THE FOURTH OF JULY is a holiday that ought to bring the nation together. It’s okay if British guests utter snarky opinions about how we’ve handled what was once their global backyard. This moment we celebrate the great things our ancestors accomplished, and if we’re serious about it, we’ll acknowledge the human toll and wonder what we will leave behind.
The American Revolution was just over the horizon here. Captured British cannon from Fort Ticonderoga during the first winter of the war were transported to Boston, where the new Continental Army besieged the British and forced them to retreat from that city. And as the Second Continental Congress in Philadelphia finished the Declaration of Independence at the beginning of July 1776, British troops were landing in New York City.
The Redcoats were preparing for what they expected would end the insurgency of the upstart colonials–what we might call today freedom fighters or guerillas? Instead they come down to us as patriots because they were successful and our history textbooks are written here, not in England.
The Constitution guided the formation of the country as we know it, but that came after the Revolution. It’s a practical document with a set of instructions for creating a democracy run by and for white men. Amendments have broadened its protections and more might help us catch up with the 21st century. But any amendment takes overwhelming national consensus. Is that likely anytime soon?
The spirit of the American Revolution–the words worthy of fireworks–reside in the Declaration of Independence: “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….” They are worth a holiday of their own even with the understanding that they were written by men who enslaved other human beings and who were succeeded by ones who dispossessed the people who lived here before Europeans arrived.
Maybe in previous generations it was common for students to read all of the Declaration. But now it’s hard to remember that this document was not just an eloquent statement of human rights but also a list of specific grievances against the “Tyrant,” King George III.
Read them again. Some are remarkably current, among them the patriots singled out “… obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their Migrations hither…” In other words our founding fathers demanded the freedom to allow more immigrants to live here.
Here’s one other thought about what makes the Declaration of Independence seem all the more important now. It’s personal. It’s in the concluding paragraph, which introduced the World to a new country called the United States of America and it says that by the “Authority of the people of these Colonies” the Declaration’s drafters “… solemnly Publish and Declare that these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, FREE AND INDEPENDENT STATES….”
These people who put their lives on the line for liberty accepted that it was important for the new nation not only to hear them claim independence but to have that claim written down and circulated. No, the founders didn’t specify newspapers until it came time to ratify the Bill of Rights in the Constitution, but there it is, on the page, from the beginning.
Last week President Trump, who calls all news he doesn’t like “fake news,” was sitting for photo opportunities with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Mr. Trump turned to Mr. Putin and suggested it would be good to get rid of all journalists.
The founders knew otherwise, although there have been times from the early years of our republic to the present when the promise of press freedom was temporarily broken. We can’t afford that now. Ignorance of the world around us will not protect us from the challenges ahead.
The Declaration and its flawed authors have given us standards still worth the struggle.
Happy Fourth of July.