America: A Noble, Remarkable Work in Progress Worth Celebrating
John Adams described himself as “obnoxious, suspected and unpopular.” This blunt self-assessment was sometimes confirmed by his contemporaries. Yet Adams had other, very different qualities. He was principled, brilliant, a gifted writer, and a devoted patriot, known for his essential leadership in helping to create and sustain the United States.
On July 5, 1777, he wrote his daughter Abigail Amelia about the Independence Day celebrations in Philadelphia, then the capital of the new republic. He described “a vast concourse of people, all shouting and huzzaing, in a manner which gave great joy to every friend to this country,” bonfires and bell-ringing, and “the most splendid illumination I ever saw.” He concluded, “Had General Howe been here in disguise, or his master, this show would have given them the heart-ache. I am your affectionate father …”
General William Howe was the commander of British land forces in North America. His “master” was none other than Britain’s King George III. The idea of giving them “heartache” appealed to Adams’s wry sense of humor but also sprang from his fierce loyalty to a country founded on a set of beliefs the British leadership had abandoned.
Those beliefs are summarized in the document Adams and his fellow Founders had signed only a year earlier: That a Creator has made every person of equal value and has endowed each with certain intrinsic rights — rights that are woven into the fabric of human nature. Among these are life, liberty, and the “pursuit of happiness,” a term implying both the right to seek a flourishing life and to own property, without which no one (in the Founders’ view) could truly have the kind of stable and fully abundant life he sought.
The Founders believed the “mother country” had jettisoned these beliefs, instead viewing the American colonists as persons slightly above the level of serfs. They were not allowed direct representation in Parliament as the authorities in London told their American cousins to be content with “virtual” representation, that “they were represented in Parliament in the same way as the thousands of British subjects who did not have the vote.” Rather, the colonists were told, Members of Parliament “in the (House of) Commons … legislated for all British subjects everywhere.”
This political fig-leaf wasn’t good enough for Adams and his colleagues — or for the many Americans who were weary of being taxed and governed without their consent and at the whim of British politicians. Adams and his fellow “sons of liberty” wanted to fully enjoy the freedom the Declaration affirmed was theirs.
Not everyone was included in the sunny celebrations on that long-ago day in Philly. On July 5, 1852, the great African American orator Frederick Douglass said of the Founders, “They were statesmen, patriots and heroes, and for the good they did, and the principles they contended for, I will unite with you to honor their memory.” Sadly, though, “the great principles of political freedom and of natural justice, embodied in that Declaration of Independence” were not for those millions “whose chains of servitude had (not) been torn from (their) limbs.”
In Douglass’s day, the horror of slavery was real. Today it is a painful memory because over admittedly too long a time, America corrected the national shame of human enslavement — as we have many other ills.
And this is one of the reasons we can celebrate with gusto on the Fourth of July. America is a nation whose Constitution provides a basis for continual self-correction, for changing those things that merit changing. No other country in history has endeavored so strenuously to live up to its own promise. Have we failed and do we continue to fail? Yes. But our failures are measured against core beliefs that set America apart from the raw and arbitrary politics of all but a few global nations. By that standard, Americans are blessed indeed.
We saw one of those self-corrections last year, when the Supreme Court overturned the moral abomination known as Roe v. Wade. While this decision was by no means universally applauded, neither was the end of slavery. But both of these transformations of law and public life possessed a single great advantage over their alternatives: They were right.
There is far more to say than for which there is space. The heroism of millions of Americans who have risked and, in hundreds of thousands of cases, given their lives to protect ours. The diligence, inventiveness, and doggedness of the American worker and the American inventor. The prosperity and well-being we presume upon every day. The ability to thrive, to rise, to fulfill ambitions and dreams denied for millennia to all but a tiny slice of humanity. The gifts of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” bequests of a loving God that are, like His mercies, new every morning.
That our country is imperfect does not mean it is not noble, remarkable, worth celebrating and also serving, working for, and seeking to improve in our personal lives and as citizens of our great republic.
John Adams delighted in the image of a tyrant getting heartburn. May we delight in our liberty and, under God, do all we can to maintain, strengthen and deserve it.
Rob Schwarzwalder, Ph.D., is Senior Lecturer in Regent University's Honors College.