What Independence Day is all about

It’s not about building walls, it’s about hope, aspiration

WE APPROACH INDEPENDENCE DAY 2016 at a time of great economic change and uncertainty, when most of the western democracies are struggling to deal responsibly with an unprecedented flood of immigrants and refugees, a time when many people feel threatened by the prospect of newcomers, and many others are unable to repress deeply rooted fears that express themselves in ways that are too often ugly and immoral. And it seems appropriate and useful to reflect a bit on the founding document that lies at the heart of July 4, and how the words and meaning of the Declaration of Independence ought to inform our thinking as Americans as we make our way through this period.

The essential core principle of the Declaration of Independence is embodied early in the text, in the famous assertions of human equality, and the corresponding unalienable rights of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”  The words are uplifting, but, as we know, words and actions are different things.

The declaration is in one critical way a confounding document, asserting without equivocation that “all men are created equal” while paving the way for a Constitution that before the Civil War sanctioned an odious institution that enslaved men, women, and children and treated them as lesser citizens, counting each as “two thirds” of a person for census purposes and denying each the right to vote or participate in the freedoms enjoyed by others.

It was Abraham Lincoln who first brought this disconnect to the national stage, and spoke candidly of it.  Three years before he was elected president, Lincoln addressed the question of equality by observing that Jefferson and the other framers who signed off on the Declaration of Independence were not asserting “the obvious untruth that all were then actually enjoying that equality.”  Rather, said Lincoln, the framers “meant simply to declare the right, so that the enforcement of it might follow as fast as circumstances should permit.” Lincoln hammered home the point in the same speech: “The assertion that ‘all men are created equal’ was of no practical use in effecting our separation from Great Britain; and it was placed in the Declaration not for that but for its future use.”

American flag

What Lincoln understood, what he was saying in 1857, was this: the equality language of the Declaration of Independence was not impactful to the argument against British rule; it was instead a promise, a moral marker for what the nation would stand for, what it would become.  That promise of a more moral future meant little to the millions of people who suffered under the lash during the more than half century before emancipation and the passage of the post-Civil War Constitutional amendments. For the many more millions of people since then who died during midnight lynchings, or endured exorbitant poll taxes and segregated lunch counters and schools, the assertion that “all men are created equal’ presented an elusive goal, the words ringing hollow as opportunity and true equality were parceled out in increments by a grudging political system.

It took leadership to redirect the nation and enact laws that would tear down stubborn walls of resistance. It took the determination and clear moral compass of Martin Luther King Jr., the determination and sheer brute political power of Lyndon Johnson, the determination and moral eloquence of Hubert Humphrey, the determination and courage of young activists such as John Lewis and Jessie Jackson, to make the 1960s that time when waiting was no longer a strategy and action, only action, would do.

It took time and persistence and bloodshed and courage to move the nation to the great enactments of 1964 and 1965, the laws that established broad and enforceable civil rights and voting rights.  Those laws were not in themselves enough to bring true equality of opportunity to all citizens – that goal remains elusive even today – but they did advance in a concrete way the Declaration of Independence’s original promise of equality.

Today we face issues that once again test whether the declaration’s promise of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” have meaning in 21st Century United States. The emergence of nativist attitudes that fear and reject immigration; the income inequality that creates opportunity gaps for people across racial, ethnic, and religious lines; the unresolved tensions arising from our global technocentric economy and the Hobson’s choice it creates: living wage jobs versus affordable commodity goods – these issues are driving the presidential debate, driving the UK out of the European common market, driving an new era of recrimination against those who would seek a better life in a democracy that, despite its many flaws, still offers freedoms that are simply unavailable in their homelands.

I am here today, a lawyer, a former state cabinet official, a citizen in full, because my grandparents came here seeking a place to live that was better than their homeland.  They came at the turn of the last century facing hardship and discrimination and stereotyping, but they remained and they persevered like many millions of others did, like perhaps your grandparents or great grandparents did. They likely did not read, or perhaps even understand, the Declaration of Independence. They celebrated July 4, but it likely did not resonate with meaning beyond being a rare day off from hard, tedious, low-wage work, a chance to gather with family and friends rather than an opportunity to reflect on their pursuit of happiness. We are the legatees of the exiles and the strangers of a time past, and we have a responsibility to understand and respect and learn from that history.  Otherwise we are not going to resolve today’s immigration and inequality concerns in a responsible way.

It seems to me an existential American crisis.  If we cannot adhere to the promise of the Declaration of Independence and provide all of our citizens a legitimate opportunity to their own “pursuit of happiness,” then what’s America for?  The pursuit of happiness was not understood by the framers as a night on the town, but rather something deeply moral and nuanced, the ability of each person to have the opportunity to make a good life for himself or herself.  Lincoln explained it when he observed that Jefferson “had the coolness, forecast, and capacity to introduce into a merely revolutionary document, an abstract truth, applicable to all men and all times.”  The pursuit of happiness was a critical element of the fundamental promise of the Declaration of Independence, and we turn our backs on it when we sanction talk about building walls and excluding religions, just as we reject our core national moral principles when we fail to act to stem the rising tide of income inequality, or locally, when we ignore the growing pressures on an egalitarian public transportation system.

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Our national identity was, is, and ought to be shaped by the blueprint provided by the Declaration of Independence. It represents, or ought to represent, a vibrant and dynamic ideology that every citizen can understand and play a meaningful role nurturing. It is not an ideology of defeatism or hate, but an ideology of hope and aspiration.  Building a wall, for those with short memories, represents the last act of a defeated ideology, as the Berlin Wall ought to have powerfully demonstrated.

This July 4, it may be worth reflecting on the language of the Declaration of Independence, and asking whether and how we can act to advance its fundamental promise in our neighborhoods, in our cities, and collectively in our country.

James Aloisi is a former state secretary of transportation and a principal at the Pemberton Square Group.