Celebrate Independence and continue the messy business of democracy.

Share story

The British are leaving, the British are leaving. It was the other way around once, but then nations are always shifting politically, culturally, geographically. Permanence is an illusion created by the relative shortness of an individual life span.

I smile to think the British, who once held colonies across the globe, feel they must throw off the yoke of the European Union to breathe free again.

Here in the United States, we are celebrating the 240th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, which announced the separation of 13 colonies from the British Empire.

That act of rebellion has inspired the people of many other nations to demand control of their affairs from foreign powers and domestic despots. Ours wasn’t the first rebellion from a controlling power, but it is a particularly successful story.

In British North America, a few brilliant men created a movement based on ideas about people and states that were the talk of the European world at the time. They defied and defeated a mighty nation with a citizen army and went on to create a nation that would become more powerful than any other, and that would enshrine in its governing documents the lofty ideals of its Founding Fathers.

It’s a story to be proud of and to celebrate. There’s some truth in it.

After the holiday’s hot dogs and fireworks, I hope we Americans will carry forward our warm feelings into civic engagement inspired by that story, but also informed by the complexity that lies behind it.

The issues we face today are not all new ones, but our responses need to be fresh and appropriate to our times. That’s what we owe the Founders, to make their experiment even better than they could have imagined. A few examples come to mind.

We are a nation of immigrants who still haven’t come to terms with the place of modern immigrants in our society, or even with something so basic as adopting immigration laws that reflect the ideals we praise.

• We have a history of fearing contemporary immigrants, while praising past immigrants, who in their time were scorned. We ought to break that pattern.

Economic and racial inequality aren’t new, either, and they also follow a pattern that began at the beginning of our country. We tolerate inequality until something snaps, and then we work to reduce it, and that elicits a backlash, and back and forth we go. We’ve moved forward over the centuries, but not as far as we could without the backlash. We should recognize the pattern and break it.

• Vote. Remember no taxation without representation? Voting still matters, and yet far too many Americans let that right go unused. Too much blood has been shed to get and keep that fundamental right for anyone to take it lightly. People need to vote even when, perhaps especially when, the choices seem unappealing. And we need to educate ourselves before we vote and think carefully about the consequences of our choices.

• We celebrate with simulations of the explosions that light the sky in wartime. But in peacetime, other explosions, gun shots, take lives daily, and we fail to act. Action is blocked by the National Rifle Association and allied politicians who use one particular amendment to shield their efforts to protect gun-industry profits and their own political power. We shouldn’t let them use the Constitution that way. We are free to address the violence supported by easy access to firearms.

One of the consequences of knowing only the outline of our history is that we forget that the Founders disagreed with each other on just about every idea that went into forming our government. The framework they made was strong in part because they clashed and compromised and then made it possible for following generations to update and change their work, as needed.

They even threw out their first Constitution, the Articles of Confederation, because that document left the federal government too weak to carry out the responsibilities of a national government.

They crafted a new guiding document, the Constitution, and immediately set about amending it. There was never a thought that their work would be set in stone. They gave us a document that could grow with the nation, and we fail their vision when we try to live in their world rather than improve our own.

That freedom and responsibility are worth celebrating every day.