The United States of America is an imperfect union founded on perfect ideas.
When Thomas Jefferson wrote America’s Declaration of Independence in June 1776 — with some help from his fellow patriots John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Roger Sherman and Robert R. Livingston — he got it perfectly right with the first sentence of the second paragraph: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
What a bold statement it was for its time. Today, an op-ed in one of the world’s leading newspapers stating the same thing would hardly raise a brow. Individual freedom has become an expectation as much as an idea. But it wasn’t an expectation in 1776. Since the beginning of civilization, societies had valued the perceived benefits of security over individual liberty.
Ben Franklin summed up the bold new idea of the American colonists in 1775, when he was part of an American delegation sent to Britain in an effort to resolve the growing conflict between the colonists and the crown: “They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.” And, with that, the Americans stood up to the world’s greatest empire at that time, having the audacity to believe that the new course of human history that they were embarking on was the right and honorable one … and they won.
It would have been easy for America’s founders — Jefferson and Franklin and Adams and the rest — to have seized the opportunity of their victory to establish a new government that reserved power for themselves. From the beginning, mankind has coveted power and control, and every just about every revolution the world had seen up to that point and would see after ended not in personal liberty, but with strict controls by the new government. The French Revolution, just after America’s revolution against Great Britain, resulted in dictatorship under Napoleon Bonaparte. The Russian Revolution, in the early 20th century, led to Joseph Stalin.
But, in America, when Lewis Nicola — who commanded the Invalid Corps during the war — wrote to General George Washington to urge him to assume the royal title of king, Washington responded forcefully: “No incident in the course of the war in me triggers painful feelings as your message, that such ideas are circulating in the army, as you expressed it.”
America’s founding fathers didn’t desire power and control. They desired a truly revolutionary form of government that would be led by the people and work for the people, one that would establish and guarantee individual liberties. The world had known national freedom, but it had never known political and individual freedom on the level that the American founders proposed.
If the story had simply ended there, without the need for asterisks or footnotes, it would have been as close to a storybook tale as one could imagine. But the reality of humanity is never a storybook. Mankind is flawed — has been since the fall of Adam, and will be for as long as this world turns. And the founding fathers had flaws of their own.
Many of the founding fathers owned slaves, even if they didn’t fully embrace the idea of slavery. Franklin became an abolitionist by the end of his life, but spent much of his life as a slave-owner. Adams did not own slaves and was opposed to slavery, but he did not support abolition of slavery because he favored national unity over the upheaval that was sure to result from the swift abolition of slavery. Jefferson — the man who wrote that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights” — owned more than 600 people in his lifetime. He bemoaned the institution of slavery, even advocated for its abolition, but he never stopped benefiting from it.
More than 200 years later, the question persists: How could our founding fathers declare that all men are created equal, yet turn a blind eye to the fact that 20% of the new nation’s population — 1 in every 5 people — were living in bondage?
More than that, the founding fathers treated women as less than equal. It wasn’t until the ratification of the 19th amendment nearly 150 years later that women would gain the right to vote in America. By that time, black men had long since been granted the right to vote.
Volumes have been written in an effort to answer the question, yet the question remains unanswered. But the simplest way to sum up something that we’ll never fully understand is simply this: this new United States was an imperfect union, established by flawed men.
But their ideas of liberty were perfect. And, so, on this Independence Day — and on every Independence Day — we don’t celebrate men like Jefferson and Franklin for their flaws. We celebrate them for their ideas … ideas that were eventually realized.
It took 80 years, and a terrible, bloody war that nearly destroyed the nation, for America to finally abolish slavery. It took another 60 years for women to earn the right to vote. It took nearly another half-century after that before segregation and wanton discrimination against black people in the South was outlawed. And today, another 50 years after the Civil Rights era, we’re still working on getting it right … and we’re getting there. Using the framework and the ideas that our founding fathers laid out — using history as their guide with an eye to the future — America has truly achieved the ideas that were espoused in the Declaration of Independence.
