“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal…”
And so it went, 241 years ago today, when the founding fathers of the United States of America made their declaration of independence. In the course of human events, they felt it necessary to dissolve political bonds with a despot. They set a course to free themselves from tyranny.
It was a good move, and the document they wrote was one for the ages. Contained within were powerful, flowery words encouraging a government by the consent of the governed. It declared unalienable rights like life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
It was a watershed moment, the beginning of the modern liberal democracy. There was a promise of equality, and opportunity for all mankind. They lit the spark of egalitarianism. Others used the document in the decades to come to stoke the fires of freedom again. Slavery would be abolished, in time. The right to vote would eventually come to all.
In the ensuing years the entire world would embrace liberal democracy. “By the people and for the people” was repeated in nation after nation. Freedom became a trend.
It is a great story, and a great beginning, but we have only just begun to live up to the promise of that original document. The revolution that rocked the world less than 250 years ago has only just begun.
America, the nation, is a work of fiction. Harari says that what has separated our species most from other species on the planet is our ability to create such fictions. No other animal draws a line on a map. No other animal believes in God. Only we, the sapiens, can draw ourselves together in shared beliefs and rally around that belief to create a day of celebration, a monument to greatness, or a war.
Only we can create or overthrow a tyranny.
Our mythology is a strong one. We have made great heroes of these founding fathers. We have an enduring belief that we are the greatest nation on the planet. That fervor, that patriotism, has enabled us to become the strongest nation in the world, in the history of the world. There has never been a military might like this one. And if military might is the measure of greatness, then we surely are the greatest nation on Earth.
But that was not the promise of our fathers. The promise of our fathers was liberty and equality. They despised the bully. They rallied and railed against the king. The founders spoke out against injustice and inequality. They were children of the Enlightenment dreaming of an egalitarian world.
We have not realized that dream yet. In modern America, we have come to worship capital instead of liberty. Greed instead of happiness. War instead of life. We are divided, partisan, and bitter. We risk, once again, tyranny.
I still believe in the promise of America. I still believe, in my heart, in the mythology created by the founding fathers. The world does not have to belong to kings; it can belong to all.
I re-read the Declaration of Independence today. I am emboldened by its promise. We have suffered this “long train of abuses” by our political and capitalistic leaders. Greed denies us our destiny.
But that is not the end of the story. Recent events have derailed an otherwise long-term upward trend. 240 years is a blip on the radar of history and the next era in America can define or destroy us. We can, if we choose, have health care for all. Or, we can conquer the world and take their oil. We can, if we choose, focus on universal education and equality. Or, if we choose, we can protect the gains of only the few.
We can have great kings or we can have a great people.
History will remember the kings. They create mythologies around the might of rulers; the plight of the people is forgotten. But history, they say, is written by the winners.
In an equal society, the people are the winners. In an unequal society, it is the kings.
As we move forward into year 242 in the story of America, let us remember what the foundation of this country was, as listed in the original document we celebrate today. Read it. And then, amidst the sparklers and libations, the grilling and the laughter, think for a moment about what you’d like tomorrow for America.
And then let’s roll up our sleeves and get to work. For the people.