This July Fourth we will wake up and do pretty much whatever we want. There are parameters of course. Thousands of laws on the books will hopefully reign in any criminal impulses. Job and familial obligations, financial constraints and societal norms hem us in further. Children long for the freedoms of adulthood while adults know the truth: life is a laundry list of responsibilities.
Yet, our obligations are rooted in tremendous freedom. This nation was founded on a simple and profound principle: that all men are created equal. That it is the people who bestow the power to govern, and it is the people who can take that power away. The Great Experiment, as George Washington dubbed it, is going on 245 years now and its success hinges on those very people – on us.
So what does it mean to be American? When 56 men signed the Declaration of Independence in 1776, there were an estimated 2.5 million people living in the country. Now there are 332.4 million. Demographics have changed considerably. Women and minorities had to fight for the equality that should have been their birthright. The Constitution was forged by men who, though not flawless, aspired to better an imperfect world. That work is never finished.
Benjamin Franklin, in his final speech to the Constitutional Convention, confessed that he did not entirely approve. “For when you assemble a number of men to have the advantage of their joint wisdom, you inevitably assemble with those men all their prejudices, their passions, their errors of opinion, their local interests, and their selfish views. From such an assembly can a perfect production be expected? It therefore astonishes me, sir, to find this system approaching so near to perfection as it does…Thus I consent, sir, to this Constitution because I expect no better, and because I am not sure that it is not the best.”
For all their differences, “their passions, their errors of opinion,” Americans share the same core liberties. Among them are the freedom of speech, protest and religion. The Bill of Rights also enshrines the freedom of the press, our right to keep and bear arms and to have a jury trial. It protects us from unreasonable search and seizure and from cruel and unusual punishment. We share these rights and the obligation to protect them.
Since its infancy, America has been a promise, a beacon of hope attracting immigrants to its shores. It is a nation of dreamers and strivers, of thinkers and warriors. Perhaps being American is to be forever questioning, forever seeking, forever committing ourselves to the idea that we the people can create something better together. This country, well, “I am not sure that it is not the best.” Happy Independence Day.