Freedom and the Fourth

July 04, 1993

When a group of colonists gathered in the heat of an early Philadelphia summer, the freedoms they declared to the world 217 years ago represented a revolution that continues today. Democracy is a time-consuming, often messy form of government. But where it is given a chance to flower, people and societies prosper.

In Philadelphia, the signers of the Declaration of Independence did not foresee the exact nature of the democracy they proclaimed. It would take a difficult war and a false start before the American revolutionaries produced the truly unified national government that would guarantee the many freedoms we take for granted today. We hasten to note that not all Americans at first shared in the benefits of citizenship or even freedom. Slavery was accommodated in the Constitution, and women were not enfranchised.

But the beauty of the vision we celebrate today is that it contains within itself the ability to evolve, precisely because it is an expression of confidence in the innate strength of freedom. The world will always be filled with despots and demons, people or ideologies that seek to destroy or contain freedom. Neither will it ever lack for those who fear freedom and warn of its dangers.

True, the freedom of a people to shape their collective destiny can be a heady, even frightening prospect. And dangers do abound. To cite a contemporary dilemma, how do Americans steeped in freedom, but less eager to embrace its responsibilities, summon the discipline to face knotty, unpleasant issues like the budget deficit that threatens to rob future generations of their economic security? Today is a good time for all Americans to recall that the signers of the Declaration of Independence risked "our lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor" for their future generations.

This Fourth of July, as every year at this time, Americans join in a celebration that is part patriotism, part high-summer holiday and fire-crackling good time. But one does not dilute the other. It is, after all, a great benefit of freedom that we can take it for granted while we relax and savor picnics and barbecues, beach trips and family cook-outs. Fireworks and patriotic ceremonies set the theme, but the accompaniment is the exuberant enjoyment of freedom.

It is good to remember, though, that the revolution the Signers envisioned is not complete -- nor will it ever be. As we celebrate the fruits of their vision, we also remember that there are many Americans who still don't share materially in the most basic parts of the American dream. And beyond these shores, there are many, many millions who still yearn for the chance to make their way in life, and perhaps to make a mark.

Yes, today is a day to celebrate. It is also a day for hard-headed recognition that freedom remains strong and vibrant only as long as we are willing to embrace the responsibilities on which our rights and freedoms depend.

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