Heading north, Vito’s been on the road for hours. His cellphone rings; he throws it out the window. He has no idea where he is. His car breaks down. He makes it into the next town, finds an inn, puts his gun under his pillow.
The next day he wakes up in a little New Hampshire village, where gay people walk the streets without fear. In a diner, looks pass between Vito and the counterman. A male couple comes in, sits down, and begins speaking a language Vito has never before heard in the light of day, only in the dark. He’s confused: What does it mean to be in a place where, for the first time in your life, you might feel at home in your own skin? Could that even be right?
He goes into an antique shop. He picks up a vase, and the gay owner compliments him on his taste: “That’s the most expensive item in the store.” But then Vito sees something else, probably the cheapest thing in the store: an old New Hampshire license plate. “Live Free or Die,” reads the slogan across the top.
The phrase burns into Vito’s mind. You can see his face change. The words were written in 1809 by Gen. John Stark, a New Hampshire hero of the Revolutionary War, on the occasion of the 32nd reunion of veterans of the 1777 Battle of Bennington, Vt.; too ill to attend, Gen. Stark sent a toast. “Live free or die,” another man read for him: “Death is not the worst of evils.” The words echoed across the nation, down through the decades; in 1945, with the end of the Second World War, New Hampshire took the first four words and put them all over the state.
Vito stares. “Live Free or Die”—it’s as if the metal can talk. It’s just a license plate; for him it might as well be the Declaration of Independence, ringing its bell. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness,” Jefferson wrote—and suddenly, as it has for so many for so long, through that license plate the Declaration is speaking to Vito as if it were addressed to him. “Live free or die”—what if all this, the shock in his face says, was meant for him as much as anyone?
It’s one of those signal moments when the whole weight of the national story, its promises and its betrayals, hits home—leaving the citizen at once part of a community and completely alone. It doesn’t matter that, well, yes, of course, on the fourth of July, 1776, when the Declaration of Independence was presented, everyone understood that all men meant men, not women; whites, not blacks; Christians, not Jews or Hindi or heathen; decent people, not Sodomites. The idea that “all men are created equal” was not a “self-evident truth,” Sen. John Pettit said on the floor of the Senate in 1853: it was “a self-evident lie.” It was in the midst of the debates over the Kansas-Nebraska Act; Pettit was arguing for voiding the Missouri Compromise of 1820 and opening the territories to slavery. It was a debate: “The great declaration cost our forefathers too dear,” Sen. Benjamin Franklin Wade of Ohio replied to Pettit, “to be so lightly thrown away by their children.”
Abraham Lincoln read these debates from his oblivion in Springfield, Ill.; he was a 44-year-old lawyer who had served one term in Congress before being turned out of office. Pettit’s words and the words against him brought Lincoln back to the world. Soon he was speaking as if the Declaration of Independence contained all the words the nation ever needed to hear—and in a certain sense, it didn’t matter that Lincoln did not believe that, once men and women left the hand of their creator, they were equal on earth. “Pettit called the Declaration of Independence a lie,” Lincoln said in Peoria in 1854, answering a speech by Stephen Douglas. “If it had been said in old Independence Hall 78 years ago, the doorkeeper would have thrown him into the street.” That might have been a fairy tale; the Declaration of Independence itself might be a fairy tale, but not one that can be given an ending, happy or not. The charge in the Declaration was boundless; no limits placed upon it hold.
“Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”—it’s what the rest of the world understands by America when America isn’t forcing the rest of the world to understand America as something else. “We are caught in a world of limits where there’s no such thing as the self-made man,” said a graduate student in France last week; Claire de la Vigne was speaking to a New York Times reporter about the French university system, where doors are made to be closed, not opened. “We are never taught the idea of the American dream, where everything is possible,” she said. It’s what Americans understand by America, when the facts of everyday American life somehow recede, and an idea of America takes their place.
Here’s a passage from Enthusiasm, a yet-to-be-published novel written by a friend of mine, Charlie Haas. A man—a scientist, a businessman—is trying to recover from brain damage. His father is trying to reintroduce him to time, place, names, faces.
Dad and Barney sat at the desk with the datebook open in front of them. “Okay,” Dad said, “what’s something you might have to do this afternoon?”
“Go to a meeting,” Barney said.
“Okay. So you write that in there.”
Barney scrawled MEETING over half the afternoon grid. “We’re going to have a country,” he said. “We have some farmers coming, and some horseshoe guys.”
“Like blacksmiths?” Dad said.
“Yes,” Barney said. “So we get liberty. And we wear wigs in the room.”
