I have two high school age siblings who still live at home. They’re good kids and the three of us are pretty close. We bonded over a TV show called Sleepy Hollow, which ran for four seasons on Fox.
We started it a few years ago – they were finally transitioning out of the mildly annoying preteen stage and I was spending my weekend nights in, so we figured out the family Roku and I picked a show that looked clean and wholesome.
How could we have guessed that stepping into the world of Ichabod Crane and his modern day police detective partner Abigail Mills would be such an adventure. Crane, a revolutionary war spy who has been sent through time to fight the forces of evil, goes through several layers of culture shock as he adapts to the 21st century he wakes up in.
“What’s insane is a ten percent levy on baked goods,” Crane says in a memorable rant to Mills after seeing the tax on a receipt for some donuts. “You do know that the Revolutionary War began on less than two percent. How is the public not flocking to the streets in outrage?”
After every episode, my siblings and I would recount the peculiar details of Crane’s point of view. Why is it that our taxes are so high now? Should it be such a surprise to Crane that a woman is a police detective or that a black man is the chief of police, that women wear “trousers” or that there is a Starbucks on every corner of every block? What changes in our nation’s history have been good, and which have not been?
The fact is that if our Founding Fathers were to drop into 2019, they would indeed be in for a huge surprise. So much of what they hoped to create 200 years ago has finally come to pass – a free people and a functioning democratic republic that has allowed for the peaceful transition of power 45 times. More than that, things they probably never imagined or envisioned have come to pass, now emblazoned in our culture of liberty: emancipation, voting and property rights for minorities and women, accessible education and opportunities for the average citizen that were unthought of at the time of this nation’s founding.
“We’re standing in front of a woman who is two centuries ahead of us,” Ben Franklin declares to Ichabod Crane in Sleepy Hollow’s finale of season two as he is introduced to detective Mills after she has gone backwards to Ichabod’s time. “Brilliant. Educated. Well-spoken. Officer of the law. Ichabod, everything we’re striving for here, fighting for with our dying breath to create for this country, a free land of opportunity for all, Miss Abigail Mills represents. She is the American Dream.”
Of course, our history has not been perfect, and I wonder how many Founding Fathers might look back at the years that followed their own work and blush in shame or cry in dispair at the long history of slavery that ended only in a bloody civil war, the Trail of Tears, the Japanese internment camps or the atrocities committed against African American, Asian American and Latin American immigrants and citizens of this country in the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries? How many, unenlightened by centuries of progress, would not have seen the harm?
The liberties laid out in the Constitution of the United State of America and the sentiments outlined in the Declaration of Independence began a great work in the development of freedom across the globe, but it was imperfect and unfinished.
From our seats in this century, we can see that clearly. Enlightenment has been a longtime in coming, and has a long way to go.
A glimpse of global democracy is encouraging, however. The U.S. set the standard for independence across the world, though we certainly took a few tips from the English.
By the end of 2017, there were nearly one hundred democracies around the world.
Every people group in history has had the potential to be free and independent, but someone had to set the example. Someone had to do it first. And when the signers of the Declaration of Independence but ink to parchment, they were countering centuries of established political tradition, becoming traitors, committing treason. And yet their courageous actions and their mindful, careful and disciplined approach to setting up a government in place of the authority they threw off created a new current that has rippled around the world several times over.
It is that second attribute that makes their story a success – their mindfulness.
Anyone who has ever staged a revolution, and there have been many in the course of human history, has shown some measure of courage. Courage alone does not ensure a good outcome, it must be guided by wisdom and discipline.
In two hundred years, perhaps our own descendents will look back at 2019 through the eyes of a TV show – or maybe time travel will have been invented by then and they can come see us for themselves.
It is likely that they will judge us as harshly as we have judged our predecessors – and rightly so. If we do not condemn the wrongs of our history, we cannot move into the future with clean consciences and clear eyesight.
But what will they condemn? If enlightenment comes slowly, what have our eyes not been opened to yet? Will the generations that come after us feel regret when they read about how this country has treated women in crisis and their unborn children? Will they condemn the treatment of immigrant children at our borders? Will they cry over the hundreds slain in mass shootings in this decade alone? Will they wave a finger at the hypocrisy of America’s treatment of their territories?
Perhaps they won’t have to. If our national ancestors could break the mold of thought and change how things were done one step at a time, why can’t we? Why can’t we reach for enlightenment? Why can’t we change how we do things? That is the beauty of this country, afterall – by the people, for the people and all that.
If it has been a while since your last honest assessment of your political beliefs, of the news outlets you trust or of the issues you think you understand, it may be time to sit down and reconsider with an open mind – not to prove yourself wrong, but simply to better understand.
Constant vigilance is required to keep a people free.
“Democracy cannot succeed unless those who express their choice are prepared to choose wisely,” Franklin D. Roosevelt once said. “The real safeguard of democracy, therefore, is education.”
If we don’t like how something is being done, we can amend the process. We can change our laws so that those who find themselves hurt by them do not need to be labeled “law breakers.” We can create a culture of empathy and compassion, of growth and acceptance – and in many ways this country is already, and has led the way in cultivating a society of equals.
I want my siblings to grow up and be people who can see both the greatness and the failures of our country so that they can take that knowledge, transformed into wisdom, and bring it with them into American’s future, and I want my generation – my neighbors and community members – to begin that change today.