Colin Kaepernick’s history teachers should be ashamed of themselves. They either failed to teach him real history, or they succeeded in indoctrinating him into a false political narrative. Either way, he was short-changed and missed out on one of history’s greatest stories. To associate the 1776 American flag with slavery is to miss the purpose and genius of the American Revolution.
The former football player turned well-paid corporate activist put the kibosh on a special edition Nike shoe because it sported the Betsy Ross flag on the heel. I’m sure you’ve heard that much. Kaepernick’s reason, which I’m sure you’ve also heard, is that in his mind the 1776-era American flag “represents an era associated with slavery.”
That’s so clueless it’s difficult to know where to start. Slavery was abhorrent and did exist in the colonial era, and for decades afterward. Slavery existed for millennia before there were any colonists in America, and unfortunately, it still exists now. Slavery did not solely exist in America in 1776. It was not uniquely American. And the American Revolution was not fought for or about slavery.
The flag of Betsy Ross – who as a Facebook friend noted should be re-branded as an empowered woman business leader and cutting-edge designer of her era – represents much more than Kaepernick’s tunnel-vision misunderstanding of history.
The American Revolution took place in the context of an age of revolutions against monarchy and hereditary government. It set in motion a series of events that turned the average person into a citizen rather than a subject. This was a deeply profound paradigm shift in the human mind and condition, we can scarcely understand how profound today.
Slavery vexed America’s founders. They wrestled with how to deal with what was a ghastly legal and economic reality, mostly located in one region of the fledgling country, while attempting to build a federation of weak, thinly populated and war-weary states in the New World. They made their long-term intentions quite clear in the opening to the Declaration of Independence signed July 4, 1776, in the phrase “all men are created equal.” “Men,” here, meaning “human,” not a gender-specific identifier. They added that we are “endowed by our Creator with certain inalienable rights.”
All of this language was profoundly radical in its time. Kings and queens still strode most of the world, and the “divine right of kings” to rule as they pleased was a weakening but still serious idea. The American Revolution carried a deeply anti-authoritarian, pro-humanitarian character in its DNA. If our rights do not come from government or an occupant of a throne, if they are inalienable as the Declaration asserts, if we are all created equal, we the people are truly greater than our government. We do not serve it. It serves us. We vote it in. We vote it out. And as the Declaration states, we can end a government that no longer serves the people. This language flips the world’s existing power order on its head. And the founders were just getting started.
Among other things, the 13 stars on Ross’ flag represent the art and power of compromise. The colonies disagreed deeply on many issues. Slavery was a key source of disagreement. Most of the founders opposed it but knew they could not forge a new nation and abolish slavery at the same time. The founders compromised with each other, as did the colonies they represented, and engineered a system they could all live with and which would, some day, have to settle slavery once and for all. It’s a near miracle all 13 colonies agreed on enough to be united symbolically on the flag. Fourscore and seven years later, a scholarly president declared the nation had been re-forged – without slavery, a sin paid for in blood. The idea of citizenship wasn’t perfected even then, and we would have to get past Reconstruction, the awful era of Jim Crow and to today – and we’re still debating the inalienable right to life.
The founders did not get everything perfect in 1776. They knew this better than we do. Winning independence was not the end, but the beginning. But they also understood they were creating a constitutional system which would allow a perfecting of freedom to begin. It was an experiment. They did not know if it would succeed, or last more than a generation or two after them.
It has, but our system needs an educated and virtuous citizenry to function. The founders understood this too. Nike’s capitulation to Kaepernick, followed by support by the likes of Democratic presidential candidate Julian Castro and several in the media, would trouble them far more than the flag they fought for did.