The country comes round to its birthday again and with every birthday there comes the occasion for reflection. We might consider our history with pride for what is best in us, and even rue one or two failings. We might ask ourselves if we are old, or still very young.
Every birthday brings us back to our beginnings, and as I write this I find myself pondering that moment that we’ve chosen to identify as our birth, as our first national breath. It was the signing of a document. We don’t mark our beginning as the day of some decisive military victory, or the day some treaty finally recognized our existence. We mark it as the day we declared our independence, and the day we found some powerful language to define our meaning.
I think what makes that moment in our history, and our living understanding of that history, meaningful is something of the poetry in that document we signed 245 years ago. It is something of that poetry that establishes the moment of birth for our country as something more than the date some disaffected gentry signed a pact against taxes and unfair commerce, made a call for better representation of their interests in government. Had the Declaration of Independence merely been such a listing of grievances and some carefully worded political resolution, I don’t think we would celebrate July 4th in the way we do today. But there is something powerful happening with those words “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” there is something still deeper as our founding promise is sealed with the pledge of our “lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor.” There is stirring music in that language, there is also something of substance to those words.
From the very first sentence, we define the American adventure as an episode “in the course of human events.” With those opening few words we state that the charter of this nation and its subsequent fate will be about more than one nation or its privileged people, but rather that these will be a comment on humanity itself. We go on to declare certain “self-evident” truths, and that in among these is the fundamental truth that all men are created equal and endowed with certain inalienable rights. These rights are not conferred by the state or its government, or defined as the due privilege of some select group. They are not ratified by our Declaration of Independence, they are simply, and profoundly, acknowledged, in truth, to exist for everyone.
This Declaration of ours is not about what it means to be an an American. Rather, it is about what we take it to mean to be a human being.
Among those who signed this document on July 4, 1776 were men who owned slaves. There were plantation owners and plutocrats who surely fretted about the dangerous aspects of this democracy they were about to fashion. There would be compromise and contradiction from the start. There would be war upon war, even war upon ourselves. It would be nearly another 150 years before the great great granddaughters of those first signers would be guaranteed the right to vote in this democracy, nearly 190 years before those descended of slaves would finally lay claim to the same self-evident truth of civil rights. Skeptics might be right to call into question some of the lofty rhetoric we celebrate.
But what of that question? What of men who can articulate ideals beyond their own failings?
What if Thomas Jefferson and his fellow founding fathers had chosen more careful language that made a more exact accounting of our nation’s founding compromises and contradictions, of their own moral limitations? Would subsequent generations have taken up the challenge, as Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “to live out the true meaning of our creed”?
To acknowledge hypocrisies, even profound failings in our history, is not to discount the profound poetry of that creed, of what we hoped we could be of at our beginning, what we had the courage to profess as our dream, even as we failed to live up to that dream at the time, even as we might still be striving today.
So I’ll leave it at this: Birthdays are about beginnings and also about what follows. We might indulge in a little pride or harbor a few regrets as we consider the gifts we must live up to and the mistakes we must live down. Each new year gives us another chance to do a little of both.
Yes, I’ll leave it at that, America. A little of both…
This essay appears in Personal Histories