July 4, 2014
(Painting by John Ward Dunsmore, Library of Congress)
Like many of you, I plan to barbecue to help celebrate Independence Day.
That's what the Fourth of July is for most Americans, a party with family and friends, beer and barbecue, sweet corn at its best. And watermelon and fireflies at dusk, then the fireworks, and little kids in the backyard running with sparklers in the dark.
There's nothing quite like being outside with a cold one and meat on the menu. But proper barbecue takes time. And so, hours before the guests come, when I've got time alone, waiting for the charcoal to ash out, I have an odd Independence Day routine.
I peer into the fire to get a sense of it and let my mind start walking. I don't know what it is exactly that fixes me when I stare into a fire and feel the heat on my face in July. It must be a kind of self-hypnosis, fire as mantra. Whatever it is, the coals trigger something.
And for years now, what is triggered on the Fourth of July is this:
I think of the men who froze in Valley Forge with Washington's army. I think of the founders who crafted a government they hoped would protect liberty. And I wonder what they'd think of us today.
At least 2,000 men died at Valley Forge without even a shot fired, death from disease mostly. Many lost their feet from amputation after their toes turned black from the cold.
And today I'm asking you to think on it when you have a moment alone. Just keep it to yourself. Don't argue with your brother-in-law about it, or lecture your kids. Just think it through a bit in private. And ask yourself this:
What would we tell the founders and the men of Valley Forge about the nation they gave us?
Would we tell them that many Americans probably know more about the curves of Kim Kardashian than we know about the Bill of Rights?
Or that we've traded liberty for entertainment, and worship smartphones that record our movements, our thoughts and our "likes"?
We often make the mistake of idealizing the founders. They weren't Olympians reaching down from the holy mountain to offer the secrets of fire to men.
Some were slave owners, others were libertines. Some were principled, and others were less so. Some were trusting, others were cynical.
When I was a boy I learned about them as if they were gods. I can see Miss Litton right now, her gray hair in a bun, glasses on black beads around her neck, standing in those clunky black shoes at Sherman School on the South Side, telling us about George Washington and the cherry tree.
So of course, we thought them gods. But gods are too far removed to understand the tiny creatures that approach them with offerings. Men? That's different. They're on the ground. The founders were in the world. They were realists.
And as they hammered out the Constitution, they put all their practical knowledge to good use, because they understood human nature.
They understood the divine spark in humanity, and also the corruption. They also knew the appetite of men to seek power and to use reason and muscle to acquire it. They worried about factions (we'd call them political parties) by studying the fallen empires of dead European white males, something that isn't much encouraged these days.
And so, they created a system of government that took our human failings into account, our hunger, even our admirable desire to bend others to our will in the pursuit of a greater good for all.
They created an amazing system, with three equal branches, each limiting the other's reach.
They didn't set out to make the president into a king. Washington turned down a throne. He could have crowned himself, but he said no.
Yet recent presidents — George W. Bush and Barack Obama — might have said otherwise, given what they've offered the nation: a never-ending war on terror, and the weapons to fight it. These include killer drones in the skies, cameras on our streets to watch us in public and the National Security Agency to read our thoughts in what some of us still think are private moments.
And they've used our fear to shape a new American.
That new American insists, loudly, perhaps too loudly, that the federal government can look all it wants into his private affairs, because he has nothing to hide.
A story about the beginning of the country tells us that a group stopped Benjamin Franklin on the street in Philadelphia. They wanted to know what kind of government the delegates were creating.
"A republic, if you can keep it," Franklin is said to have announced.
Democratic republics require an informed and inquisitive people to survive, a people who are actively involved, a people who question their leaders.
But most of all, they require a people who prize one thing above all else.
It's not barbecue and corn, not beer and fireworks, not Kim Kardashian, not chatter on social media. Not the loving watchfulness of drones or the reach of presidents who fashion themselves kings.
A democratic republic requires something else: citizens who prize their liberty as they celebrate their nation's independence from tyranny.
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