August 8, 2023
Originally published in Deseret News.
In Utah, July 4 and 24 create what is essentially — if unintentionally — a monthlong celebration of freedom, heritage and history. Utah’s July festivities share the calendar with other, more intentional monthlong celebrations nationwide.
Other commemorations seek to educate and elevate various experiences and perspectives within the American story. Perhaps the nation could learn something from Utah and establish July as a monthlong celebration of American history — and 2026 would be a good time to start.
July 4, 2026, will mark the 250th anniversary of America’s founding, with controversies already brewing about what exactly this celebration will look like. Speculation abounds as to whether the commemoration of two and a half centuries of the American Experiment will be a celebration — or a wake.
If America is indeed still an experiment, it is a hypothesis largely proven — with one confounding variable at the core of current civil unrest. That variable is not any outside actor. It is we the people. The American Experiment was always predicated on a standard of virtue and civics education among its citizenry — but both have been in decline for decades.
We must reclaim an understanding of this experiment through more informed assessment. Failing to do so could have dangerous, even tragic consequences. And any honest evaluation will show that our current challenges are based less on the personal shortcomings of the originators of the experiment, and more on our own modern failings: partisan division, increasing contempt for one another and self-interest over principle.
The Founders of this nation observed — even suffered — the absence of freedom and human dignity. They dared to asked “why,” envisioned an alternative — complete with the conditional promise of personal liberty and prosperity, based on God-given rights and principled behavior — then fought for the right to test the hypothesis.
The United States subsequently grew into the most powerful force for freedom and prosperity in the world. The respect for individual liberties, coupled with principles of free enterprise, have lifted millions from poverty. We have recognized our mistakes and worked to perfect this Union — but always against a subcurrent of personal ambition and greed that has plagued humankind from the beginning of recorded time.
The American experiment has worked, right up to the point where some say it hasn’t. There are those who now doubt its legitimacy, question its origins and conflate fact with fiction — even suggesting alarming new hypotheses that demonstrate a misunderstanding of the very principles that have made us free.
The problem with these new hypotheses is that they are not new at all. They hark back to the grave mistakes of history. Demographic-structural theory and lessons learned from failed nations show time and again that freedom and prosperity — if not humbly defended — can slide into ambivalence and a social shift wherein freedoms are no longer inherent, no longer unalienable.
As for the originators of the experiment? Their monumental efforts to secure freedom — informed by their moment in history — are judged in hindsight as unforgivably inadequate. Their revolutionary vision is lost to presentism — practiced by people who bask in the freedoms inherited from patriots now considered too imperfect to deserve our gratitude, too flawed to be associated with public schools, libraries or streets.
What we celebrate in July has become a contradiction: a day when we recognize freedoms so expansive that they include the freedom to discard the heritage that made that freedom possible. This single day, July 4, is practically lost among the many monthlong observances — all relevant examples of America’s spirit of pluralism, but on their own, historically incomplete.
Our national celebrations should educate, unite and better us as a nation — rather than deepen the divides of difference and individual identity. We should strive to echo the petition penned by Katharine Lee Bates, “God mend thine every flaw,” and thus participate in perfecting the distinctive vision of “independent interdependence” — the social contract that we call a Republic.
The complexity of our circumstances is a predictable risk of pluralism. However, history and our founding virtues teach that we do not gain greater freedom by reducing the freedom and voice of those who disagree with us: In doing so, we ignore the very principles that granted those freedoms in the first place.
We are still the freest nation on earth — free enough to complicate and thereby undermine our freedom beyond reason and principled restraint. Our current understanding and practice of freedom is dividing and subdividing us into every conceivable faction — all exercising their freedom to exist.
Deep division and politicized versions of history are not expansions of freedom but exercises in hegemony. History pleads with us to do better. Perhaps — with conscious effort — by 2026 the focus can be unity rather than difference, and principle rather than politics.
“E pluribus Unum” — out of many, one. Perhaps — somewhere in a calendar filled with celebrations of many separate groups — there is room for a unifying month dedicated to the aspirations and principles that revive the possibility of truly making the many into one. Perhaps starting in 2026, July should become “American History Month.”
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