Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Seeing the Declaration of Independence as a Mission Statement

It is Independence Day, our great national holiday. The Fourth of July is supposed to be the day we set aside every year to celebrate the foundation of our great republic, trumpet our experiment in self-government, and come together as a people to remember the values upon which this country is founded. Though John Adams got the date wrong (he expected the holiday to be July 2, when the Continental Congress approved the resolution for independence), the "Atlas of Independence" was right on the money when he said:

I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival. It ought to be commemorated as the day of deliverance by solemn acts of devotion to God Almighty; it ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires and illuminations from one end of this continent to the other, from this time forward, forevermore. 

And Thomas Jefferson, who wrote the glorious document signed on this day two hundred and forty-one years ago, had these words to say about the Fourth of July, in one of the last letters he ever wrote.

[M]ay it be to the world, what I believe it will be, (to some parts sooner, to others later, but finally to all,) the Signal of arousing men to burst the chains, under which monkish ignorance and superstition had persuaded them to bind themselves, and to assume the blessings & security of self-government. that form which we have substituted, restores the free right to the unbounded exercise of reason and freedom of opinion. all eyes are opened, or opening, to the rights of man. the general spread of the light of science has already laid open to every view. the palpable truth, that the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately, by the grace of god. these are grounds of hope for others. for ourselves, let the annual return of this day forever refresh our recollections of these rights, and an undiminished devotion to them.

(The fact that both John Adams and Thomas Jefferson died on July 4, 1826, the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, was considered by many at the time to be a sign from the Almighty. Who are we to say it wasn't?)

Now, I love fireworks, drinking beer, and cooking out on the grill as much as anyone. But as with Memorial Day and Labor Day, I fear that we lose perspective when we fail to stop and appreciate what our national holidays are really about. On Independence Day, I think it's important to stop and think about what the American Revolution was really all about. Our nation is the only state in the history of the world founded upon moral principles, rather than some sort of ethnic or tribal identity, and those moral principles were spelled out in the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence, the thirty-five most important words ever written in the English language.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.

July 4 is a day of patriotism. We live in a cynical age in which patriotism is all too often dismissed as old-fashioned of even bigoted. This is wrong. While we should never gloss over the many times America has failed to live up to its own ideals, and even committed the unspeakable crimes of enslaving African-Americans committing ethnic cleansing of American Indians, we should still love our country. Indeed, keeping our national shortcomings in our mind should spur us on towards the full realization of the words within the Declaration, which we have yet to achieve even in our own time.

The Declaration of Independence was much more than a simple statement that America would be an independent nation. It was a mission statement. It was not describing America as it was, but America as it is supposed to be. In writing those words, Jefferson was throwing a gauntlet down at our feet. Can we build a society in which a self-governing people are truly free and equal? Nobody knew better than he the difficulties of that challenge, for despite his best efforts he could never devise a solution to the slavery problem. It took a bloody war and the deaths of around seven hundred thousand Americans to purge that curse from our land. In doing so, we also determined that America was going to be a single republic rather than a confederation of individual states.

The destruction of slavery was only a single step up the vast flight of stairs towards the realization of the mission expressed by the Declaration. It took another century before full civil rights for all people regardless of race was enshrined in our nation's laws. In the meantime, a battle was fought and won for full political rights for women, though anyone who thinks this struggle is truly over is deluding themselves. Citizenship was not granted to American Indians until the 1920s. Even in our own time, we struggle with the granting of full equality to gay and lesbian Americans. The fight for true equality continues, but we can take justifiable pride when we reflect that the rights of all citizens have gradually expanded year-by-year over the course of American history.

We must resist efforts to gloss over the past failings of our nation, but we also must resist the temptation to reject patriotism as if it were narrow-minded nationalism. I love my country and I wish all other Americans did, too. The United States of America has been, is, and will continue to be a force for tremendous good in the world. In the 1940s, America led a global crusade against fascism that crushed the power of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan, liberating millions of people who conquered and enslaved by those evil regimes. Through the long and dark years of the Cold War, the United States contained Soviet communism until the threat of that ideological disease collapsed of its own dead weight. The United States has led the way in scientific and technological advancement, manifested best by the footsteps of Neil Armstrong on the surface of the moon.

More than anything else, though, America really does continue to stand as a "city upon a hill". It remains an example of a people united not by ethnicity, language, or religion, but by agreed upon moral and political principles, and building a society in which people are free, equal before the law, and have the chance to strive for a better life for themselves and their families.

The Fourth of July is a day of celebration. Put on colorful shirts of red, white, and blue and go see fireworks with your family and friends. Enjoy your beer and grill some burgers and hot dogs. Belt out Lee Greenwood's "God Bless the USA!" Indulge in the fun of the holiday, by all means. But while doing that, take a few moments to reflect on the ideals on which our great republic was founded upon. More than anything else, though, remember that Jefferson's words in the Declaration were a mission statement and that it is incumbent upon all of us, as citizens, to do our part towards the fulfilling of that mission.