That’s my brother’s hand on the actual Liberty Bell. My brother is blind and developmentally delayed. For him, “seeing” any famous landmark is meaningless. We were visiting the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia one time right as they were closing down for the day. We were among the last people in line. My father asked the park ranger if it would be possible to let him touch the Liberty Bell. I didn’t think there was any way in the world they’d let him and neither did my father, but he asked anyway.
The park ranger, God bless him, said yes and did so without even the slightest hesitation, like it was no big deal at all.
When I visited Independence Hall, the park ranger sat us all down as soon as we entered the building. He asked each of us where we were from. As we went around the room, someone answered Georgia, someone answered Massachusetts, someone answered Nebraska, someone answered Wisconsin, someone answered California. One person said Hawaii. One person, who had taken a mere hour-and-a-half train ride from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, told us he was from “right here.” The park ranger smiled at each of us and then said he wanted to welcome us all to our “family home.”
“It was right here, in this building,” he said, “that our American family was created.”
The Declaration of Independence is a work written with both astute logic and earth-shattering rhetoric, laying forth a case to the world for why the American colonies had been subjected to tyranny and why they felt they had no choice, for the sake of human rightness itself, but to separate themselves from Great Britain. It lays out in plain terms that the decision to declare independence was not taken lightly (“Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient Causes…”) It is a document that invokes the natural rights of all people as having been given to them by “their Creator.” How much more powerful argument can there be than to say, “Look, we haven’t come to this decision lightly, but we have certain rights that were given to us by God, and the King is violating those rights (and here’s how), and so we are duty-bound to declare ourselves independent of the King’s rule”?
When I think about the Fourth of July, the first image in my mind is the reading aloud of the Declaration of Independence. Not just the text itself but the actual act of reading it aloud. I think about hearing those words spoken aloud, about a time when I read the whole text aloud myself for my family, and just how powerful those words really are.
I particularly love this celebrity reading, featuring multiple Hollywood actors and actresses of different ages, ethnicities, and political backgrounds. It is really something to hear it read aloud, especially with John Williams’ score in the background:
In the introduction here, Morgan Freeman says that the Declaration was meant to be performed out loud. Then, he makes a thoroughly honest statement: “It’s a safe bet that the Continental Congress never had in mind a performer like me—that is to say, a black man.”
He points out how the original draft of the Declaration of Independence written by Thomas Jefferson included a condemnation of the slave trade. Jefferson, who owned slaves himself and fathered children with at least one of them, had at other times called it “a moral and political depravity.” For the original draft of the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson had written this passage:
“He has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating & carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither. This piratical warfare, the opprobrium of infidel powers, is the warfare of the Christian King of Great Britain. Determined to keep open a market where Men should be bought & sold, he has prostituted his negative for suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or restrain this execrable commerce. And that this assemblage of horrors might want no fact of distinguished die, he is now exciting those very people to rise in arms among us, and to purchase that liberty of which he has deprived them, by murdering the people on whom he has obtruded them: thus paying off former crimes committed again the Liberties of one people, with crimes which he urges them to commit against the lives of another.”
The Continental Congress had that condemnation deleted from the final version.
Morgan Freeman mentions that the Declaration—“this preeminent statement on the equal rights of man”—in addition to turning a blind eye to our nation’s original sin of slavery, also makes no mention of women. He then asks:
“Why, some may ask, do I bring up such embarrassing truths on such a glorious occasion? I answer: The real glory of the Declaration of Independence has been our nation’s epic struggle throughout history to close the gap between the ideals of this remarkable document and the sometimes painful realities of American life. The Declaration symbolizes the birth of our nation, of course, but also the constant struggle to achieve its ideals.”
Later, that very contrast between the ideals of the document and the painful realities of American life even at the time of its adoption are reflected in a poignant directing choice, to have Native American actor Graham Greene, a member of the Oneida nation, read aloud this charge against King George III from the Declaration: “He has excited domestic Insurrections amongst us, and has endeavoured to bring on the Inhabitants of our Frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known Rule of Warfare, is an undistinguished Destruction, of all Ages, Sexes and Conditions.”
And so, in reflecting on the Fourth of July, on the truly powerful, truly incredible, truly influential Declaration of Independence, I am reminded of our struggle as a nation, from the very beginning and right up through present day.
America is not like any other nation in the world. We’re not a natural society, not a society that was built based on racial or ethnic or religious identity, but rather one based on an idea. That has always been key to the American experiment. We’ve always been both a work of progress and a work in progress.
We are hardly perfect as a nation. We’ve done some horrendous things or allowed horrendous things to happen. We’ve erred in monstrous ways. We are also not immune to the corruptions of power, nor to the human frailties that we all possess. We’ve committed many atrocities, both at home and abroad. We’ve allowed corrupt and undemocratic forces into positions of power.
And yet, somehow, our legacy has always been that we try to make it better. It’s right there in the preamble to our Constitution: “to form a more perfect union.” It’s our legacy that we always say, “We’re better than that,” that even if we keep making the same mistakes, we keep pushing ourselves to do better and to do right—that is, until recently.
Even our system of government is hardly perfect. In fact, The Atlantic published a great article speaking to these problems a few years ago, how we have no built-in mechanism in our system of government to force action, no mechanism to move beyond a deadlock, no “vote of no confidence” the way parliamentary systems do. Our system does not simply fix itself; as Yoni Applebaum states in the above article, it is “a system that operates best when politicians and the public remain skeptical of its ability to operate at all.”
