Making sense of this holiday in a time of struggle.
The Fourth of July is usually a day of community, celebration, and joy. It is our national birthday party — the commemoration of a Declaration of Independence that changed “the course of human events.” It is a day of star-spangled banners and national pride — and of course the requisite hot dogs, fireworks, and parades.
But today, this year, the unity of our nation, its destiny, its self-confidence, the self-evidence of its truths are being pulled apart by forces of such strength that many wonder whether our nation, “so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure.”
Is there reason to celebrate this Fourth, or is a more fitting response to mourn what once was and what is currently in jeopardy?
To answer that question, it is important to bring our history into context. What was born on this day in 1776 was an ideal of freedom for a new nation that was far from its reality at the time. The Declaration contains the beautiful lines, "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,” but many who gathered to ratify independence, including the primary author of the document, Thomas Jefferson, embodied the cruel hypocrisy of slave ownership. From the beginning, the sin of human bondage, and the violent injustices it entailed, restrained the full breadth of our revolutionary ideals.
It is perhaps helpful to consider what took place that day in Philadelphia, nearly a quarter millennium ago, as less a culmination than a starting line. There was still a long-odds war to be won, and it would take many more years for George Washington’s ragtag forces to emerge victorious.
What ensued after that was more uncertainty. The early experiment in national self-governance under the Articles of Confederation was a failure, and thus the leading men of this nascent nation — and they were all men, and white ones — gathered again in Philadelphia to produce a Constitution, and a Bill of Rights.
Those represented another starting line.
Our founding documents contain some of the most aspirational rhetoric in the history of human self-governance. But when it comes to fully reconciling our lofty ideals with reality, the United States has staggered its way toward the present — lurching, plodding, accelerating, and sometimes even regressing.
We have come a long way, but we still have a long way to go to establish a just and “more perfect union.” Perfection is of course impossible, but we can be better than we are. This is the core challenge for each new generation of Americans.
In our fitful national journey, we have often seen reactionary forces wrap themselves in the mantle of American patriotism. We have seen the flag and a divisive reading of the Constitution used as cudgels to beat back progress and inclusiveness.
July 4 has always embodied these contradictions. In a famous and fiery 1852 speech to commemorate this day, the formerly enslaved abolitionist Frederick Douglass asked: "What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer; a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim."
What we should celebrate on the Fourth is less what happened on that day in 1776 and more what followed. Our Founding Fathers, deeply flawed though many of them were, set in motion a revolution in thought that far exceeded their imaginations. The principles they defined, once documented in writing, ceased to be theirs to own and shape. That people like Frederick Douglass, and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. a century later, should seek to narrow the chasm between our aspiration and our reality is as much a part of July 4 as faded words on parchment.
And that could be a guide for us today. We, as individuals and as a people, can choose not to let those who will divide us define this day. We can choose not to let those who seek to disassemble our progress determine our path forward; not to allow the forces of intolerance, autocracy, and lawlessness to claim our star-spangled banner.
The United States of America is and always has been an idea more than a place. Yes, we are rooted in our past, but just as importantly, America is about the dreams of our future. I have borne witness to too much heroism and courage to not celebrate what this nation has been and can be in the future. I have seen it in battles in far-off wars and marches in our streets, on picket lines and in courthouses, in classrooms and community centers, in mass movements and quiet defiance.
How dare the craven cynical actors who seek to destroy the heart of American democracy take away our pride. They will not define America for me, just as their predecessors did not define it for those who fought to make this nation better. The battles ahead will not be easy, but neither was the fight for justice in the past. Entrenched power is never easily overcome.
On this Fourth of July, I am celebrating fully and without reservation. I honor it as a day of struggle, and the struggle endures. I recognize it as a day of reflection on how fragile our rights and democracy are. But I also see it as a day to acknowledge how far we have come and how far we can go. I will never accede to an America where that journey is over. And in this I know that I am not alone.
In closing, let me leave you with lines by John Dickinson (1732-1808) from “The Liberty Song,” a patriotic song that predated the Revolutionary War, and whose sentiments have resonated ever since:
“Then join hand in hand, brave Americans all,
By uniting we stand, by dividing we fall.”
And finally, another stanza from the song feels particularly relevant for our conversation here in this community:
“In Freedom we're born and in Freedom we'll live.
Our purses are ready. Steady, friends, steady.”