President Trump is trying, in his gaudy, self-glorying way, to refashion Independence Day in his own image, but he’ll fail. The weight and momentum of this nation are strong enough after 243 years to survive his vain mischief.
Americans, not least Trump supporters, know that this country is about freedom. Other countries may have military parades or political rallies to celebrate the leader on their national holidays. But most of them aren’t democracies; and they certainly aren’t this American republic.
For a reminder of what this holiday is about, a good starting point is the commemorative service held last Sunday at Washington National Cathedral. The readings, gathered by the Rev. Canon Rosemarie Logan Duncan, provided a succinct summary of the American story.
The abiding lesson is that America’s power has always been rooted in its values. We’ve strayed, on issues of race, gender and other tests of our tolerance and decency. But we’ve always come back to the basic framework set by Thomas Jefferson, the principal author of the Declaration of Independence:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men 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.”
The chief weakness of the American structure, from the beginning, was that it didn’t extend its promise of liberty far enough. That started with women, who were denied the franchise. The first reading last Sunday was a March 31, 1776, letter from Abigail Adams to her husband John, who became America’s second president.
“I desire you would remember the ladies and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors. Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the husbands. … If particular care and attention is not paid to the ladies, we are determined to foment a rebellion.” And they did.
Slavery has often been defined as America’s “original sin,” and the most painful chapters of our history involve the struggle to undo this injustice and its legacy. The former slave Frederick Douglass admonished in an 1846 letter:
“In thinking of America, I sometimes find myself admiring her bright blue sky — her grand old woods — her fertile fields — her beautiful rivers — her mighty lakes, and star-crowned mountains. But my rapture is soon checked … when I remember that all is cursed with the infernal spirit of slaveholding, robbery and wrong — when I remember that with the waters of her noblest rivers, the tears of my brethren are borne to the ocean, disregarded and forgotten, and that her most fertile fields drink daily of the warm blood of my outraged sisters.”
Abraham Lincoln warned of the carnage ahead in a prophetic June 1858 speech when he was running for the Senate: “A house divided against itself cannot stand. I believe this government cannot endure, permanently, half slave and half free.” In 1861, the house collapsed, and the Civil War began.
America’s values were always the foundation of its military power. When President Franklin Roosevelt addressed Congress on Jan. 6, 1942, a month after Pearl Harbor, he embedded the war effort in this history:
“Victory for us means victory for freedom. … Victory for us means victory for the institution of democracy — the ideal of the family, the simple principles of common decency and humanity. … We are fighting, as our fathers have fought, to uphold the doctrine that all men are equal in the sight of God.”
The cathedral service remembered two payments on this debt of freedom. President Lyndon Johnson told Congress on Nov. 27, 1963, less than a week after his predecessor’s assassination, to honor President John F. Kennedy by passing his Civil Rights Act. “The time has come for Americans of all races and creeds and political beliefs to understand and to respect one another.”
A last brick in this American structure of liberty was a 2015 Supreme Court ruling on marriage equality. The cathedral audience heard the opinion written by Justice Anthony Kennedy supporting the claims of same-sex petitioners: “They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right.”
The Fourth of July is about fireworks and patriotic music; and, this year, tanks and fighter jets. But we all know in our hearts that it’s really about the values that make us Americans, which have sustained us through good leaders and bad ones. Speeches, like firecrackers, can be loud, but the sound fades, and the quiet, steadfast narrative of America is what endures.
Follow David Ignatius on Twitter @IgnatiusPost.