Yesterday, July 4, was Independence Day here in the United States of America. The British began settling the Atlantic coast of what is now the USA in the 1600s and 1700s. By the 1760s and 1770s, the relationship between the Crown and the colonies had deteriorated as the government raised taxes and exerted greater control in the colonies. After full-blown war broke out, a group of representatives met in Philadelphia and signed the Declaration of Independence (full text). The Declaration, dated July 4, 1776 and primarily written by Thomas Jefferson, began by asserting that all are created equally with the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; that government is derived by the consent of the governed; and that when a government becomes abusive, the people have the right to abolish it and replace it with another government. The Declaration then continues with a list of reasons that the British government under King George III had abused its power in the American colonies. Fighting between the colonists and the British would continue for several years, and in 1783, after the British had suffered a number of defeats, they formally ended fighting and recognized the new nation. Thomas Jefferson would later become the third President of the new United States of America, serving from 1801 to 1809, and as one of the nation’s Founding Fathers, his image can be seen on both the five-cent coin and the two-dollar bill.
I have friends in other countries now, and I occasionally get views on this blog from outside the USA, so one reason I included this brief history lesson is because I don’t know how much of this is taught in other countries. The sad thing, however, is that many people right here in this country don’t seem to know what we are celebrating on July 4. All of this is still taught in schools, but so many these days have the attitude that what they learn in school is not worth remembering once they have taken a test on it.
This is certainly not the only reason for our changing sense of national identity, of course. I grew up in the context of the waning years of the Cold War and the brash consumerism of the 1980s, with a clear sense that we were the “good guys” and the Russians were the “bad guys” long before I understood the causes of the Cold War or the political and economic differences between the two nations. Today’s youth spent their childhoods in the era of the United States being the world’s only superpower, and being widely criticized for that role They live in the era of increasing globalization and exposure to other cultures, and the era of increased public concern over environmental destruction and its consequences. This is just my opinion and observation, not intended to be a scientifically drawn conclusion, but it seems like this has created a generation that does not value representative government or free market economics as much as previous generations. An increasing segment of the population associates representative government with injustice and free market economics with the destruction of the environment, and their views are entirely justifiable in light of recent history.
To me, this context can make the celebration of independence a little awkward. Does this country still stand for the ideals embodied in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution? There is no doubt that the world has changed a great deal since Thomas Jefferson and his colleagues wrote the Declaration 239 years ago, and that our nation and the world are facing a very uncertain and potentially unsettling future.
I want to have hope and optimism that our nation will survive. Those who wrote the Constitution knew that the world would change in ways that they could not foresee, so they included a provision by which the Constitution could be amended. It is difficult to amend the Constitution; an amendment must be proposed by a 2/3 vote of Congress, and then the state governments of 3/4 of the states must pass a bill in favor of the amendment.* But it is important that Constitutional amendments be difficult to pass, so that the foundations of our national government do not change based on whims and fads, and this is why only twenty-seven Constitutional amendments have been approved. (*Yes, I know there are a few other options involved, but I’m trying to keep it simple.)
One key phrase from the Declaration of Independence that tends to get forgotten these days is “consent of the governed.” Government exists because the people allow it to exist, and in a representative government like ours, the government only has power because the people allow it to. Some complain, justifiably, that our government is under the control of big money and big corporations, but the only reason for this is that enough voters have become complacent and cynical enough to continue voting for people who are beholden to big money and big corporations. This could easily change if enough voters could agree on something better. Also–and I know that this next part is not true of all countries–the United States federal government exists because the states allow it to exist. The United States is not one country that was formed first and then divided into states; it is a group of states that created a centralized authority to strengthen their union. We tend to forget that each state has its own culture and its own way of life, and that, for the most part, the states should not all be the same in the first place.
So, Americans, learn about the issues facing your community, your state, and the nation. After learning about the issues, vote in the next election. Remember, you will probably have to make some compromise votes, because no one’s views will follow yours exactly, but some candidates are definitely better equipped to be leaders than others. I hope we as a nation can continue to do the best we can, and that we will find a solution to the divisiveness and ignorance that seem to have dominated recent elections, on both sides. Happy 239th birthday, United States of America.