This doesn’t even have the weight of a fairy tale, or of a dream you can just barely remember—and yet it’s inescapable, and unbreakable.
There’s a way in which you can see every American story as a version of the Declaration of Independence: every story an attempt to make it true, or prove it a lie. In 1941, Henry Luce called the 20th century “the American century”; he meant this was the century when America became a colossus from which the rest of the world would have to step back, trembling with awe. But if that American century was truly American, you can almost see Lincoln reminding us—or, if not Lincoln, the doorkeeper at Independence Hall—then the story of the American century is the story of all sorts of previously excluded, marginalized, scorned, despised, ignored or enslaved people—laborers, women, African-Americans, Asian Americans, Jews, Latinos, gay men and women—entering into full citizenship and full participation in national life. If not full citizenship, a more complete citizenship than even Lincoln or the doorkeeper could in fact have imagined—as, again and again, decade after decade, those echoing words of the Declaration of Independence sounded as if for the first time.
It can be easy to forget this, when people on both the left and the right tell the story of the country as if it were a story of power, not speech—a story of the movements of money and armies, not the acts of men and women, acting alone or together.
This came home to me last week, at a meeting in Cambridge, Mass. A group of 16 people—distinguished historians, critics, poets, novelists, professors—sat around a table determining what would and what would not be included in an ambitious new book: a 1,000-page, 200 chapter New Literary History of America. “All God’s Dangers—The Life of Nate Shaw,” one person said—and there was silence. Few people there had heard of the book; only three had read it.
The book appeared in 1975, and then it disappeared. Why? It won a National Book Award; it received reviews that were like trumpets. But somehow the tale told by Nate Shaw—the name the historian Theodore Rosengarten gave to one Ned Cobb, born in Alabama in 1885, dead there in 1973, who, over hundreds of hours, spun Rosengarten the story of his life—did not fit the American story as it was being reconstructed once again. This was a man whose parents were slaves, and who reveled in his superiority—in mind, body, will, desire, courage, and wit—over other men, be they black or white. “All men are created equal”—but what men and women become is not equal, and proving himself in that arena was America to Nate Shaw.
“I was climbin up in the world just like a boy climbin a tree. And I fell just as easy, too.” It’s 1931, in the heart of the Depression, and a banker is squeezing him:
“Bring me the cotton this fall, bring me the cotton.” When he told me that I got disheartened. I didn’t want him messin with me—still, I didn’t let him take a mortgage on anything I owned. I was my own man, had been for many years, and God knows I weren’t goin to turn the calendar back on myself.
You can hear it in the cadence, in the uniqueness of the speech: “I weren’t goin to turn the calendar back on myself.” This is someone for whom liberty is real—as real in its absence as when he can all but hold it in his hands. At 21, in 1906, Nate Shaw set out to raise his first cotton crop; in 1932 he stood for the Alabama Sharecroppers Union against a gang of sheriffs sent to take over a friend’s property, and paid for his stand with 12 years in prison; he found God. He walked out of prison. He lived a new life.
From his first day on his own, he was not someone who could be reduced to a type, a symbol, or made to stand for a cause. Against all odds he had in fact achieved what the country promised him: “life,” on his own terms; “liberty,” seized, acted out, taken from him; “the pursuit of happiness”—which, at the end of his life, meant firing a revolver in the air. “I shoots it some times just to see if it will yet answer me,” he said. “I throw it to the air and ask for all six shots: YAW YAW YAW YAW YAW YAW.” The story came off the pages with suspense, order, clarity, and drama, as if Shaw had long before determined not to quit this life without leaving a piece of his own behind.
His own—all he had, to pass on to whoever might stumble upon the now-forgotten book made of his particular pursuit of happiness. But if the historians gathered to choose the books of our history had not heard of Nate Shaw—and, hearing his story, they finally chose to fold it into the story they themselves were trying to tell—if they hadn’t heard of Nate Shaw, in a certain way, Vito, standing in that New Hampshire antique store, was hearing Nate Shaw speak as he read the words on the license plate.
As Vito read “Live Free or Die,” a song began to come up on the soundtrack: a song called “4th of July,” recorded in 1987 by the Los Angeles punk band X. It’s thrilling, and it’s heartbreaking; a couple’s marriage is falling apart, but it’s the Fourth of July. The feeling is that by failing their marriage they are betraying the country: “We gave up trying so long ago.”
Can Jefferson save their marriage? Can they save the country? Like The Sopranos, the song doesn’t say yes or no—it makes the question real, makes it yours.
Commencement address, originally reprinted in Salon.