It’s a hard year to celebrate the 4th of July.
We are a country that takes rights away, and all signs point to more disappearing soon. We are a country confused by the concept of freedom of religion. We are a country where hooded white nationalists march with police protection while BLM, pro-choice, and other protestors are constantly met by police resistance. We are a country taking the first stumbling steps in a dance with fascism.
Every day I hear and read things like “It won’t happen here” and “That doesn’t affect me” and “Maybe if they’d made better choices …” Aloof intellectuals make their wry observations, “correcting” concerns such as mine, as if they are somehow above it all and safe from the consequences we face. Others keep singing the refrain of “I don’t get involved in politics,” as though that will shield them and their loved ones when the next hammer falls.
The only thing keeping me going today is the dream.
Not the American Dream of a mythological city on a hill, planted in our national psyche by narrow minded Puritans. (Remember that those dour, handwringing witch hunters came to these shores not seeking freedom of religion, but freedom for their religion.) Not the American Dream of Manifest Destiny, a dream that turned into a nightmare for countless non-white, non-male, non-land-owning people. (Remember too that Manifest Destiny didn’t have room for those who were here already.) And not the American Dream of getting rich and “having it all.”
My American Dream is one you’ve heard before. In it, there are self-evident truths that can’t be twisted, obscured, or deepfaked. Truths that speak of certain unalienable rights like Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness, readily available to all, regardless of race, sexual orientation, religion, gender identification, age, ability, nation of origin, education, or ability to speak fluent English. An American Dream in which governments derive just powers, not powers taken through lies, gaslighting, and other forms of manipulation. An American Dream not just with an eye on the present, but also eyes on the past and future.
Two hundred forty-six years ago today, the final wording of the Declaration of Independence was adopted by the Second Continental Congress, the Founding Fathers would sign it a few weeks later on Aug. 2, 1776. The Founding Fathers were not gods or demi-gods. They didn’t have superpowers or the ability to see the future. Nor were they infallible. They were seven men, capable of achieving incredible things, but also deeply flawed.
They were human. Just like us.
Generations to come would largely do away with their humanity, enshrining George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay on an American Mount Olympus. How could they possibly do any wrong?
What gets overlooked quite often is how self-aware Washington and the boys were. They knew they weren’t creating something without fault. You don’t have to get that far into the Declaration of Independence before it’s written out:
“… That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive to these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes … But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.”
These words demonstrate what we forget time and again: the Declaration of Independence isn’t the culmination of something. It’s the beginning of something.
Which is why it’s so important to look back at history with a critical eye. If you subscribe to the mythology of the Founding Fathers – which I don’t – you owe it to them to be critical, thoughtful, and analytical to propel their work well into the future. You are, after all, standing on the shoulders of giants. If you’re like me and view those seven guys as what they were – imperfect human beings – then we’re standing on the shoulders of each other, and we owe it to those by our side now, those who will follow, and those who came before, to continue the struggle.
As I said earlier, it’s a tough year to celebrate the 4th of July. But maybe it’s not about the celebration. Maybe its the time spent learning about, reflecting on, and working for the more perfect Union, a Union that establishes Justice, insures domestic Tranquility, provides for the common defense, promotes the general Welfare, and secures for each and ever American – regardless of race, sexual orientation, religion, gender identification, age, ability, nation of origin, education, or ability to speak fluent English – the Blessings of Liberty and Posterity.
On Thanksgiving we say we’re celebrating gratitude, but what good is that without demonstrating thankfulness the other 364 days of the year. At Christmastime, we sing of peace on Earth, but it’s an empty gesture without doing something about it the rest of the year. And today, the 4th of July, we celebrate Independence Day. But that’s all just so much noise and bright lights and barbecues if we don’t work to keep the American Dream alive and more achievable than ever on the 5th of July, the 19th of October, the 28th of February, and every other day of the year.
It’s a tough time to celebrate the 4th of July, but it’s a good day to dream and work for something better. And maybe next year … well, we’ll see.