Putting ‘Independence’ Back in Independence Day

Studying history can help us imagine ways to gain more control over our lives at work and at home.

When we fire up the grill on the Fourth of July, few of us take time to consider what “independence” is all about. We live in the land of liberty. We celebrate freedom. But independence?

The Declaration of Independence, approved by Congress on July 4, 1776, stated the case for breaking the bond between the colonies and Great Britain. But independence in the Revolutionary era meant more than severing a political connection.

British society was a tangled system of dependence. The nobility depended on the king for favors, the gentry on the nobility, and the commoners on their betters.

Yes, the colonists were determined to break with Britain. But the notion of personal independence was also a key idea in our definition of ourselves as Americans. “Dependence,” Thomas Jefferson said, “begets subservience and venality.” No man took precedence by birth. All were created equal. Autonomy was essential to citizenship.

In the early decades of the 19th century, the burgeoning industrial revolution began to encroach on this idea of personal independence. The self-sufficient small farmer gave way to the factory worker. The workplace became a fiefdom where the rights of the employee were severely limited.

Dependence returned. What the boss said, went. Laborers were scorned as “wage slaves.”

An event in 1824 marked the first open resistance to this new form of dependence. Workers at the Slater Mill in Pawtucket, Rhode Island — the nation’s first textile factory — staged a “turn-out.” It became the first industrial strike in American history.

The employees were protesting layoffs, punishing hours, and dangerous working conditions. After a week of chaos, during which they stoned the mill owner’s house, the employees reached a compromise settlement.

The sometimes violent, uphill struggle for personal autonomy became a perennial theme of our history. Today, with private-sector unionization below 7 percent, trade unions are no longer a viable means for workers to avoid dependence on corporate managers — who themselves depend on business owners and financiers.

Americans have always kept alive the myth of independence. We continue to see ourselves as hardy pioneers. We value entrepreneurship. But modern life has conspired against independence.

The self-made man or woman is the exception. Consumer culture ensures our dependence on corporations and institutions for our food, our shelter, our news and entertainment. If we’re lucky, we receive “benefits,” as well as a salary, in exchange for our fealty to an employer.

Awareness of the corrosive effects of this extreme dependence has grown in recent years. The stagnation of income for most working people, and the gross inequality that flows from it, has become too obvious for even Republican presidential candidates to ignore.

Independence Day is a good time to remember what independence really means in America. Our history can help us imagine ways to gain more control over our lives, at work and at home. It reminds us that, just as in 1776, independence can enhance the well-being of all.

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