On this day, we must remember what unites us
Washington, July 4, 2020
The country we call the United States of America today was once an act of bold imagination.
When our Founding Fathers put ink to parchment and penned the words, “We hold these truths to be self-evident…,” there was no blueprint for them to follow. When the Second Continental Congress ratified the final text of this Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776, it was launching into uncharted territory. They were creating a vision for a country that did not yet exist. As Ronald Reagan would later say, “This idea that government is beholden to the people, that it has no other source of power except the sovereign people, is still the newest and the most unique idea in all the long history of man’s relation to man.”
Over the years, those words on parchment, our Declaration of Independence, were built into a nation – forged in the fires of revolution and civil war, and stretching from coast to coast across a continent. There were growing pains and flaws to be mended, but that same bold imagination responsible for our birth has continued to define our march towards the future.
It has redefined the possibilities of representative democracy, proving that people have a right to the dignity of self determination and the ability to direct their own governance. It was American imagination that created this blueprint for modern democracy that countries around the world today have adopted, learned from, and used as a model for their own governments.
It has spurred progress, innovation, and invention. It was American imagination that made the world hold its breath as Neil Armstrong’s voice crackled over the airwaves from a place no human had stepped before: “That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.”
It is also what pushes us towards fuller realizations of the ideals our Founders outlined. It was the ability to imagine a better and more just future that led Martin Luther King, Jr.’s voice to ring out across the National Mall with four words that would define a movement and reverberate across generations: “I have a dream.”
Dr. King would go on to say: “When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the “unalienable Rights” of “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness… We refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. And so, we’ve come to cash this check, a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.”
That is what our Founders gave us that day: a bold vision for something that did not yet exist. An invitation to believe, to dream, and to fight for its realization.
Think about it: the world they were living in at the time was not yet a reflection of the words on that parchment. Yet, these early Americans were able to look past what was and envision what could be. With this great act of imagination, they were setting the tone for what America should look like, what freedom should look like, what justice and equality should look like.
There are eras in our history when we have failed these ideals, but these ideals have never failed us. At times, we have failed us. With every passing generation, we must strive to live up to our ideals and our virtues more fully and thus empower all to live more freely. America is not exceptional because it is perfect. America is exceptional because the greatness of the ideas upon which it was founded transcend any human efforts to fulfill them. They must outlive and outlast each of us. They are both a battle cry and an invitation to every generation: Come, let us imagine a world that is more just, more civil, more peaceful, and more free. Let us work to make it so.
Today, as we commemorate the birth of our country, we are grateful for Americans of every color, race, and creed throughout our history who have sacrificed and spoken out, battled and bled for this nation. But now, the torch has been passed to us. As Abraham Lincoln said, “It is for us the living to…highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain – that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” We own this moment in history. It is our responsibility to harness every ounce of energy, optimism, and imagination to live up to the values that were outlined on that piece of parchment so many years ago.
It will not be easy. There is always a cost. It will require sacrifice, compromise, and great commitment. It will require us to bridge the chasms that divide us and remember what unites us. We must continue in the footsteps of every generation that came before us, who fought to leave the flame of freedom burning a bit brighter. Our nation is worth it.
God bless the United States of America.
This piece was originally published by the Cincinnati Enquirer.