The day of celebration of the independence of our great country is once again at hand… for those of us who can remember what it’s all about, that is. As former Secretary of Education under Ronald Reagan, William Bennett, has commented, this country is on the verge of a national amnesia about our own history. He warns that we are becoming a country whose citizens are born as aliens a fact that will, in the end, make it impossible for our young Americans to sign up and fight for our country. After all, they won’t understand why this country is a “way of life worthy of their own lives” if they do not know its history. And that is a dangerous thing.
But it isn’t just the young that are in danger of losing touch with the greatness of our country. In a day when we barely stopped our own Senate from signing away our national sovereignty and making citizenship a hallow convention, far too many Americans seem to have no idea what makes the USA special or deserving of any devotion.
Our Founders, of course, realized how important the light of liberty is that they sacrificed so much to ignite. They well understood that it’s not just important to their fellow Americans but to all of humanity. As James Madison said, “the origin and outset of the American Republic contain lessons of which posterity ought not to be deprived.” But today we are not only depriving humanity of those lessons, we are even depriving our own people from such revelations.
Unfortunately, today we haven’t the luxury to be so thoughtless of our national charge as the light of liberty. There are forces in this world that wish to deprive not only Americans of our liberty, but all mankind of theirs. To that threat we must apply Samuel Adams’ assertion that “our contest is not only whether we ourselves shall be free, but whether there shall be left to mankind an asylum on earth for civil and religious liberty.”
Adams wasn’t the only one who characterized the American experiment as that of interest vital to all mankind. The great liberal, Thomas Paine, also celebrated this nation’s birth as one of prime importance to human liberty. His words are also fitting to our time, words that we should never forget. They are words far from mere dusty historical curiosity, they are words that resonate today and that we can apply directly to the dangerous world in which we now live.
“The cause of America is in a great measure the cause of all mankind,” Paine wrote. “Many circumstances hath, and will arise, which are not local, but universal, and through which the principles of all Lovers of Mankind are affected, and in the Event of which, their Affections are interested. The laying a Country desolate with Fire and Sword, declaring War against the natural rights of all Mankind, and extirpating the Defenders thereof from the Face of the Earth, is the Concern of every Man to whom Nature hath given the Power of feeling.”
Americans should proudly take ownership of the ideal that our nation is the light of liberty making us defenders of, in Paine’s words, “the natural rights of all Mankind.” We should make that assumption that, as Benjamin Franklin put it, “…[I]t is a common observation here that our cause is the cause of all mankind, and that we are fighting for their liberty in defending our own.”
We still have that liberty, but it shouldn’t be taken for granted. Defense against tyranny is still warranted. Patriotism is called for in these perilous times.
It isn’t just mindless jingoism we are in need of, however. Patriotism isn’t just a blind assumption of national superiority. Dr. Benjamin Rush, one of our lesser known yet amazingly erudite Founders, said that, “Patriotism is as much a virtue as justice, and is as necessary for the support of societies as natural affection is for the support of families.” This is another thing we are in danger of losing sight of in this time of pervasive denunciations of U.S. “imperialism.” The all too common scoffing about our national character so woefully prevalent in places like our University classrooms leads too many Americans away from patriotism.
Unfortunately, we are forgetting all these important lessons. And we should reverse that decay forthwith. Let us take heed of James Monroe’s warning about the wisely organized government and the often inevitable decay of human institutions: “How prone all human institutions have been to decay; how subject the best-formed and most wisely organized governments have been to lose their check and totally dissolve; how difficult it has been for mankind, in all ages and countries, to preserve their dearest rights and best privileges, impelled as it were by an irresistible fate of despotism.”
We may or may not be seeing despotism overtaking our government and there is still time to reintroduce our people to the concepts upon which our nation was born. Let us take the occasion of this celebration of our national day of independence to reflect upon that great legacy. And let us never forget that the chores of liberty are not done. We have more work to do, work that is of great import to all mankind.
Happy Independence Day, my fellow Americans.