Independence Day: a reckoning

Written by Rick B. Larsen

July 2, 2020

Throughout our history, certain Independence Day observances stand out. Typically these happen during years marked by conflict – difficulties that cause the traditionally carefree celebration of freedom, self-determination and prosperity to be more subdued and reflective, even reverent.

There is something poignant about marking the birth of a nation during moments when the freedom and unity of that nation are threatened. The Civil War, World War II, The Great Depression, Korea, Vietnam, 9/11, among others – all brought deeper meaning to Independence Day.

What does the holiday mean this year?

Recently, historian Ken Burns told CNN that we are living in one of the four most critical moments in American history.  The other three – interestingly enough – were the Civil War,  World War II and the Great Depression. Burns asserts that we are in “an enormous reckoning.” All political ideology aside, I believe he is right. I also believe that a full and productive reckoning must seek to build upon our past and must include equal parts of honesty, wisdom and gratitude.

To be honest, we should acknowledge that history is replete with proof that this great nation has always faced challenge right alongside achievement. Like every individual American, the nation itself is the embodiment of an ongoing struggle toward higher aspirations. Protesters on behalf of emancipation, suffrage, anti-war sentiment and social justice have always been there to push us forward – to call upon our better angels – to remind us that the union was meant to become more perfect.

Wisdom should tell us – and I believe this is beyond debate – that the imperfections of people create the most inspiring dimension of human accomplishment.

People are imperfect.

We dream but we stumble.

We try but we fall short.

We try again, and again.

It is this struggle that makes us both human and exceptional beings. If it were not for flawed individuals daring to look forward to a better day and a better way, world history – and certainly U.S. history – would not amount to much.

Gratitude would enable us to approach this reckoning with appreciation even for those now judged to be unacceptably imperfect. I have always found great meaning in a statement made by John Adams:

I must study politics and war that my sons [and daughters] may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. My sons [and daughters] ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history, naval architecture, navigation, commerce, and agriculture in order to give their children a right to study paintings, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry, and porcelain.

In this thought, Adams reveals a necessary process – a progression – that must accompany a higher vision for the future.

The Founders of this nation were not on a quest to put their vices and failings on display for all of history to revile. Rather, they saw a vision of the future that required a patient process required by human frailty. They dared to dream of eventual equity, peace and fulfillment. That vision induced them to risk all that they had.

Today we face a moment.

It is a reckoning.

It features a threat that can only come from within. This moment may well affect how generations will come to view and experience freedom. Will Independence Day remain a uniquely American commemoration of freedom that is at once sacred and boisterous? Individual and unifying? Proud and humble?

To be clear, destruction and cancel culture are not the answer. There are more productive and lawful ways to address the unrealized equality that vexes us today. But with honesty, wisdom and gratitude, our best hope is still the American framework of freedom and liberty. It affords us the right and ability to demand this reckoning in the first place. Pulling down that framework will place us on a path we will not soon recover from.

It is futile to hope for a better yesterday. Our hope must be in a clear and honest vision of the future. It must be informed by understanding and gratitude for all that came before. We are all inextricably joined in our fate. And in some shape or form, this Fourth of July will be a turning point.

America is, in the end, an idea that depends upon a collective belief in the Founders’ vision and a voluntary compliance with the principles of freedom. Our unique freedoms require that we all hold to an agreement that our rights come from God – not a king, ruler, party or ideology. And we do not earn freedom by reducing the freedom of others. That is the grand experiment. The declaration of these rights – this version of freedom – once changed the world, and it can change it again.

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