Have you ever noticed how our public nonreligious holidays blend together?
With the exception of Flag Day and Veterans Day, which for most people are just another day at the office, Memorial Day, Independence Day and Labor Day are pretty much an excuse to celebrate — in a general, non-specific way — the freedom we as Americans have to … enjoy a barbecue?
I’m a big believer in the idea that people should know and care about what a particular holiday represents. Maybe it’s from my time in Israel, where the two-day period of Yom Hazikaron and Yom Ha’atzmaut provides a powerful lesson in what it means for a public to spend a day mournfully honoring the sacrifices that have made possible the independence heralded on the following day of festivities. We don’t have such traditions here.
This Tuesday, we will celebrate the 241st birthday of the United States. Many of us will be flying our flags high as we watch our kids run around with sparklers, but I hope that many will take the opportunity offered by our proximity to America’s birthplace to contemplate just what was at stake when the delegates of the Second Continental Congress decided to break with England. Even more, I hope we ponder what the birth of our nation has meant for the the world.
When John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin and the other delegates formally severed the colonies’ ties to Great Britain, they did so as representatives of — as the Declaration of Independence’s summation proclaims — “free and independent states.” As “free and independent states,” they concluded, the former colonies had “full power to levy war, conclude peace, contract alliances, establish commerce, and to do all other acts and things which independent states may of right do.”
So on July 4, 1776, far from there being one American nation, there were 13 sovereign ones, united for their mutual defense to be sure, but free to do pretty much whatever their respective legislatures determined was in their own states’ best interests. For more than a decade, our country operated as such a federation, and with all of the inherent problems that came with that system.
What we know today as the U.S. government didn’t take shape until the Constitution was ratified and became the law of the land in 1787. But even then, the concept of state sovereignty was so strong that many openly talked of a state’s right to secede from the union. Up until the Civil War’s end that settled that question in 1865, residents of Pennsylvania thought of themselves as Pennsylvanians first, Americans second.
So what exactly are we celebrating? We’re celebrating it all — the entire sordid history, from revolution to slavery to secession to reunification. Ours is a country that proudly proclaimed in 1776, even as millions of its inhabitants were enslaved in chains, that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.” Hypocritical? Yes. But we tethered ourselves to an ideal that took a civil war to begin fulfilling, a civil rights movement to guarantee and a political process that grapples between present contradictions and a future that might yet result from past promises.
In that regard, America has always been great, because ours is a nation and people of constant struggle, dissatisfaction, improvement and energy.
That’s not to say we are of one mind. Nevertheless, each of us truly wants what’s best for this country, just as each of us, as members of the Jewish community, truly wants what’s best for our community, our coreligionists and the homeland we share in the land of Israel.
But it’s not easy to see that unity when we’re split into warring camps. That’s not inherently bad, but it means that we need to try harder to see humanity in those with whom we disagree.
Adams and Jefferson, the second and third U.S. presidents, were part of the “Committee of Five” that officially drafted the Declaration of Independence, but became bitter political enemies years later, when the country split into the Federalist and Democratic-Republican parties. They had competing visions for the country and its governance.
And yet, as old men, they renewed their friendship. On his deathbed, though he did not know that his compatriot had died hours before, Adams is said to have proclaimed, “Thomas Jefferson still survives.” That’s a touching lesson — that we are all in this together.
Oh, the day Adams and Jefferson passed away?
July 4, 1826.
Joshua Runyan is the editor-in-chief of the Jewish Exponent. He can be reached at [email protected]jewishexponent.com