Kathy Willens / AP

A giant American flag hangs from the front of Brooklyn's Borough Hall on the eve of the Fourth of July holiday.

Editorial: Declaration of Independence still is radical, 238 years on

Published: Friday, Jul. 4, 2014 - 12:00 am

It is facile now to emphasize the differences that divide America in 2014.

Abortion, taxes, immigration, and the United States’ role in the world come immediately to mind, and there are dozens more.

So it is refreshing to note the moment in American history when there was some elemental unanimity. The evanescent moment was July 4, 1776. The date is etched in our collective consciousness, and 238 years have passed since that day in Philadelphia’s Independence Hall.

This country survived a catastrophic civil war, and major and minor international conflicts, the most harrowing of which was World War II. We would not have defeated fascism without the will and perseverance of that generation.

The Declaration of Independence is a document so revered that it is the primary display in our National Archives, posted on classroom walls, and cited by every stripe of politician. It reads:

“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.”

In that sentence are the seeds of the American experiment: a democratic republic with a near-perfect constitution and sometimes halting and often inspiring execution. Even now, that sentence embodies a radical notion.

This experiment spawned some of the greatest leaders the world has ever seen. Washington, Lincoln, Jefferson, Madison and Adams are first among the equals.

Fundamental to that experiment, we have consented to the creation of institutions that administer the governance of 317 million people, and, by extension, provide an example and leadership for the rest of the world.

In 1776, there were no red or blue states, just states. But let’s not ignore reality here: there was slavery, gender inequality, economic inequality and a wildly unregulated boom-and-bust economy.

There was national war on American Indians. There also was great economic, political, social and technological progress spurred on by the ideals of 1776, which is often referred to as a spirit.

Today, it seems, this country finds itself mired in distractions and drivel, and less focused on coherent national goals upon which most can agree. Despite our discordant political culture, that spirit survives.

It’s in the families of the veterans who lie in our national cemeteries. It’s in the everyday lives of Americans who do useful work, and help their neighbors, and raise their children.

It’s in the people who bother to cast ballots and contribute to charity and clean up neighborhoods, who educate and mentor, who do the thousand small things that make America a place we all want to live.

The spirit of 1776 is here. It needs to be more vivid now, and our national leadership might want to revisit their seminal document. It has some refreshing language. This nation was born of revolution, but the goal wasn’t perpetual revolution.

The goal was the contained in three words of the aforementioned sentence: life, liberty, happiness. These descendants of the leaders of 1776 should figure out a way to help get us there without tearing us apart. And they should never forget the most critical word in that 238-year-old sentence: equal.

Read more articles by the Editorial Board

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