The birth­day gal

You don’t look a day over 230

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - EDITORIAL PAGE -

LEAVE IT to the old Pu­ri­tan and lawyer John Adams to think we’d cel­e­brate a con­gres­sional res­o­lu­tion, and sched­ule a hol­i­day to mark this na­tion’s birth on the Sec­ond of July. He said July 2 would be cel­e­brated “with pomp and pa­rade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bon­fires, and il­lu­mi­na­tions, from one end of this con­ti­nent to the other, from this time for­ward, forever­more.”

Nah. Amer­i­cans de­cided to cel­e­brate the Fourth of July in­stead, the day of the dec­la­ra­tion it­self. We’re more of an idea peo­ple. Leave the pa­per­work to the Ger­mans.

Happy birth­day, old gal. It’s been 241 years since that con­gres­sional res­o­lu­tion/dec­la­ra­tion/fool­hardy ex­per­i­ment. For who thought this coun­try would re­ally last this long? A repub­lic? When has that ever worked out? Gov­ern­ment of the peo­ple? What do they know? (“Your peo­ple sir, is a great beast.”—A. Hamil­ton.) There were those in Bri­tain and Tories on these shores who thought, sure, let the colonies go—for now. Why fight them? They’ll come crawl­ing back soon enough. And re­al­ize that tax­a­tion with­out rep­re­sen­ta­tion wasn’t some­thing they needed to worry their pretty lit­tle heads about. Mother Eng­land would take care of all. Ex­cept . . . .

Ex­cept there’s some­thing ex­cep­tional about this na­tion. And it’s not the way French and Ger­mans and Bri­tish and Chi­nese think of them­selves as ex­cep­tional. If one word sums up this coun­try, it might be Hope. Al­though there are other nom­i­nees for the honor, such as free­dom and op­por­tu­nity.

BUT HOPE would be only the be­gin­ning of what Amer­ica is about. The United States of Amer­ica has be­come a na­tion. But we’re not a na­tion in the way the Chi­nese could be called one, or a civ­i­liza­tion in the way the Arabs are. Not even the trea­sure of the English tongue ex­plains us, for here we speak a dis­tinct vari­ant of the mother tongue—Amer­i­can, or rather va­ri­eties thereof, from Tex-Mex to Ca­jun to Brook­ly­nese to stan­dard Mid­west­ern. And around here, we speak a lot of Suthin’. The Amer­i­can lan­guage hasn’t yet jelled into a fin­ished prod­uct, thank good­ness, or else it would be one of the dead lan­guages.

Amer­ica is not so much a melt­ing-pot as the big­gest sa­vory stew in the world, al­ways chang­ing fla­vors, de­pend­ing on the spoon­ful or neigh­bor­hood. We’re con­stantly throw­ing in new in­gre­di­ents, too, test­ing the roux and pro­claim­ing that this coun­try is the best that’s ever been, or that it’s go­ing to the dogs. So we have to change it up on oc­ca­sion. Throw­ing out the Adams ad­min­is­tra­tion for the Jef­fer­son one. Or get­ting rid of those crim­i­nal Repub­li­cans and elect­ing a Sun­day School teacher named Carter as pres­i­dent. And then throw­ing him out at the next sched­uled elec­tion for a Rea­gan. And af­ter 12 years of Rea­gan/Bush, go­ing in a com­pletely dif­fer­ent di­rec­tion in 1992. Just see last Novem­ber for proof of the way Amer­i­cans change the dish when pro­voked.

Of course, we’ve al­ways been afraid of The Other, and it’s a bad habit we need to quit. In the 1750s Ben Franklin was warn­ing that soon we’d all be speak­ing Ger­man if Penn­syl­va­nia was any ex­am­ple. Just sub­sti­tute Mr. Franklin’s men­tion of the Ger­mans with the Ir­ish, Ital­ians, Slavs, Asians, Mex­i­cans . . . and you’d have a his­tory of Amer­i­can im­mi­gra­tion and its dis­con­tents. Which quickly enough be­came chants of Build That Wall! Build That Wall!

