This weekend America will celebrate its 244th birthday. Unfortunately, we do so in a time of a pandemic, a struggling economy, and violent protests. But, it’s still our birthday and we should both commemorate and celebrate it.
We usually do a good job in our celebration, although this year will be different since social distancing means we’ll be in smaller groups and public fireworks displays have been cancelled. I suspect most of us will find a way to gather with family and close friends to cook out and show the red, white, and blue.
But, a commemoration is more than that. Merriam-Webster defines “commemorate” as “to call to remembrance” or “to serve as a memorial of.” How many of us will stop and remember what it meant for the Second Continental Congress to not only declare our independence from Britain but also to state our reasons for doing so in majestic language positing the highest ideals?
Let me make a suggestion. This Fourth, get a copy of the Declaration and read it. My extended family and friends usually get together and have several of us read the various portions of the Declaration out loud and talk about its meaning. It doesn’t take much time and we always experience a renewed appreciation for the gift that is our country. This year we will do it virtually, in smaller groups.
The Declaration was meant to be read out loud. Indeed, on July 4, Congress not only voted to accept it but also provided for its distribution to the states and the Continental Army. On July 6, John Hancock, as President of Congress, sent letters to the states and to General Washington enclosing broadsides of the Declaration requesting that they have it “proclaimed.” It was read out loud to celebrations in dozens of cities and towns in July and August, and to the Continental Army on July 9 as it prepared for the British Invasion of New York.
To some extent these events were meant to inform and inspire the people of a newly independent nation. But then, and now, the Declaration is a defining document. It not only said we were an independent nation but also who we aspired to be. Freedom and equality were to be at the heart of the nation’s character. And the rights stated in the Declaration—life liberty and the pursuit of happiness—are clearly labeled gifts from God himself to all of us.
The story of our country is really the unfolding of the efforts to live up to these aspirations. President Lincoln used it as a primary basis for arguing against slavery, as in the Gettysburg Address where he famously said, “Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth, on this continent, a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” As a result of the Civil War these ideals were enshrined in the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the Constitution.
Martin Luther King used it in his 1963 “I Have A Dream” speech, referring to the Declaration and the Constitution as a promissory note to all Americans which he and others in the Civil Rights Movement called upon the nation to honor. As a result of the Movement, Congress passed the 1964 Civil Rights Act and in 1965 the Voting Rights Act.
I know it is fashionable now among our nation’s elites to view America as evil from our birth, evil in our institutions, and evil in our character. That view is a myth, untethered to the reality of our history. This myth is just a false preamble to lay the groundwork for their efforts to radically reorganize our society and have government run every detail of our lives, all the while piling tax upon tax on us. Isn’t this type of government what caused the founders to declare independence in the first place? These elites call themselves “progressive,” but their plan is actually a regression to a tyrannical central government taxing us against our will.
Despite our faults, some of which have been grievous, we are a nation established upon the highest ideals and which has the strength of its character and institutions to self-correct as we strive toward those ideals. Our history repeatedly demonstrates that is who we are.
David McCullough, the Pulitzer Prize winning author and historian, several years ago told a gathering of those of us in Congress that Americans would be more hopeful if we only knew our history. How true. Complicated and contradictory, yes, but it is also a history of spectacular success and of a major force for good, here and abroad.
So, this week let’s celebrate and commemorate who we are. Let’s pause in the middle of our present troubles to renew our pride as Americans and draw lessons from our founding and history for the resolution of the issues of the day. And let us, like our founders, “mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor.”