Today is celebrated as Independence Day in the United States. July 4, 1776 is the date on our founding document, the Declaration of Independence, written by future president Thomas Jefferson and edited by committee and by Congress.
It contains many stirring passages such as this:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed…
Then, you realize that “men” meant adult males, excluding women, and, furthermore, that ownership of people through slavery and indentured servitude was still permitted.
Two hundred forty years later, our country still grapples with the legacy of those exclusions.
Why were they made? Despite Abigail Adams’s admonition to her husband John to “remember the ladies,” the declaration was totally silent on the matter. Jefferson’s original text would have abolished slavery, but the slave-holding colonies refused to vote for the declaration until that statement was removed.
The final document was a compromise, giving up freedom from slavery to create a new nation of all thirteen of the British colonies. I leave it to historians and social scientists to argue if the compromise was appropriate.
What I do know is that the art of compromise has been severely hobbled in the present day and the consequences have been disastrous, leaving the United States with a Congress that has not been able to pass a budget and all the requisite appropriations bills in years; a judicial branch struggling with too few judges, including being down a Supreme Court justice, due to refusal of the Republican majority in the Senate to hold timely hearings and votes on nominees; a similar problem in the State Department with ambassadors waiting months or years for Senate approval; and a general refusal by the Republican majorities in both houses to bring up a vote unless nearly their entire delegation supports it, giving enormous power to their most conservative members and precluding bipartisan consensus bills. The amount of gridlock has caused damage to both the public and private spheres and has made recent Congresses the most unproductive in history, undermining the purpose of government for the common good that Jefferson outlined.
This inability to seek consensus and compromise has infected large segments of the population as well. Some people will not support a candidate unless s/he agrees with their views 100% of the time, which is an unrealistic standard. Worse, some people can no longer even engage in a reasoned debate, preferring to follow the example of those in public life who dismiss all other viewpoints than their own and resort to name-calling, character assassination, bullying, and threats.
It is time for the governed to withhold their consent/vote from any officeseeker who is not committed to governing for the common good. This entails educating ourselves about all sides of the issues and engaging in respectful inquiry and debate. It also entails compromise so that we can move forward together.
It is our duty and honor as citizens to do so.
There is no better day than July fourth to renew our commitment to our country and its highest ideals.