Seasonal sentiments around the Fourth of July are always justified, but this year – given all we are going through as a nation – they are also instructive.
Justified, because as years distance us from our founding, we should take every opportunity to commemorate the vision and sacrifice that won our freedoms. Instructive, because some are wondering – what is happening to my country?
We can be confident in the fact that this nation is designed to last. We have been through gut-wrenching trials before, and we have prevailed. We also need to keep in mind that our freedoms are not guaranteed. The American Experiment is not a grant or bequest, it is a conditional promise – a concept to be reborn and nurtured by every new generation. Every Fourth I reflect on the number of times that promise has been tested and the number of times we as a nation have endured.
Our history features a series of divisions, crises and eventual – sometimes incomplete – victories. The pursuit of “a more perfect union” is an imperfect process. But within that history is the reason to believe we will survive current divisions and may even hope to emerge a stronger union – but only if we meet the conditions of freedom, among them an understanding and remembrance of our founding virtues.
Each generation should be reminded: The Declaration of Independence may be celebrated on the Fourth, but between that historic event and the creation of a United States of America, we fought a war. And having defeated an external oppressor, we then nearly lost our fledgling freedom to internal strife and division over an inadequate Articles of Confederation, and the need for a unifying Constitution and central government.
In 1787, a July Fourth celebration in Albany, N.Y., left one person dead and another 18 wounded when a copy of the proposed Constitution was burned and a riot broke out. This fight was not over independence from the British, but over notions of what the government of this new nation should look like.
Internal strife such as this prompted Alexander Hamilton to ask a question we should ponder today: “whether good governments could be created “from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force.”
We can chronicle more examples: The Civil War – a conflict that tested a young nation and pitted family against family – and the price paid is nearly beyond comprehension. Then in a post-Civil War and post-Lincoln America, the delicate reunification nearly imploded and secession loomed once again. But reflection, choice, and the love of a united nation prevailed.
The Great Depression, the Civil Rights movement, Vietnam, Watergate, 9/11 – each changed us a little, and in ways threatened core concepts of what democracy and freedom should look like. Today, we are fighting over immigration, trade, and even issues of the past like civil rights that are not yet fully resolved.
When we disagree in America, our battles are often intense. Resolution – time and time again – is only achieved through debate and compromise and a return to our founding virtues of faith, family, honest dealing and personal responsibility. That has been the salvation of our democracy. To do otherwise is to leave governance to “accident and force” – or, said in modern terms, left to cable news soundbites, the timing of polarizing leadership, the loudest voices, and the most strident protesters.
This Independence Day, may we reflect on the notion that battles always incite passion – but it is the details of post-revolution and post-conflict normalcy that vex us most as free citizens. It is far easier to rise up in opposition and fan the flames of outrage than it is to then settle a dispute, make the compromises necessary for stable governance and then maintain the victory though trust – even faith – in our nation and toward one another.
Rick B. Larsen is president of Sutherland Institute, a conservative think tank that advocates for a free market economy, civil society and community-driven solutions.