Even though I was born and raised in Rhode Island, I’ve never made it to the famous 4th of July parade in Bristol, described as “the oldest continuous celebration of its kind in the United States.” I’m happy to say I will be attending this year’s celebration.
But before I pack up the kids and drive to Bristol, I’ll do what has become a personal 4th of July tradition. Every 4th of July for (at least) the past 15 years, I read the Declaration of Independence out loud, reflecting not only on the words, but on the spirit of what this day is all about.
July 4, 1776
In today’s hyper-partisan, hyper-divided political climate, it’s easy to lose sight of the significance of a document drafted 237 years ago. On that day, July 4, 1776, representatives from all 13 British colonies in America put their signatures on a piece of paper, and declared that:
… these united Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States, that they are Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved …
The significance of those words cannot be overstated. And the dangers those individuals feared would result was made even more real through the brutalities suffered by both sides in the ensuing War of Independence. But they signed anyway:
… with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor.
After all was said and done, the Constitution was enacted in 1787, and so began our experiment as a representative republic. Of course, no one knew whether this experiment would succeed, or fail miserably. Benjamin Franklin admitted as much when he replied to a question posed to him shortly after the Constitutional Convention. When asked what kind of government we have, Mr. Franklin famously replied, “A Republic, if you can keep it.”
Freedom and slavery
In retrospect, we all understand that the men who signed the Declaration of Independence were flawed, and that the paradoxes that existed in American society at the time of its drafting are difficult to square with the words contained in that document:
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.
And on that point, we can’t ignore the fact that many of the very people who signed the Declaration were slave owners. Or to put it bluntly: some of the signers thought it was perfectly fine to own people and treat them like property. Indeed, the institution of slavery was a disgusting episode in our history that should not be glossed over whenever we speak about the founding generation or the Declaration of Independence.
But nor should the fact of slavery negate the importance of what occurred in that Philadelphia hall on July 4, 1776, where it was recognized that:
… to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.
It took over 80 years to finally abolish the immoral practice of slavery, and even though 148 years have passed since the end of the Civil War, slavery’s effects still linger in our consciousness, as well as our institutions.
An inspiring document
Having said that, I still find inspiration in the sentiments expressed in the Declaration, and truly respect the circumstances that gave rise to its purpose and goal.
Since the enactment of the Constitution in 1787, America has fought in 11 major wars and has engaged in a number of other military conflicts. Not surprisingly, and perfectly natural in a free society, people will continue to debate the necessity of some of these conflicts, how they came about, and whether they were morally, legally or politically justified.
Yet few would object to honoring the men and women who gave their lives in defense of the American ideal, not the least of which includes its founding principles as articulated in our Declaration of Independence.
Modern political discourse
As I alluded to earlier, the current political environment is one of great discourse and disagreement that could easily be described as toxic. Today’s ideologues have very little appreciation and respect for the arguments and motives of their political adversaries. Every issue merely serves as fuel for each side to use in an already white-hot political atmosphere.
Whether it be the economy, immigration, social issues, the environment, religion, guns, race, or some seemingly local matter that gets catapulted to the national “dialogue,” both sides dig in their heels and fight like the issue du jour is of monumental consequence for the nation’s survival. And both sides accuse the other of acting only in bad faith or out of political expediency.
As Reason Magazine writer, Nick Gillespie, put it in a recent Daily Beast article about the NSA surveillance program, “rank political partisanship trumps bedrock principle every goddamn time on just about every goddamn issue.” Sad but true, in my opinion.
In closing, for those who still hold out glimmers of hope for a less divisive future, do yourself and posterity a favor this 4th of July. With an open mind, and out of respect for those who came before us, read through the Declaration of Independence. It is an eloquent statement about freedom, and a humble reminder of how we got here and why – even if those who drafted and signed it were mere mortals.
Have a happy and safe Independence Day! I hope you enjoy the firework shows and barbecues. I know I will.
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