Even the founders acknowledged that their original articles of government were imperfect. Immediately after the Constitution was adopted and the new country was solidified, they set about creating the Bill of Rights, which spelled out many of the specific individual liberties that the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution didn’t fully identify — the right to speak an opinion without fear of retribution by the government; the right to own guns for defense of self and country; the right to worship the Christian God that most of the founders believed in, or any other god, or no god at all. For decade after decade, all the way into the modern era, we have continued to amend that Bill of Rights to ensure that the liberties and freedoms our founders envisioned truly do apply to all. And along the way, we’ve never lost sight of the framework they left for us.
If the ideas of self-government envisioned by the founding fathers was a grand experiment, it has been a rousing success. More than 200 years later, America is still a bright beacon of freedom for all the world — it always has been, and it will be for as long as we let it be. The very fact that we have so many different races and nationalities, speaking so many different languages, who can peacefully coexist under the union of one government, even after nearly two and a half centuries, is a feat so astounding that history has never recorded anything that can replicate it. We don’t always agree, but we don’t have to; our founding fathers certainly didn’t agree, but they argued and debated and then worked together to hash out a form of government that they could all live with. As long as we don’t lose their spirit of compromise, we can disagree — even vehemently — and still stand strong, together, as one nation.
On this Independence Day, in 2020, we’re undergoing a period that’s been called a racial reckoning. From it has emerged a small — but very vocal — minority from the fringe that calls for tearing America down — figuratively and, as we’ve seen in recent weeks, quite literally — and rebuilding it on new ideas of equality and freedom. That’s the most basic definition of absurdity. These are people who are so focused on the imperfections of our union and its founders that they’ve lost sight of how we’ve fought to correct the wrongs.
Today, Jefferson and Franklin and the rest of the founders are still worth celebrating not because they abolished slavery or ended the mistreatment of Native Americans or extended the same basic rights to both men and women, but because they established the frame work that would eventually allow us to champion all of those ideas. It is unfortunate that it took 80 years for us to root out slavery, and much longer than that to end the mistreatment of black Americans. It is unfortunate that it took us 140 years to extend women the right to vote. And America’s grave mistakes continued well after the Declaration of Independence was signed. We were still fighting Indian wars and forcing Native Americans off their land through the 19th century. The interment of Japanese Americans after the attack in World War II was another tragedy that took America 40 years to apologize for. And we’re still working to root out the last vestiges of racism. If you’re looking for our faults and imperfections, they aren’t hard to find. However shameful our moral dilemmas of generations past might have been, the true shame would have been in not learning from and attempting to overcome our mistakes. That hasn’t been the case in America.
Throughout our history, the United States has had a powerful tendency — one that exceeds perhaps every other — to forgive and forget. After we fought the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812, we became powerful friends and allies with Great Britain. At Appomattox Court House, the Confederate leaders and the rebel fighters who accompanied them weren’t arrested and tried for treason; they merely agreed to stop fighting and go home. In his second inaugural address, Abraham Lincoln did not call for the South to be punished for its rebellion. Instead, he called on Americans to lift up the Confederacy.
“With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan—to do all which may achieve and cherish a just, and a lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations,” Lincoln said.
The United States raised up the South after the Civil War — just as it would raise up Germany and Japan after World War II. Guided by the same principles as our founders after the Revolutionary War, we didn’t conquer the Germans or the Japanese; we helped them obtain democracy and freedom for the first time.
Throughout the course of our history, we’ve been quick to fight forcefully when we’ve needed to, and then to forgive just as quickly. Let’s not forget to forgive ourselves. We should never forget our wrongs, because we can’t continue to learn from them if we’ve forgotten them. But to forgive is to realize that we don’t celebrate America’s founders for all that they got wrong, but for all that they got right — for it was through what they got right that we not only corrected their wrongs and extended true freedom and personal liberties to all Americans, but through which we’ve also been able to spread freedom throughout the world.