As I contemplate July 4th and the United States’ celebration of Independence, I am struck by the weight of what it means to grow a democracy. Just like any offspring, the birth is just the beginning of a much longer effort to raise, care for and tend to the upbringing. Throughout our history as a nation there has been learning, developing and the painful maturing that has brought us to where we are today.
We are far from done; the promise of freedom, equality and independence has not yet come to full fruition. Our government has yet to realize a nation of, by and for the people. In fact, at this moment, our nation is in great jeopardy and in need of a rallying leadership that holds a vision of universal good based on the truths that all people 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”.
Abraham Lincoln, our 16th president, understood this well and in his time worked for the realignment of our nation to the highest spirit of it’s founding principles. In the Lincoln-Douglas debates, Douglas asserted that the Declaration intended only white men to have equality. Lincoln interpreted the intent to all people universally saying,
“They meant simply to declare the right, so that the enforcement of it might follow as fast as circumstances should permit. They meant to set up a standard maxim for free society which should be familiar to all, constantly looked to, constantly labored for, and even, though never perfectly attained, constantly approximated, and thereby constantly spreading and deepening its influence, and augmenting the happiness and value of life to all people, of all colors, everywhere.” ("Abraham Lincoln (1809–1865): Political Debates Between Lincoln and Douglas 1897". Bartleby. p. 415. Retrieved January 26, 2013.)
"In Lincoln's hands," wrote historian Pauline Maier, "the Declaration of Independence became first and foremost a living document" with "a set of goals to be realized over time”. (Maier, P. American Scripture: Making the Declaration of Independence, Alfred A. Knopf, NY: 1997).
Perhaps the most eloquent summation of our nation’s promise and, as its citizens, our responsibility is captured in the Gettysburg address.
Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.
Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.
But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate—we can not consecrate—we can not hallow—this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.
Many have since that time fought for the highest values of our country often facing great danger, atrocities, and death. We stand on the shoulders of civil rights activists, abolitionists and visionaries who called us to our highest and best version of ourselves and dedicated their lives to the cause of freedom. We continue to rise to the best within us, both individually and collectively, following the vision of those who came before us and working to realize our full potential as a nation and as human beings.
We have before us, in this moment in history, a deeply compromised democracy. We have before us, a deep divide in our nation that demands our involvement, our care and our resolve. It calls us to dedicate ourselves to the unfinished work of equality, of freedom and the continued upbringing and development of a democratic government. There are many challenges ahead and many decisions to be made. It is imperative that we involve ourselves not in the politics of who is right or wrong, but with the highest interpretation of the principles upon which our nation rests; to secure for all people the inalienable rights upon which it was founded - life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.