WASHINGTON, July 4, 2014 — Two-hundred thirty-eight years ago, an extraordinary, brilliant group of men crafted and signed one of our country’s founding documents. The Constitution set out the rules by which our government would work, but the Declaration of Independence set out the principles.
The Declaration of Independence is not the law of the land, but it spells out the spirit that animates the law:
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 …
We sometimes hear that America is a young country, especially from people who think we should sit back and learn from the older, more mature countries of the Old World: We’re bumptious, we’re a cowboy nation, we’re impulsive. Yet ours is the oldest constitution in the world. Our government has continued unbroken, in one orderly, peaceful transition after another, from one administration to another, through 44 presidents over 220 years. Ours is the oldest, continuously functioning, democratic government in the world.
The only thing young about America is its architecture, the eternal optimism of its people, and the dynamism of its institutions. We were born with a mature philosophy and a mature approach to politics. American government has much to teach the world, and less to learn than in our pessimistic moments we like to think.
But as a people, we forget from time to time that our government was designed for adults. Democracies and market economies are only stable and effective when a nation’s citizens are mature. Maturity means taking responsibility for our own actions, deferring satisfaction, and showing restraint in our dealings with others. Maturity means listening to the heart, but then acting under the clear direction of the head.
The United States is a country increasingly divided by politics, geography, wealth and class. Our politics have always been tough – even brutal – but rarely have we been so bitter towards our political opponents. The why of that is complex, but the results are plain to see: distrust of our political institutions, distrust of financial and religious institutions, distrust of our leaders, distrust of each other. And our government increasingly distrusts us.
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. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.
America’s problems are serious, but we are still a remarkable and blessed nation. It is in our power to move forward to a better tomorrow, if only we have the will.
Things have been much worse; 150 years ago, we emerged from a fratricidal, bloody civil war. Brother fought brother, father killed son, neighbor slaughtered neighbor. In 1865, in the wake of the bloodshed, facing a nation almost broken with bitter wounds, Abraham Lincoln delivered his second inaugural address and ended it with these words:
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 lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.
America is an old nation, but still young enough to reinvent itself when it must. We will always do better when we love our neighbors than when we fear them, when we light candles than when we curse the darkness. We have a lot to celebrate today, but in the celebration, let’s remember the spirit that animates our laws, and in that spirit, let’s light candles, even fireworks of the spirit. We are a good nation, but we can always be better.
Happy Independence Day.