Mt. Rushmore, South Dakota — America is at peace, the world’s superpower and more prosperous than ever.
Surely we are too complacent to give proper thanks for our blessings. It will be a rare civic official who makes a 4th of July speech anywhere across the land today, because almost no one wants to hear one, and the politicians are out of practice. Yet, in a way that’s a shame. Independence Day is properly a political occasion, in the best sense. The Declaration, cast in courage and foresight, was the greatest political idea of all time.
The story of 1776 belongs to us, though our particular ancestors may have arrived many years later, or even last week, because it is the story of the Idea that we — known to the Founders only as “posterity” — were invited to share.
Most nations exist in the patriotic affections of their citizens almost apart from whatever kind of government prevails. For example, Italians for centuries were ruled by outsiders, so that their loyalties attached almost exclusively to their own families and the soil of the place where their families had always lived. In Japan, consciousness of nationhood derived from common social obligations and an almost unmixed racial gene pool. These characteristics, not a specific form of government, even today encode Japan’s national identity.
England, it’s true, could be defined by the organic development of liberty, a process that preceded the widening of the electoral franchise by many hundreds of years. Englishmen were free before they were equal, and they identified being free with being English. We owe them that large part of our heritage and our Idea.
But the Idea of America was bigger: a political union of God-given liberty and equality within a republic –a representative democracy. Its radical promise, though long denied fulfillment for women, blacks and Native Americans, gave the oppressed themselves the stick of idealism with which to prod the majority conscience.
Invited to speak to a 4th of July celebration in Rochester, N.Y. in 1852, the freeman black abolitionist Frederick Douglass flung the words of the Declaration and the Constitution back at his audience. “Are the great principles of political freedom and of natural justice embodied in that Declaration of Independence extended to us?” he demanded. “Would to God, both for your sakes and ours, that an affirmative answer could be truthfully returned to these questions!”
Even in opposition, eight years before the Civil War, Douglass was seized by the Idea, and, in turn, seized it as his unanswerable weapon. We are the Idea; the Idea is us.
Unlike the Italians or Japanese or other peoples, most Americans’ roots in the soil are shallow. Yet borders do not contain them. We were The United States of America when we were 13 states on the Eastern Seaboard, and we are The United States of America now that we span the whole continent and spill far into the Pacific. Americans all, our gene pool is certainly not homogeneous. Indeed, we were the first country to make a virtue of its diversity.
Do you know what are two of our fastest growing demographic groups? The Indians: American Indians and Indians from India. History has contrived to present us such fine ironies, one after another.
Native Americans were here for thousands of years, Hispanics were in Santa Fe 400 years ago, even before the English landed in Virginia and Massachusetts Bay. Yet when we contemplate The United States of America, we tend to think of “our country” as little more than 200 years old. Why?
Because that is the age of the Idea. Our political institutions, forged at Independence Hall, in what historians would come to call “the Founding,” describe us to such a degree that we would not be us without them.
There was another prominent country whose very identity was defined by a political idea, and that was the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. In the unsuccessful hard-line communist coup against Mikhail Gorbachev in 1991, the spirit of that idea died. Coming back to Moscow, a bewildered Gorbachev, soon to leave office as the last head of the USSR, said he felt as if he was returning to “a new country.” Indeed, he was. The communist idea had died and with it the Soviet Union.
The lesson for us is the lesson for each generation of Americans. A nation founded on an idea powerfully inspires the imagination and devotion of its citizens. But it can only live as the idea lives. If the American Idea dies, the nation dies.
Monday we can go back to bashing our politicians, which apparently is also a mark of our system. The German sociologist, Max Weber, visiting Milwaukee from Germany before World War I, asked some workers why they put up with mere politicians as public leaders. Because, they told him, “We prefer having people in office whom we can spit upon, rather than a caste of officials who spit on us, as is the case with you.”
So be it. As the moon rises above Mt. Rushmore tonight, some of us will be thinking of the first of our nation’s mere politicians–the ones who saw the wisdom of creating a representative democracy–and handed it in safe-keeping to us.