The quintessential July Fourth celebration is typically a group gathering to eat a grilled meal and view colorful aerial explosions. Not so this year.
Our family trip to Iowa was canceled, so we pared it back to a small local cookout. An acquaintance, who has a good-sized extended family, told me their family decided to remain in their own homes but cook the same foods and eat them simultaneously.
The Fourth is also a day to wave flags, listen to 18th-century flute marches and reflect on dead presidents. In recent years, though, and particularly now, those who put together the Declaration of Independence are under more scrutiny, particularly when their high-minded statements about freedom for all are not consistent with aspects of their personal lives.
Let’s consider Thomas Jefferson in particular, whose life-size statue (still) sits on the Francis Quadrangle at MU. After calls to remove it, UM System President and Interim MU Chancellor Mun Choi was put in a tough spot. The buck did not stop with him on this one, though, as the Board of Curators was quite adamant that the statue will remain on campus.
Growing up in public schools in the 1980s, I didn’t see a mention in any of my textbooks of the more scandalous accusations about those present at the convention in Philadelphia in the summer of 1776. They were all pretty positive depictions about national heroes. Mount Rushmore may even have been on the cover of one book.
This is the problem with deifying our leaders, past or present, who are indeed mortal men and women. Perhaps now more than ever, we need to remain a nation of laws, a country led by principles and ideals rather than by the whims of those in power. Our leaders are ideally servants of the people, not gods themselves.
Taking a more positive outlook, though, our early leaders can take credit for a significant achievement. However, imperfectly or incompletely, they moved the ball forward to extend freedom to more and more people.
In England a few centuries ago, the default was an unelected monarch. Power became somewhat more institutionally decentralized in the summer of 1215 with the signing of Magna Carta — “Great Charter (of freedom)” in Latin.
Although it sounds reasonable, that meant perhaps 25 barons were tasked with holding the king accountable, extremely short of what “we the people” would find acceptable today.
Parliament developed, as well, but the peasants had no voice in it. Still, lords and dukes helping run a government did extend power beyond a single person on a throne, which meant progress.
The American colonists’ Declaration of Independence and subsequent Constitution did not include everyone, either. It did extend power to an additional group of people, basically male landowners of European (mainly English) ancestry.
While some wanted to give self-government to a wider swath of society from the get-go, they were able to gain only so much ground at the time. Still, a bigger group was given authority than those who had it before.
That’s the trend we’ve seen since — extending personal freedoms and voting rights to more and more people. It was not immediate, and it wasn’t steady, but over time — often through difficult periods of societal evolution — freedom and empowerment were granted to pretty much everyone.
Looking back at the noble philosophy in the Declaration of Independence, we have the ability going forward to imagine that “all men” can really mean every single person. It can mean one’s opportunities in life are not based on ancestry or station in life but on self-determination and character.
The men who signed the Declaration of Independence were not saints, and some were certainly more noble than others. Yet, the ideals they put together are quite inspiring and, at the very least, a few centuries on, give us a push to keep sharing our freedom.
Even today, our sensitivity to those who are still not experiencing the full blessings of liberty continues the best legacy of America.
Steve Spellman hosts “The Mid-Missouri Freedom Forum” at 5 p.m. every Tuesday on 89.5 FM/KOPN.