Independence Day celebrations take place in other nations around the world, but for the citizens of the United States the Fourth of July has a distinctive dimension. In celebrating the signing of the Declaration of Independence in 1776, we not only look back at a moment of the past; we also look forward as we assess the present state of the American proposition and its future challenges. In the older nations of Europe, the national holiday usually celebrates a particular moment in history that has become part of the national myth. On July 14, when the people of France celebrate Bastille Day with a magnificent parade down the Champs élysées, they recall a defining moment in the French Revolution. The celebration of independence in the newer nations of Africa and Asia usually commemorates a relatively recent separation from a colonial power.
The Fourth of July for Americans is less a time of looking back than a time of looking forward, less a time for congratulating ourselves on the exceptionalism of the United States, much more a time for challenging ourselves on the state of the American proposition. The rhetoric of Fourth of July speeches invariably includes a reference to ideals still to be fulfilled. Underlying such rhetoric is the assumption that the United States of America continues to be an experiment, a work in progress. The Declaration of Independence remains a promise still to be fulfilled; America means unfinished business.
What is distinctive about the Fourth of July is that the day celebrates an idea as much as an event, an experiment that is unique in the history of nations. The United States of America represents a society built on the proposition that each individual, regardless of race, religion or national origin enjoys inviolable human dignity. As a result, to use the declaration’s most quoted phrase, men and women are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
The American experiment has been to create a nation of immigrants, whose people will not be bound together by common racial, religious or ethnic roots. Achieving a community out of so many differences is not easy; it is, in fact, a truly revolutionary proposition, which is why our national motto, E pluribus unum, out of many one, will always remain a national challenge. It is this revolutionary American proposition that makes the Fourth of July an original and distinctive national holiday. For this American proposition continues to be tested by every new wave of immigrants who come to these shores in search of a better chance at life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
In looking back over 230 years of U.S. history, we can trace the continuing fulfillment of the American promise. The Civil War, which divided a relatively young nation so bitterly, clarified our national identity when institutionalized slavery was finally recognized, painfully and reluctantly, to be inconsistent with the fundamental American proposition. But the task of eliminating racism in American society remains unfinished business a century and a half later. The challenge of distributing the rewards of economic prosperity more fairly among the working people of the United States has, if anything, become more acute in recent years, and the division of wealth has become more polarized, as corporate chieftains receive compensation wildly out of proportion to the wages of their employees. More recently, a current of nativist resentment has poisoned the debate about immigration reform.
On this Fourth of July, the American proposition is challenged not only by the unfinished agenda of social and economic justice in American society, but also by the dangers of international terrorism and disagreement over the kind of leadership the United States should exercise in the international community. Unmatched economic and military power does not bestow on the United States the luxury of unilateral decisions in an increasingly interdependent world. American values of liberty and economic opportunity continue to serve as a magnet for peoples in other parts of the world, but U.S. moral authority has been compromised by the conduct of its war of choice in Iraq.
As we celebrate our Independence Day, we the citizens of these United States, as well as our national leaders, would do well to recognize once again that the American proposition remains both unfinished business and the source of our nation’s greatest strength.