good motto. It reflected the drive toward commerce that was so much a part of the American character even then as well as the fear of interference in private and business affairs that the colonists’ experience with England had reinforced. Franklin acknowledged that his suggestion was not adequately transcendent. Eventually E Pluribus Unum was chosen.
I think it’s worth taking a few minutes to think about both of these phrases as part of our celebration of independence.
Frankly while I like the idea of E Pluribus Unum (from many, one), it doesn’t seem to have gotten us much unum.
I wonder, instead if Franklin might have been onto something, but that he limited his scope of interpretation such that he missed his own brilliance. I think a case could be made for Mind Your Business as both a more accurate reflection of the American character AND as an aspirational tool – an idea that could create transcendence.
On the accuracy front, Mind Your Business would have, at the very least, been a more honest reflection of the reality of most of the founders as men of money and commerce. It certainly would have been a more accurate reflection of those who were slaveholders and who protected that practice in the Constitution. From Many, One doesn’t mean much if the many are all propertied white me. Unum is easier to achieve in small groups.
As for transcendence, I’d like to propose an alternative meaning for Mind Your Business, one I’ve mentioned, but only at the surface level, before. This understanding of Mind Your Business is not an admonition to leave someone alone, but instead, an urging to really dig deeply into what you are trying to do in this world, to check in with your heart, with your intuition, with your values, with your god if you have one, to actually attempt to align your life with the things, ideas, principles, and feelings that matter the most to you. Minding your business is not about privacy so much as it is about intellectual honesty and active integrity.
I wonder what would have been different had the founders decided to mind their business in this way. While I cannot overlook the founders’ failure of morality in institutionalizing slavery in law, I recognize the conflict that it presented internally. I wonder what might have been different for them, for African Americans, for ALL of us had they taken those misgivings more seriously than the approval of their peers, if they trusted that they would, in fact, be able to continue to survive and even thrive financially if they just learned to live in integrity with the sense of the grave injustice in which they were participating. I wonder what would be different had they chosen to mind that kind of business. Mightn’t they have taken their misgivings to heart and defended them as passionately as they defended things like individual rights (for propertied white men) and the need to establish a government that could actually act in the common interest (of propertied white men)? Could they then have made slavery a thing of the past 75 years ahead of the Civil War?
What would be different?
It’s an intellectual exercise to be sure, but it’s also a clarion call as we enter these days of celebration and festivity. If we are to celebrate our founding with any seriousness, can we not also examine its limitations and see what lessons they might hold for us today?
E Pluribus Unum – From Many, One.
Mind Your Business – Act with Integrity for Principles that Matter
I admit to a heavy heart heading into this holiday.
I will still go to see fireworks, because I do love them.
I will still find wisdom and inspiration in some of those old ideals.
And I will hold them up to the light of my heart. I will check them and how they are used, carried out, and desecrated. I will act in integrity because that’s what not just patriotism, but responsible humanity demands of me.
So be it.