One won­ders: Is it the land that makes us Amer­i­cans? The land was al­ready Amer­i­can—dis­tinct and ex­cep­tional—be­fore its in­hab­i­tants were. It took many au­tumns, win­ters, springs and sum­mers for Amer­ica to make us Amer­i­cans. And the land con­tin­ues to shape us, just as we do the land.

Yet it was not only the land that drew us here, but some­thing else, some­thing in the air.

Not some ver­sion of Bis­marck’s blut

und eisen, not lan­guage, not cul­ture, not even the land can ex­plain how Amer­ica came to be. But some­thing in the air. That some­thing is the idea of free­dom. To be an Amer­i­can is to share not just a his­tory, glo­ri­ous and ter­ri­ble as it is from Val­ley Forge to Lit­tle Big Horn, from In­de­pen­dence Hall to the Lincoln Me­mo­rial, from Iwo Jima to Afghanistan, but to share in an idea, to live in a cer­tain light.

That Amer­i­can idea crys­tal­lized in Congress, be­lieve it or not. (There was a time in this coun­try when peo­ple took to the streets chant­ing “Long Live Congress!” in the faces of the red­coats star­ing them down.) Amer­ica can be found in the words in the unan­i­mous Dec­la­ra­tion of the 13 United States of Amer­ica. Even now the words leap from the parch­ment like a bu­gle call, a dec­la­ra­tion of faith, a com­ing to­gether of hope and fruition:

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.

And yet there is noth­ing self-ev­i­dent about men be­ing cre­ated equal. That idea will al­ways be revo­lu­tion­ary. In his orig­i­nal draft, Mr. Jef­fer­son, be­fore the in­evitable com­mit­tee of ed­i­tors got to­gether and wa­tered down his prose, called the truths his Dec­la­ra­tion would pro­claim not self-ev­i­dent but “sa­cred,” which is still the bet­ter description. For this na­tion was born in an act of faith, as the ex­pres­sion of an idea that was ex­cep­tional then and still is.

THE GUMP­TION. The Amer­i­can­ness of it. As if we could de­clare that all men are cre­ated equal and en­ti­tled to cer­tain rights by the laws of na­ture and na­ture’s God and it be so. What ar­ro­gance, Euro­pean states­men would sniff. (How lit­tle things have changed.)

“The sun never shined on a cause of greater worth,” Tom Paine would write in his lit­tle pam­phlet, Com­mon Sense.

“’Tis not the af­fair of a city, a county, a prov­ince, or a king­dom, but of a con­ti­nent—of at least one-eighth part of the nav­i­ga­ble globe.’’

Old John Adams fore­saw to­day’s cer­e­monies and fire­works even if he got the ex­act date wrong. But Mr. Adams got ev­ery­thing else right, in­clud­ing what sac­ri­fices lib­erty would en­tail. “You will think me trans­ported with en­thu­si­asm,” he apol­o­gized to Abi­gail, aware he was show­ing emo­tion at last, “but I am not. I am well aware of the toil and blood and trea­sure that it will cost us to main­tain this dec­la­ra­tion, and sup­port and de­fend these States. Yet, through all the gloom I can see the rays of rav­ish­ing light and glory. I can see that the end is more than worth all the means, and that pos­ter­ity will tri­umph in that day’s trans­ac­tion . . . .”

The Amer­i­can Idea is a mix of re­al­ism and en­thu­si­asm, hope and en­durance, lib­erty and or­der, Adams and Jef­fer­son. It opens whole new vis­tas for man even as it de­mands self-dis­ci­pline and self-sac­ri­fice. And how. As ev­ery day’s head­lines make clear in this strug­gle against an­other foe. The Spirit of ’76, it turns out, isn’t just for 1776.

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