And yet, it’s still a pretty good system. There was an interview that Charlie Rose once did with the late Justice Antonin Scalia, where they talk about the Constitution. Justice Scalia said this, about what he thought was most important about the Constitution:
“It’s a fantastic document. I’m not sure our people appreciate what a marvelous document it is. […] The genius of the American Constitution is not…the provisions of the Bill of Rights. Now, the Bill of Rights is a great thing, but it’s really the fruit of the Constitution and not the roots of it—because, you know, every dictator in the world has a ‘bill of rights’ today, and you wouldn’t want to live in most of those countries.
“What makes ours a reality rather than just words on paper is what, when I teach, I call the ‘real Constitution.’ When you talk about a ‘constitution,’ it means a structure. ‘He has a sound constitution.’ That was the document before it was amended, and that set up the institutions of the country.
“Most Americans don’t realize how different we are from the rest of the world, how few countries have a separately elected president rather than a creature of the parliament. Do you realize how much easier it is to get legislation through if the president were the creature of Congress? Very few countries of the world have two separate houses of the legislature that are independent elected by different methods, have their own leaders, their own agendas, and so forth, [and] are sometimes controlled by different parties. Very few countries in the world have that.
“And on top of it all, very few have the federalism that we have, so that, in fact, most of our laws are not Federal laws. And, in fact, [the Supreme Court] is not the most important court in the day-to-day life of the average American citizen, because Federal law, including Constitutional law, is a small portion of what governs the day-to-day life of Americans.
“That’s the stuff that Americans should realize: what a phenomenal piece of work the Constitution was.”
Our Founding Fathers built a system of checks-and-balances, separation of powers, and guaranteed rights that has endured continuously for more than two centuries, in spite of multiple direct assaults upon it (including a bloody civil war), which is more than any other government in the modern world can claim. The American system has been the standard-bearer for democracy around the world—that is, until recently.
Stepping away from the ideas and ideals of our nation, away from the government and its systems, one might spend this Fourth of July reflecting on the physical plant of our nation, as reflected in the words of “America the Beautiful.” Indeed, ours is a physically beautiful nation. Visit our incredible and unique national parks, which boast sights, sounds, smells, life, and natural phenomena to be found and experienced nowhere else in the world. President Theodore Roosevelt, arguably the most boisterously American president we’ve ever had and the greatest champion for conservation our nation has known, recovered from a deep depression in his youth after the sudden death of his wife by living for months in the wilderness of the Dakota badlands. Creating national parks and preserving national forests and monuments were defining features of TR’s presidency. In a 1910 speech entitled “The New Nationalism,” TR said:
“Of all the questions which can come before this nation, short of the actual preservation of its existence in a great war, there is none which compares in importance with the great central task of leaving this land even a better land for our descendants than it is for us, and training them into a better race to inhabit the land and pass it on. Conservation is a great moral issue, for it involves the patriotic duty of insuring the safety and continuance of the nation.”
And this has largely been our legacy—that is, until recently.
We are in a different era now, a time of great reckoning for ourselves and our country, when we must ask ourselves: What does America stand for? Who are we as a nation? What is important to us? And what does it mean to love America?
There was an extraordinary PSA that wrestler John Cena did a few years ago that spoke to this:
Cena opens with:
“Patriotism. There’s a word thrown around a lot. It inspires passionate debate. It’s worn like a badge of honor, and with good reason. Cause it means love and devotion for one’s country.
“Love. For a word to designed to unite, it can also be pretty divisive. See, there’s more to patriotism than flag-sequined onesies and rodeos and quadruple cheeseburgers. Patriotism is love for a country, not just pride in it. But what really makes up this country of ours? What is it we love? It’s more than just a huge rock full of animals like cougars and eagles, right?
“It’s the people.”
From there, he speaks to the diversity of our nation, directly to the question of what an “average American” truly is in today’s America, a concept that has changed quite a bit in the past hundred years, or even the past fifty years. And this is something we are grappling with as a nation today.
Speaking for myself, I can simply say that when I raise the flag or take care of a veteran in the hospital or help out a fellow human, when I march or when I lobby on Capitol Hill, or when I write, I do it because I fight for what I love, to help our nation continue to stay true to its ideals.
Some years ago, I traveled to my ancestral home country, India. I had never been there before; I was born and raised in America. My family had immigrated before I was born. I remember that when I went there, the place seemed very familiar to me, as Indian people in India and Indian people outside of India behave remarkably similarly. I had also been exposed to the sights and sounds of India through books and movies my parents had shown me. And yet, it was a foreign place to me. In India, in a country where everybody looked like me and talked a language that I understood, I was a foreigner. And I don’t just mean psychologically; I mean that I was literally treated as a foreigner. At landmarks, I was made to pay a “foreigner rate” for entrance fees, and I was even told that, although I speak great Hindi with pure inflection, they could tell I was a foreigner because there was enough of an American accent creeping through.
When I was returning at the end of the trip, as I stood in line to catch my flight back to America, and later as we entered the Immigration area of the airport in America and an immigration officer was directing us to the “U.S.” and “Non-U.S.” lines, the feeling was unmistakable and overpowering for me: a strong spirit of homecoming. I stood in line at Immigration, I gave them my American passport, I told them about traveling to India to experience my ancestral roots, and the immigration officer simply said to me, as he handed my passport back to me, “Welcome home.” Home.
Home. There’s a powerful word.
It reminds me of Neil Diamond’s classic words:
Oh, we’re traveling light today
In the eye of the storm
In the eye of the storm
Make our bed, and we’ll say our grace
Freedom’s light burning warm
Freedom’s light burning warm
They’re coming to America
Every time that flag’s unfurled
They’re coming to America
They’re coming to America
Got a dream they’ve come to share
They’re coming to America
This has been our legacy. This has been America. That is, until recently.
Let us meditate this Independence Day on where we began, where we’ve been, and where we are going, as we continue to work together, against nature itself, to form our more perfect union.
Happy 4th of July!