I met a man from Estonia a couple of summers ago who told me that he didn’t know where America was. “What is that country?” He asked me. It was kind of a joke to him. You see in Estonia there is no America, there is only “Oooh-Sa,” which is what they call the U.S.A. “America is two continents joined together by a narrow ismus,” he explained to me. Which meant that to his mind everyone from the Northwest Territories to Chile was an “American.” “Dude,” I said “ There’s a lot of people who would be very insulted by that statement, most of whom don’t even live in the United States.”
If you measure generations in the most common way then I’m 22nd generation American, with family here long before the United States. However that doesn’t make me any more of an American than anyone else in the USA, that was what the American revolution was about, among other things. From the newest citizen to the oldest family it’s still one person, one vote. It used to be “one man one vote” but we fixed that. It used to depend a lot on the color of your skin, but we finally got that fixed that as well.
Although the country began with a single set of principles and rights we’ve been modifying them all along. It’s a long hard process, everything in a democratic republic is, but we get it done just the same. We’ve been fixing things for a very long time in this country, and we’re at it still.
We make mistakes, enact dopey rules (see:prohibition) but eventually we figure it out. The reason is we make mistakes out of faith in ourselves and love in our hearts, and those drivers never leave you alone. They won’t let you leave a bad situation un-fixed. It’s been a long 235 years, but not as long as the 381 years my family has been struggling in this country. However, as independent and equal as we might have felt it wasn’t really possible until 235 years ago.
Our family also has a long history of “Fixing” this and that. Long before Cooper John Gray was fomenting the Whiskey rebellion, other Grays were throwing off somebody’s “yoke of oppression.” We’re a feisty bunch , always looking for something to “fix”. We’ve been revolutionaries since the Massachusetts Bay colony, Indian fighters since the Pequot war, traders, explorers, farmers, bankers, and soldiers long before my great, great uncle William Tecumseh Sherman showed the world what a war of attrition was really all about. Nice man actually, but had that terrible streak of purpose that seems to haunt us.
There are two signers of the declaration in our family, Roger Sherman and William Carroll. I’m sure, it was almost impossible to hold them back when it came time to sign. I put it all down to Ragnar Lothbrod, our oldest traced descendant and his sons Hoffa and Hubba. Before there were Grays in Scotland, there were Lothbrods burning towns on the Volga. The name Gray is from a town we were given (read:bought off) in what is now France. That was just before the family headed off to “fix” England in 1066. It’s doesn’t make any difference now of course, we still have to pay for the mustard like anyone else.
The revolution was about that as well, a freedom from the tyranny of blood lines and privilege. It was an entirely new idea in formation of a country, an attempt to create a society of total equality. Of course some of the base principles got left on the cutting room floor, the abolition of slavery for one. That was a bigger fight to come. And it still exists in our country even today, but we’re still after it.
We didn’t get everything quite equal, some nuts were to big to crack right away. It’s amazing that we managed to stamp out rank and privilege. One of the biggest we haven’t got to is the power and influence of wealth. That’s the challenge for the next 235 years.
It’s the one thing that has managed to eat away at our equality and resists all attempts to control it. Even though an ordinary everyday American has little hope of beating a wealthy individual or corporation in court and becomes totally subject to that power, he or she is loathe to change the balance on the remote possibility that one day they might be wealthy and powerful themselves. The privilege of the wealthy is every bit ingrained in the American heart as was the privilege of “pure blood” in the countries the first settlers left.
Sometimes the government we forged so long ago manages to stand in the way of the wealthy and powerful and helps to even the score. It’s various agencies and departments are at least big enough to level the playing field. Still, the game’s not over yet, and it looks like it’s going to be a long second half.
It could spell the ruination of all we’ve worked to build, the end of the grand American experiment. And very much like the doom that the founding fathers saw in ever mounting taxation without representation, cutting it off sooner rather than later is probably the better method. It’s every bit as dangerous a revolution as the first, to limit the influence of wealth and power on the government itself. But I’ll bet we get there eventually.
Copyright Prentiss Gray 2011
Prentiss Gray is a writer and columnist and currently writes the Domesti-Tech Blog for Gannett. He can be reached through his website at www.prentissgray.com