Politics makes strange frenemies. Two friends. Co-workers. Revolutionaries. Visionaries. They knew each other for over half a century. Their friendship turned to animosity when they battled for the same job, but over the years they reconciled and forged the deepest of bonds in spite of their political differences. They died on the same day, five hours apart, on July 4, 1826. These two friends, then enemies, then friends again, were John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, who both died fifty years to the day after the publication of the Declaration of Independence. It was Adams who convinced the committee charged with writing the Declaration of Independence to let Jefferson write the original draft. Their lives were woven together as no other political figures in American history.
Adams, our second president, was a hot-tempered, New England Federalist, who believed that the aims of liberty and justice were best served by a strong, centralized government. He said, “No man who ever held the office of president would congratulate a friend on obtaining it.” Jefferson, his successor, was a reserved Southerner and favored achieving the same ends through strong state governments. Oddly, Jefferson’s party, which evolved into today’s Democratic Party, now holds the opposite position from their founder.
What endures midst ever-shifting political tides is an ideal stated so eloquently by Jefferson, that
“…all men [and women!] 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…”
While our founding principles are a beacon to the world, our behavior has frequently fallen short: slavery, misogyny, racism, corporatocracy, nearly incessant wars, hegemony, lack of access to healthcare and jobs that earn a living wage, a shrinking middle class, the highest rate of incarceration in the world, and the list goes on.
To suggest that American is anything but the greatest nation on earth is blasphemous in most quarters. But how can we be great if we are unwilling to see the gap between our ideals and our behavior? Why is it unpatriotic to love our founding principles so much that we challenge the deleterious policies we have enacted as a nation? If America is to be great, that claim must be based not on our economic prowess, nor our omnipresent cultural influence, nor our military industrial complex. Rather our greatness is determined by our willingness to rise above prejudice, narrow self-interest, and fear in order to fulfill the bold, egalitarian vision of our founders.
This week also also marks the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, a horrific carnage that took place from July 1-3, 1863. Months later President Lincoln went to that battlefield and challenged his generation, even more politically polarized than our own, to renew their commitment to these ideals.
What would it look like to renew our commitment? Can we celebrate our heritage in a way that moves beyond jingoistic shouts of “We’re Number One!”?
Rather than place our deceased founders on pedestals and currency, a more useful response would be to take up their unfinished work and embody justice, equality and liberty here and now. Rather than gloat about how great we are in comparison to other nations, it is time for us to own up to our shortcomings and get our own house in order. Rather than down another cocktail as we apathetically watch reports of unchecked injustice on our big screen TVs, it is time to make the necessary sacrifices so that our founders’ unfulfilled dream inches closer to reality.
Lincoln’s words at Gettysburg, channeling the spirit of Adams and Jefferson, are just as applicable and inspiring now as when first spoken:
“It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
Happy Independence Day!