...We hold these Truths to be self evident, that all Men are
So begins the seminal section of our Declaration of Independence,
one of the boldest, bravest and most remarkable documents in human
history. Thirteen years later an even more startling document, the
Constitution of the United States was ratified.
The people who created the foundations of our country were, by any
definition at any time, radicals. Constructing a new country from
scratch was simply not done in the 18th century. Or very much since
then. And what a novel country this would be with its representation
and three branches of government, each distinctly separate but able to
check and balance the others. Weve been given an executive branch
with remarkable powers but not enough to allow for despotism. We
have a legislative branch pitting the frenetic pace of the House
against the leisurely, sometimes glacial speed of the Senate. And a
judiciary to keep everyone in line.
There hasnt been a day, however, there werent those ready to
declare our grand experiment on the verge of failure. The doubters
are still with us more than two centuries later.
To be sure our history is replete with moments and periods that
brought us to the precipice of disaster. But our Constitution, the
foundation on which we continually build our future, has always been
stronger than the crisis du jour.
We started in violent revolution and every generation since has had
to shoulder their burden of war. We look now in horror at the toll
being exacted on our sons and daughters in the more than eight years
weve been in the Middle East. We recoil at the reality that weve
lost more than 6,000 American lives in wars in Afghanistan and Iraq
and wonder if we will survive intact as a nation. But there was a day
during the Civil War at a place called Antietam where in just 11 hours
there were 23,000 casualties including 7,000 deaths. In four horrific
years the death toll spiraled beyond 500,000. Add to that two world
wars and a host of regional conflicts and weve lost more than
1,000,000 of our citizens to warfare. A million futures cut short,
some in causes noble and necessary and some not so much. But somehow
we survived, the foundation of our country intact.
Weve had dust bowls and depressions and able-bodied men and women
standing in soup lines and selling apples and pencils on street
corners. Weve had enemies with substantial military power trying to
destroy us. Weve had arms races so expansive and destructive the
world is now full of nuclear weaponry capable of destroying the planet
many times over. A former leader of the now defunct Soviet Union once
pounded his shoe on a table at the United Nations and declared he
would crush us. Those enemies are now gone, replaced by others, and
we are still standing.
Our system is not full of absolutes. Part of the beauty is that it
allows for possibilities, for change, for progress. Weve felt the
need to amend our Constitution 27 times since it was first ratified.
The original document was decidedly imperfect. Our country accepted
slavery for nearly 90 years after our founding, a stain we can never
erase. And it took us another half century after that to allow women
the simple dignity of voting. But we did make those changes because
The Founders gave us a written framework but understood our future
is dependent on people. Unfortunately, we have always had among us the
charlatans and cowards and scoundrels. Our elected officials have
included criminals and various miscreants. The political dialogue has
frequently been ugly beyond reason or rationality. At the beginning,
there were pamphleteers and newspaper publishers whose repugnant
commentary was untrue and incendiary by any standards.
Todays bile is spewed by radio hosts and bloggers engaged in a
petty and pessimistic race to the bottom. The digital age allows a
single lie to be repeated millions of times and be read by tens of
millions of internet surfers in a handful of seconds. That is the
dark side of our freedoms. But the same system that gives us the
haters and doomsayers also produced the simple and elegant genius of
So far, weve not been weak enough or venal enough to destroy that
which we celebrate this week. We have not yet purchased waterfront
property on the River Styx.
There is somewhere today a baby boy or girl happily gurgling. She
might have been born to privilege or he might have been born in
difficult circumstances. Our baby might be black, white, red, yellow,
brown or some lovely combination and is completely oblivious to our
current challenges or the uncertain future we face. He or she will go
to school, will achieve, will make mistakes, will learn, will get
scrapes and cuts, will break a bone or two, and will head to college
full of promise. Somehow, despite the odds, that baby will one day be
President of the United States, another link in an unbroken chain now
234 years long.
A new generation of children, and their children still to follow,
will celebrate another Fourth of July. The wheel will keep turning.