Two hundred and forty one years ago today, July 4, when the Declaration of Independence was posted on the doors of public buildings around the colonies, or read to gathering crowds, there were mixed reactions. Not every one believed that separation from England and her King was a good idea. Even among the signers of the Declaration was the realization that this independence idea might backfire and they could be hanged as rebels rather than celebrated as Founding Fathers. Neither group were necessarily wrong in their analyses. Yet out of that action has arguably come the greatest example of truly representative government deriving its powers from the consent of the governed.
Thank God for that.
A review of American history will reveal that it was never a cake walk. Even after the miraculous success of the Revolution, when a rag tag army of citizen soldiers hung in there until they had found the alliances and the perseverance to prevail over the most powerful empire of the time, real antagonisms emerged. Signers of the Declaration, and after it, the Constitution, divided into differing political viewpoints, often resorting to the vilest of campaigns to convince their fellow citizens that they knew the best way forward. Political campaigns completely dishonored honored figures such as George Washington, spewing such vitriol that even the once great friendship between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson was broken for several years. Saying all you could that was bad about your opponent, no matter whether it was true or not, and focusing on that rather than issues, became an awful yet accepted practice of politics that has become a way of life in the United States. It was never easy.
Modern technology has only made this worse. In 2017 it is as easy to say the nastiest things about the opposition while hiding in the anonymity of the Internet as it was to print and distribute an insulting and grossly negative pamphlet under a pseudonym in 1789. The practice of personal vilification and deception often replaced the open exchange of ideas to persuade and impact in positive ways that might lead to compromise and progress. Perhaps it had to be so because it is a large component of human nature, and maybe what it amazing is that the system works so well in spite of this tendency. We can come together after hard fought political battles to act as Americans first. I point to the fact that, even after the most intense of political debates between them prior to the election of 1860, Stephan Douglas held Abraham Lincoln’s hat during his inauguration. There are many such vignettes in our history I am sure, but no room in a little blog to contain them.
Maybe one of the things to be celebrated on this Fourth of July when things seem so difficult and so divided is the fact that we can move past the hard things and remember that we are Americans all, and that in working toward our common ground, we build stronger foundations than when we stand on the dry ground of partisanship. After all, it has not been such a long time since there was a baseball game in Washington DC and the team that scored the most runs gave their opponents the trophy to put in the office of one of their fallen. I refer, of course, to the Congressional charity game at which the Democrats gave their trophy to the Republicans to put in the office of Republican Congressman Steve Scalese who had been seriously wounded by a gunman the day before. It was a touching moment of oneness worth remembering. We need to hang on to those things with the same tenacity we seem to hold onto the nasty things.
Maybe it doesn’t have to be so hard all the time after all.