'Expression of the American Mind'

July 04, 1995

For every community and village that held its annual Fourth of July parade and fireworks display two days early this year, on Sunday, take heart: That's the way Founding Father John Adams wanted it.

After all, it was on July 2, 1776, that the Continental Congress adopted a resolution of independence. Written and introduced by Richard Henry Lee of Virginia, it resolved that "these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent States." Passage of that resolution, Adams told his wife Abigail in a letter, should be celebrated with festivities and holidays for generations to come. It was to him the true beginning of this country as a nation.

Yet that document has faded into the background of historical trivia. It was overtaken by the succinct and moving eloquence of Thomas Jefferson's declaration that was debated by the Congress for two days (about a quarter of it was revised by the delegates) and then approved as a ringing explanation to the world of this new nation's break with England.

What is most remembered of Jefferson's monumental work is not the extensive list of sins of George III and Parliament that was responsible for the colonies' fight for independence but the magical words of the opening and concluding paragraphs. These few sentences contain what Jefferson later called "an expression of the American mind." It set forth a theory of government and a charter of freedom that has become this country's guiding light, and a beacon for millions of people throughout the world.

Today, it is easy to feel jaded about the direction of our country. We live, after all, in a cynical age where the motives of all elected leaders are deemed nefarious and devious. For every good deed, there are a dozen critics eager to launch highly personal and vituperative attacks on the good-deed doer. The telecommunications revolution tends to turn legitimate news events into media circuses and creates instant opposition.

Yet behind the carping and negativism is a form of democratic government in remarkably good health. Jefferson and his compatriots proclaimed for themselves and their heirs the right not only to live in freedom but to do so in the "pursuit of happiness." This ideal, the betterment of one's life and of humankind, reflects the Enlightenment's view of an individual's unlimited potential. The declaration's faith in the ability of every citizen to make the world a better place gave these words tremendous emotional impact that Americans readily took to heart.

Optimism is in short supply in this country at the moment, even though the outlook in so many respects is bright. Perhaps it is time for all of us to re-visit the Declaration of Independence to sense the spirit of enthusiasm for the future it embraces.

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