The Founding Fathers would be appalled to see how carelessly we in recent years have treated their handiwork. The major institutions on which our republic depends — civil government, the courts, the media, our private financial and economic systems, and our system of public education — all fall short of the high hopes of those who pledged their “lives, fortunes, and sacred honor” to the American enterprise.
Yet our system of governance remains, as Winston Churchill observed, “the worst possible government except all the others that have been tried.” We have had great leaders but also have survived corruption, malfeasance, and incompetence among our leaders. Power, in even the most trying times, has been transferred peacefully. Our revolution did, indeed, spread elsewhere. Worldwide, even totalitarian governments try to maintain at least the nominal trappings of representative government.
Our path to nationhood was not easy or short. We won our independence only through the intervention of foreign powers, and it was not until 1865 and the end of the Civil War that the former colonies sufficiently resolved their differences to become the present United States. It was not until then that slavery as an institution was ended. It would be another 100 years before the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Act ended legal discrimination and, then, a bit more than 40 years until an African American President was elected.
Ben Franklin and Thomas Jefferson in particular would be dazzled by the technological revolutions, one after another, that have taken place over a mere 133 years. The country now is neither agrarian nor industrial but, rather, post-industrial.
It is often said that popularly elected, democratic countries are not warlike. The United States, however, has engaged over much of its life in one military engagement after another- — not always in self defense. The War of 1812, the Mexican War, and the Spanish-American War were wars of conquest with objectives of territorial expansion. We stumbled into World War I, the Vietnam War, and war in Iraq without determining whether our national interests truly were at stake. We sent false diplomatic signals which encouraged aggression on the Korean Peninsula and thrust us into a Korean War.
Once in war, we have been impetuous and impatient. We also have pursued all-out strategies which, among other things, have resulted in the nuclear bombings of Japan, terror bombings of civilian targets in World War II, and periodic disregard for international conventions governing war — justified on the basis that we were in the right and our adversaries in the wrong. We have, however, continued to be a nation of civilian soldiers and one in which civilian control of the military has faithfully been maintained.
The continuing flow of immigrants to our country bears witness to the fact that America remains a place of economic, political, and social hope — most of all a place to be free.
I cannot think of July 4, 1776 without considering as well the words of Franklin, at the end of the 1787 Constitutional Convention. Asked whether it had created a monarchy or republic, Franklin responded: “A republic, if you can keep it.”
The people who declared their independence from Great Britain in 1776 quite literally risked everything, including their lives, in doing so. May we replicate their courage and wisdom and remain true to their aspirations.