Woman at close of 1787 Constitutional Convention: "Dr. Franklin, do we have a monarchy or a republic?"
Benjamin Franklin: "A republic, if you can keep it."
Our July 4 national birthday brings to mind a kaleidoscope of thoughts and memories for most of us. They can be no deeper than baseball, apple pie, and Chevrolet thoughts and that is OK. Others will ponder the ideas underlying our country's founding and assess how we're doing with them.
Other countries have stirring national days: Mexico and France come particularly to mind. They, too, trigger outpourings of emotion, perhaps more intense emotion than ours. But many carry within them sub-themes of anger and resentment toward other nations or social classes, or celebration of bloody military victories over others. Ours, it seems to me, run more healthily toward celebration of the values and ideas which form a positive basis for our nationhood. You don't see many American July 4 events focusing on anti-British or anti-monarchist themes.
You could consider our 1776 Declaration of Independence and our Revolutionary War as unlikely in their time. Most of its signers, and many of the war's leaders, were doing quite well under Great Britain as landowners or businessmen. George Washington had served in the British army. When they said they were "pledging their lives, fortunes, and sacred honors" to the cause, they weren't kidding.
If they'd ended up on the losing side, some would have been hanged or imprisoned; all would have lost their previous wealth and position. If they'd sat tight and played it carefully, we'd no doubt have ended up over time like Canada, a good place in its own right.
There was another surprising aspect to the Declaration – the inclusion of "the pursuit of happiness" as an inalienable right. In the late 18th century, this was a concept coming into acceptance in political thought. But, really, life and liberty – and greater economic and social justice – were a big order in themselves. Who were these colonials to pursue "happiness?"
On a political level, I tend to think first of the Declaration, Constitution, and Bill of Rights as expressing our core framework values. But on other levels, my mind turns – as I suspect most do – to people and events which constitute my picture of "the United States of America."
George Washington, yes, and Abe Lincoln, Eleanor Roosevelt and Franklin Roosevelt, Thomas Edison and Henry Ford, Walt Whitman, Carl Sandburg and Langston Hughes, Edward Hopper and Andrew Wyeth, Jack Dempsey, Sugar Ray Robinson and Joe Louis, Babe Ruth, Walter Johnson, Ty Cobb, Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio, Ted Williams, Jackie Robinson and Willie Mays, George Gershwin, Rodgers & Hart, Louis Armstrong and Van Cliburn, Bayard Rustin, M.L. King, Fannie Lou Hamer and Thurgood Marshall, John L. Lewis, the Reuther brothers and George Meany, "Gone With the Wind," "The Wizard of Oz" and "Paths of Glory."
Then there are the many millions who stood up against even more numerous millions on behalf of civil rights, women's rights, gay rights, religious freedoms, and ends to discriminations of all kinds. And, of course, the men and women who gave everything in remote places where they were fighting wars with which they sometimes disagreed.
Other nations came to nationhood and definition through bloody wars. Our defining test did not come until the Civil War, 85 years after the Declaration, when it was decided that we would become one federal nation rather than two or a loose confederation of states. We also decided, then, that slavery could not stand and that all were, in fact, created equal.
We're not exceptional because of our enduring virtue. We tried to conquer Canada in 1812, waged aggressive wars in Mexico and Cuba, seized the West not only from Mexico but from native American nations, all because we thought it our "manifest destiny" to expand and take what we pleased on our continent.
We got unnecessarily embroiled in World War I and did it again in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan. We had the Palmer Raids, America First, the McCarthy period, John Birch Society, race riots, nativist movements, anti-Semitism, lynchings, periodic abridgements of civil liberties, internment of Japanese Americans, and an obsessive Cold War mindset over generations which led us to temporarily move toward totalitarianism.
Yet, thanks to our underpinnings, we remain the world's strongest and freest country. We can be fractious yet, in the end, always submit to the rule of law.
Part of our success, I've always believed, has come from our one-from-many way of thinking about ourselves. We are derived from all continents and all nationalities, ethnicities, and religions. We are not a homogenous place where everyone looks and thinks the same. Thank God. A wacky or bad idea will get a hearing but, in the end, will wither if it impinges substantially on the rights of any of us.
Now, to those personal recollections which all of us associate in one way or another with our Americanism.
I can still see clearly the day my father brought home his "citizenship papers" and a document changing his name legally from Theodorus Johannes Cornelius Van Dyk to just plain Ted Van Dyk. The examining judge, he said, had asked him "What did immigrants find in America that they could not find at home?" My dad, a literal man, answered "Indian corn." He got his papers.
There was the time in 1940, when I was in the first grade at Roosevelt Elementary School in Bellingham, when our school music teacher took the stage at an assembly and led us in the singing of a new song, "God Bless America," being sung on radio by Kate Smith.
There were the days, recalled today in great detail, in which I learned of Pearl Harbor and of the deaths of Franklin Roosevelt and John F Kennedy. And the day in which I marched to the National Mall in 1963 to hear Martin Luther King's "I have a dream" speech.
The days, too, on which I witnessed Lyndon Johnson signing the Civil Rights and Medicare and Medicaid acts.
I recall a dinner in 1967 at the Elysee Palace in Paris at which my then-boss, Vice President Humphrey, toasted French President Charles de Gaulle, then a thorn in the side of U.S. policy, and thanked him for France's help at the decisive Battle of Yorktown in our war of independence. DeGaulle, a tough cookie, wept openly.
There was a TV interview, a few years back, with a European businessman who was in New York City on 9/11/2001. He went to the blast site a few days later. There, he said, he found American flags planted and some salvage workers singing. Can you remember the sports events and public gatherings which took place around the country at that time and the almost spontaneous singings of God Bless America and the national anthem?
Many of you probably can recall, as I do, the experience of boarding a U.S. air carrier, in a foreign country, as it is bound home. The environment within the plane is unmistakeably American. And when you land at an American city, you immediately feel the difference from where you have been. Energy and freedom are, quite literally, in the air.
Lest we engage in maudlin self-celebration, we should heed Franklin's declaration that we have a republic, but only if we can keep it.
In recent years the country has dumbed down and our popular culture has coarsened. Our political discourse is being conducted at a down-on-all-fours level. We've postponed difficult public policy decisions that should have been addressed decades ago.
Yet, as an American, I continue to share the uniquely American outlook expressed in Langston Hughes' 1938 poem, "Let America Be America Again," written at a time when Hughes' fellow black Americans were subject to fearsome injustices. (I Googled a poetry website to find that some 276,000 persons had sought the poem there over the past 9 years).
I have returned to it often over the years and often drew from it when writing speeches for national candidates. Read the entire poem, if you have time. Some of its last lines, it seems to me, express the hopefulness that most of us still share on any July 4:
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath--
America will be!"
Happy birthday, United States of America.