The lasting gift of the Fourth of July (opinion)

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A recent Gallup poll shows that national pride in the United States is at an all-time low. The growing division of our country and the unwillingness of some to participate in a healthy civilized debate and listen to dissenting opinions is fueling further fissures.
In the face of social unrest, economic distress, and the ongoing pandemic, it is perhaps not surprising that Americans have lost some faith in their institutions and their national history. Another CBS News poll found that 67% of Americans consider the country to be on the "wrong track."

Americans are expected to govern themselves, but we are neglecting to provide our citizens with the foundation to uphold these responsibilities, our shared values ​​as a nation, and how this country has evolved over time. Nations need to have symbols, creeds, and stories that allow different people to imagine a shared sense of purpose and interest. Without them, it is difficult to find common ground. People who do not understand why they hold their beliefs are often unable to have a constructive conversation about the difficult problems that democracies must collectively solve.

Fourth of July should be a day for Americans to celebrate the common values ​​that spring from our nation's origin. When the American patriots parted with Great Britain, they stated their reasons, noting that "a decent respect for the views of humanity" required an explicit statement.

The first part of the Declaration would enshrine two powerful principles that have come to define the fundamental values ​​of the American nation. The first was an affirmation that governments must respond to the consent of the governed, and the second was an affirmation that all men are created equal, with rights that are inalienable and must be protected.
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These two concepts created the cornerstone of American freedom and the justification for American democracy. They have powerfully shaped American values ​​and identity, but it didn't have to be that way.

In early 1776, William Henry Drayton, a patriot from South Carolina, wrote a declaration of independence from Britain that had similar complaints against the crown, the same complaints about the tyranny of the British, but did not use any of the phrases. with respect to popular consent or equal rights for people. Instead, he used a more conservative argument, which emphasized that the king had abdicated his responsibilities to his subjects in the colonies, and therefore the colonies were allowed to establish their own governments.

Without an emphasis on popular sovereignty and equal rights, it would have been a very different statement. Without the creed of freedom, the document would not have been so significant and would not have contained the transforming fuel that drives the aspirational values ​​of our nation.

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But our Declaration of Independence argued that all men are created equal and that governments must respect fundamental rights and represent the consent of the people. And so Americans immediately took advantage of these concepts to reshape the world around them.

Despite the limitations on the right to vote for poor men, for women, the continued existence of slavery, and the limitations on civil rights of African Americans at the time of our independence, the powerful rhetoric of equality and consent had an impact. transformer.

As early as 1780, equality-like language was used in the declaration to create Pennsylvania's first gradual manumission law, which would end slavery in a generation. Language similar to the Declaration of Independence was used to end slavery in a judicial argument in Massachusetts in 1782, as well as in other northern states, the first large-scale emancipations in modern history.
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Poor men across the country would use the language of equality and popular sovereignty to claim equal access to vote during the founding era. Equal rights language would topple the state-controlled monopoly of religious truth for a long time in the Eurocentric world, and would guarantee the belief in freedom of conscience for all people in the United States.

Immigrants would use the Declaration to claim equal treatment and access to citizenship, and therefore representation. It would be used to justify the idea of ​​the legitimacy of an opposition party against the elected majorities, and it would be used to protect the rights of people in the Constitution, as well as the state constitutions, which came to define American citizenship.

Abraham Lincoln would use language in his 1863 Gettysburg speech to remind a shattered country that the nation was "conceived in Liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal," and that fighting in the Civil War would help See if these claims could last.
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Women would use the Declaration of Independence to demand equal laws and the right to vote. Unions would use it to organize work against capital. The American people would use it to navigate between the charms of fascism and communism when our systems seemed to be failing. Abolitionists would use it to attack the institution of slavery, and Fredrick Douglass and Martin Luther King, and many others, would use it to point out the hypocrisy of white citizens in the face of continued black oppression. And we still use these principles to measure the freedom of other nations, regardless of whether or not we decide to adapt our foreign policy to our values.

George Washington, when he became the first president of this new nation, with such great ideals, declared that it was going to be "a great experiment in human happiness". He also reminded the founding generation that "it has yet to be decided whether the Revolution should ultimately be viewed as a blessing or a curse: a blessing or a curse, not just for the present age, as our destiny will be the destiny of born will get involved. "

The founding generation did not make a perfect country. In many ways, they failed to deliver on their powerful vision of freedom. However, they gave us our foundational aspirations and institutional heritage that we still trust to solve our problems. We can be proud of it. It is a foundation on which it has been continually built, but it can only last if we teach our history.

Washington's challenge is still upon us as we strive to live up to our nation's high ideals. It is not the founders who are responsible for our failures to fulfill the creed of this nation, we are free to shape our future. Our shared values ​​of equality and popular consent still drive our frustrations with our imperfect society today, but these are our values ​​and we should be proud to celebrate them.

So, on the fourth of July, go ahead, eat a cookout, fire some fireworks, raise a flag, and salute the promise of America and all those who have fought and lived for it. And be proud to recognize that we, the people, control the meaning of equality and popular government in our future, which is our heritage and our great confidence.

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