On July 2, 1776, when the Continental Congress gathered in Philadelphia and voted for independence, the nation was divided in ways that can feel oddly familiar today. According to Aaron Sullivan in The American Revolution Reborn, there were patriots (supporters of the Revolution), loyalists (those who backed Britain), and the “disaffected.” In a nation riven by war, the disaffected occupied the vast middle, wanting only to survive another day regardless of who won.
By the end of the conflict, a great deal of healing needed to happen. Anger and animosity had to give way to a common identity. With a new Constitution grounded in the concept of We the People, patriots, loyalists, and the disaffected had a chance to unite as Americans.
Our nation’s history is strewn with moments of bitterness and hostility, and our politics have ever been rough and tumble — to use the gentlest of euphemisms. When we have focused on what unites us, we have lived up to America’s promise. At our best, we expand liberty, and invite new people to join us in the pursuit of freedom.
Ending slavery, enfranchising women, or recognizing marriage equality came from acts of recognition — of an American like me.
This came home to me last week as I listened to Medal of Honor recipient Hiroshi “Hershey” Miyamura, an American Korean War veteran, speak to a group of teachers at the Freedoms Foundation at Valley Forge. While fighting the Chinese in North Korea, Hershey sacrificed his own safety — and nearly his life — to cover the evacuation of the men in his unit. For that he would receive the Medal of Honor, the country’s highest award for valor in military action, but not before being captured by the Chinese, forced to march 300 miles, and spending 28 months as a prisoner of war.
While Hershey was a teenager during World War II, more than 100,000 Japanese and Japanese Americans were placed in prison camps, his future wife among them. This travesty of racial discrimination was enshrined into law by the Supreme Court’s 1944 Korematsu decision — overturned only days ago.
Hershey had every right to be angry in 1953. Instead, he chose to see in himself, his fellow soldiers, and his neighbors in Gallup, N.M., that which united them: their love of freedom. When finally released after more than two years, he said, the sight that brought tears to his eyes was the American flag fluttering over the Demilitarized Zone. How much better would our nation be if we all followed Hershey’s example?
As the nation gears up for an ugly fight over replacing Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, here is my civic friendship challenge: Seek out someone who disagrees with you on many things and talk about who should be the 114th Supreme Court justice.
Do not pick a fight. Instead, approach the conversation earnestly. Try to understand why anyone might think differently than you.
As you talk, choose to believe in the best intentions of your interlocutor. Don’t assume this person hates the poor or unborn babies, or is simply a Nazi. Set aside deep-seated prejudices. Engage. Rediscover who we are and what we hold in common.
I will reach out to my high school frenemy Gina. She is a progressive, lesbian, vegan, and I am none of the above. In high school, she mooed at people who ate meat. I ordered veal. Yet, since reconnecting as adults (thanks, Facebook), we have found that we have much in common. Through long conversations over everything from education and foreign policy to pop culture, I have learned to listen and understand, even if I don’t agree. These conversations, based on mutual respect, have allowed me to see her perspective, and that has made me a better person.
As angry recriminations fill the airwaves and social media, I harken back to the advice that Abigail Adams gave to her 11-year-old son John Quincy in the midst of the Revolution:
“These are the times in which a genius would wish to live. It is not in the still calm of life or the repose of a pacific station that great characters are formed. The habits of a vigorous mind are formed in contending with difficulties. Great necessities call out great virtues.”
During our Independence Day celebrations this week, I will follow Hershey’s example. I will look for what unites me to my fellow Americans, hoping that I may be worthy of the freedom bequeathed to me by my forbears.