Imagine checking your smartphone in 1776 and finding this from @realThomasJefferson: “So many people are saying we need this Declaration. It’s something really special for our great country. King George is a disgrace and total loser. Now we’re independent. So important!”
Fortunately, the actual real Thomas Jefferson didn’t operate that way. He dealt in reason and ideas. Someday future historians will examine the founders’ writings alongside our current leader’s pile of tweets and marvel at our precipitous decline.
Human beings are forgetful. That’s why Exodus ordained the Sabbath to remember the Creator, and why Jesus gave his disciples the memorial of communion to remember him.
The Fourth of July is one of our national memorials. John Adams predicted it would be commemorated as our “Day of Deliverance.” That deliverance goes beyond the birth of the nation. It resides in the promised nature of that nation, a promise toward which we’ve struggled with more and less success for 243 years.
The Declaration of Independence is more than an announcement. It’s an explanation.
First, Jefferson explains the reason for the document — that people engaging in a revolution to become a separate nation owe the world a statement of the causes.
Jefferson next introduces what he calls “self-evident truths”: that all men are created equal, that they’re endowed by God with certain “unalienable rights,” and that government exists to protect those rights.
Government, Jefferson explains, derives its power from the people. If a government fails to protect its people’s rights, the people can withdraw their consent and form a new government. After detailing the king’s failure to protect the colonists’ rights, including his obstruction of justice and “cruelty and perfidy … totally unworthy [of] the head of a civilized nation,” Jefferson declares that the former colonies therefore “are, and of right ought to be free and independent states.”
In the process he articulates our founding principles. It’s those principles that we celebrate and that we should reflect on.
The Fourth of July does more than commemorate our national birthday. It memorializes our national identity. That’s why George Washington ordered that the Declaration of Independence be read to his army that July. He wanted them to understand the kind of nation they were fighting for.
It’s a proper commonplace that we thank veterans for their service. But in addition to our gratitude, we do them greater honor by remembering the principles and ideals they fought and died for, those being the same principles and ideals we should live by.
I’ve always drawn my students’ attention to the Declaration’s stirring last chord, where the founders “mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor.” Their promise wasn’t an abstraction. They were promising each other, knowing, as Ben Franklin observed, that if they didn’t hang together and honor their pledge, they would all assuredly hang separately for treason.
They were in it together.
We’re still in it together.
We just don’t know it.
Our disunity and dissension have roots and branches across the political spectrum. We have a president who thrives on strife, whose ignorance and intolerance are contagious. His speech and conduct incite rage and condone violence. He tries on tyranny like a comfortable suit.
In Congress, Mitch McConnell and his minions paralyze our government. Their hyperpartisan temperament and tactics are precisely what George Washington warned against.
Excessive zeal afflicts Democrats, too. Progressive doctrinaires are commonly intolerant of dissenting views and disdainful of moderation.
Even shoes can bring us to the barricades. When Nike debuted its new Betsy Ross sneakers, Colin Kaepernick, the quarterback exiled from the NFL for taking a knee during the national anthem, complained that the shoe’s 13-star flag dated from an era when slavery was legal. Nike promptly recalled the shoes, prompting Arizona’s conservative governor to cancel tax incentives for a new Nike plant, prompting California’s progressive governor to respond that his next-door state is “open for business.” Assorted other politicians and candidates chimed in, too.
No one should be compelled to salute a flag. Mr. Kaepernick should have been able to take a knee without forfeiting his livelihood, and he has the right to voice his objection to our nation’s first flag, just as I enjoy the liberty to point out that his right to object is guaranteed by the First Amendment, which was ratified under that same 13-star flag.
That said, we need to lay down such lesser controversies.
Greater perils demand our attention and resolve. The seat of Washington and Lincoln is sullied daily by deceit, narcissism, vulgarity and greed. Corruption is rampant, the free press is under siege, and our ideals are for sale to the highest bidder. Incompetence reigns, ignorance calls the tune, and cowards dance.
Tyranny crouches, ready.
This year’s fireworks have guttered out. Even setting aside the president’s customarily garbled rendering of history and the pro forma, pandering voice with which he delivered it, his “greatest show ever” entirely missed the point of the Fourth of July.
It’s not a holiday for self-congratulation and recounting our achievements. It’s not for celebrating weapons and the might of our armed forces. It certainly isn’t, as the president asserted, a vehicle for recruiting men and women to “join our military.”
In 1776 our army wasn’t mighty.
Our ideas were mighty.
They still are.
We need to support and defend them.
Our self-government won’t survive if we don’t.
Peter Berger, a Vermont columnist, has taught English and history for 30 years. Email letters to firstname.lastname@example.org.