Two hundred and forty-one years ago John Adams suggested that all future Independence Day celebrations “ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations from one end of this continent to the other, from this time forward forevermore.”
Celebrate we should, for in the successive generations since Adams, the nation and the world have dramatically changed; experiencing more freedom and a wider umbrella of democracy than ever before in the history of civilization. In doing so, however, we may have been losing some of the vital tenets of American liberty. Sometimes what we gain in experience we lose to arrogance. What we learn in technology we forget in compassion. Independence Day is a good time to reflect on our personal contributions to this grand experiment we so often take for granted. In today’s America do we still embrace the open debate of issues? Is the concept of “duty” revered as it once was? Is it the goal of every American to improve the nation?
Leader of the free world is a lofty self-proclaimed title for a relatively young nation. The character of the American citizen is unusual. We are brash, aggressive, driven, inventive, curious, and passionate, but should we act as a disciplinarian, the stern parent of a reckless world? I continue to ask, who better?
We are not a perfect people. No nation possesses perfection. Our form of government and its leaders, like our citizens, are flawed. However, we are a forgiving people, blessed with great compassion. Our history has earned us the role we play on this increasingly smaller planet. Yes, we have our foibles and missteps that sometimes last longer than we should allow. There are times when our collective moral compass wavers in a seemingly untenable wind. Ultimately our leaders, the people we have put into decision and influence making positions, either through the ballot or public interest, have sustained, tweaked, fiddled and continued to improve a fundamental principle that has served humanity well. All men are created equal. If we wish to hasten progress on this idea, we need to improve the caliber of our leaders. Liberty and freedom bring out the best of people’s minds and abilities. It can also bring out the worst, which is why such a high price is justly placed on values.
Values are intimate to each human being. However, all citizens of a community must share some unifying values, whether that community is a family, a corporation, a nation or the world. The people of the United States value life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness and our Constitution is our guide. As is true for the Bible and many other great written works, the contents are open to interpretation. The soul of America also values the right to debate, to criticize and to disagree without succumbing to puerile temptations to debase and defame; to peddle in hate, or provoke violence. Many of our citizens have lived with our freedom for so long that even in the midst of our longest war, they have forgotten the equally important roles of responsibility and good will.
Until the entire world can appreciate freedom, and is united in defeating internal and external oppressors of that inalienable human right, someone must stand up for it steadfast and consistently. Because of our founding principles, we are uniquely qualified to defend all other nations and people pursuing liberation, regardless of its tactical importance to our national security. The biggest threat to our national security is the loss of liberty and dismantling of democracy. That is why the words of John F. Kennedy still ring true today and should serve as a reminder until the world achieves lasting peace.
“Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty.”
If we do not believe those words today, we are not fully entitled to the freedom our predecessors fought so hard for.
Many have lost their appreciation for this great country and the diverse people who add to its strength and character. It is not too late for each of us to contribute with our own elements of greatness. As true now as in past centuries, those with curiosity, tenacity, and optimism ought to be our celebrated heroes, regardless of their current role in our vast society.
Note: Much of this article was originally published in the Boston Globe at a letter to the editor on July 4, 2007. It has been moderately updated to reflect changes in the decade that has passed.