This weekend Americans will celebrate Independence Day, but it will be a commemoration like no other in recent memory.
A deadly virus has claimed roughly 125,000 lives in the United States alone. Measures meant to contain the disease have kneecapped the economy, leading to the worst economic conditions since the Great Depression and double-digit unemployment.
Many businesses have closed and some will never reopen. And in the midst of all this, Americans are trying to come to terms with longstanding issues of race and police misconduct.
Absent this year will be the fireworks show that normally lights the skies above the Shoals. City leaders decided to cancel the annual sow because of the public health threat posed by the COVID-19 virus.
Yet just because this is the most trying Fourth of July in recent memory doesn’t mean America hasn’t seen worse. Through war, depression and civil unrest, Americans have persevered. And Americans have continued to mark their nation’s birthday through thick and thin because America is not just a people; it’s an idea.
“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.” Those are the words of the Declaration of Independence. Put down in writing in 1776 and shouted by town criers in the streets of the 13 colonies that proclaimed themselves “Free and Independent States,” they echo down to us today because they are timeless. They continue to inspire, here and across the globe, even when we fail to live up to them.
America wasn’t a perfect union in 1776, and we live with the legacies of its imperfections even today. But America was a work in progress, with the intellectual and moral foundations upon which to build, over time, what Abraham Lincoln would call “a more perfect union.”
Perfection is never achieved, just as one can never reach the horizon. But it is a star by which we set our course.
This is something to keep in mind as people march in the streets demanding justice.
In one sense, this is a march that started even before 1776, on the battlefields of Lexington and Concord. It’s a march that during the Civil War stretched across the South, from west of the Mississippi to the sea. One hundred years later, it was a march from Selma to Montgomery and in the streets of Chicago.
This doesn’t mean we all have to agree. Some have mingled justified calls for police reform and racial justice with radical calls to tear down the entire system.
Part of remembering Independence Day is remembering why the American Revolution worked when so many others have failed. The Russian Revolution succeeded in overthrowing the tyranny of the czar, but the democratic socialists who forced out Nicolas II were soon overwhelmed themselves by the Bolsheviks, who brought 70 years of mass murder, gulags and paranoia.
The French Revolution collapsed when the revolutionaries turned on one another and unleashed bloodletting that opened the door to a new tyranny under Napoleon.
These revolutions sought not just to overthrow tyranny, but to remake society along utopian lines.
The American Revolution succeeded because it was both liberal and conservative. It was liberal in its ideals — “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” — but conservative in its methods: It didn’t seek to overthrow all existing institutions, which already protected what the Founders regarded as the long-established “rights of Englishmen.” It sought only to separate from the British Empire and to extend those rights to others.
We are still, however, imperfectly trying to extend the rights of life, liberty and happiness to all Americans. Thankfully, we know the right direction, if we simply follow our guiding star.