The Fourth of July

Posted on July 4, 2014 by


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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; that, to secure these rights, governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed; that whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new government, laying its foundation on such principles, and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness.

Thomas Jefferson, all of thirty-three years of age, penned the words that both reflected and shaped a country. They are, more than any other, the words of America. They are our constant. These are some of the few words we all know and recognize. If we, as a people, are united by anything, beyond sports, it is probably wrapped up in the sentiment that spills from these phrases. We do not agree on what the terms mean; nor do we appeal to them in the same way. But we agree that they matter. We agree that this is our beginning and that no matter what we do or say, these ideas demand a reckoning.

We are a nation born out of a reflection upon what we wished to become. And then, we had the audacity to go out and, largely, do it. Jefferson’s words could not have meant much to the slaves who heard them the first time. They did not describe the political reality for women who were mostly deprived of the vote due to their sex. But they always stood in judgment upon the circumstances that splintered our nation. The words cascaded from the mouths of our prophets, who held them up as a scourge against our infidelities.

Jefferson’s words, no matter what one thinks of Jefferson, became the map we used to find a path to the future. To be American is to wrestle with them, question them, and hurl them. This, at minimum, is what the Fourth of July means. I love fireworks. I love bunting. I even love John Philip Sousa. But just as Santa is a custom that escapes the meaning of Christmas, so those accoutrements fail to define the majesty of the Fourth of July.