As we celebrated this country’s 242nd Independence Day this past July 4, we banded together for one day as a nation to revel in what we have come to believe in as what it means to be an American. We enjoyed fireworks, picnics, speeches and in many locations held naturalization ceremonies welcoming people from throughout the world to the dream of American citizenship.
How many more July 4 celebrations will we enjoy as a nation that are worthy of being celebrated as a beacon of hope and freedom? As a nation we are far from perfect, and with each election cycle we continue testing our beliefs and stretching what we think our “American values” are. Geo-politics and geo-economics potentially make the people of all nations pawns to their respective governmental and corporate business systems.
So, what are the values that made this country a desired destination to start anew, be born, live, work, prosper, or be off the grid? When our founding fathers signed the Declaration of Independence 242 years ago they knew they were preforming a treasonous act and that King George III would do what was in his best interest to preserve control of the colonies. So, the first challenge was to survive a war of independence against a country with a history of subjugating any adversary who posed a threat to their notion of imperial authority.
To build a new nation, the Declaration of Independence framers needed to coalesce around an idea — “We the People” — and convince the people that, if they fought on the side of creating a new nation not under the thumb of the English Crown, they would have “unalienable rights.” To obtain these rights they first had to defeat a formidable foe, come out physically intact, economically secure and find a way to govern that lived up to the promise.
During the revolutionary war, the new country operated under the Articles of Confederation. Let’s simply state that the Articles lacked clarity for an executive branch authority to lead. It did not have a strong national court system to enforce laws, and the legislative powers given to the Congress effectively made them the central government, but they had no power to force the states to do anything against their will. Not a good system, but, it was a starting point.
The Articles provided an operational model for what did not work, but served as a guide for the founders to reframe the government as it is now defined by our Constitution. And when combined with the Bill of Rights, they ultimately created the foundational promise of what it is to be an American. The Constitution was officially ratified on June 21, 1787, and the Bill of Rights followed on Dec. 21, 1791.
The basic principles under which the Constitution and Bill of Rights were created and written are: popular sovereignty, republicanism, federalism, separation of powers, checks and balances, judicial review and limited government. It is worth the effort to try and understand these principles in the historical period in which they were written, realizing that with the passage of time and constant spin, the meaning we perceive today may not be what was meant. As Americans, we should be challenging ourselves to understand the history, meaning and rights we share from these documents.
I believe that what makes this country special and the envy of many nations on this planet, is that we as a nation aspire to the values expressed in the words that have served as a core value for beginning a new nation and they are: “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.”
From the very beginning, these words were in conflict with the reality faced by leaders of a new nation, who were focused on managing a war and establishing a new governmental format. Almost immediately it became about creating an economy, building alliances with other countries, establishing a military, and controlling a populace in a way that the majority of people would align themselves with a new government and willingly support a war for a new nation.
Quickly, the survival and future of America became business and politics intertwined. While the founding fathers may have wanted more statesmanship, they knew that for America to live up to the lofty words used to create a new nation in 1776, it would require time, vigilance and a willingness to serve and protect people as a primary product of governmental purpose.
The lofty goals of our country’s founders were from day one in conflict with business interests, land and slave owners, the wealthy, lobbyists, profiteering opportunists, theocratic ideologues and others wanting to shape this country around their personal desires and economic needs.
The challenge for all of us is to require more statesmanship, integrity, transparency and leadership from our elected officials as well as business and cultural leaders. They have a shared responsibility for prioritizing laws and actions for creating and maintaining a system with safeguards that enable people to achieve their greatest potential within and for this country.
Our future requires an energized commitment on renewing the purpose of this nation for being a nation that lives up to the words: We the People!
Keith Livingston is a longtime Federal Way resident and community observer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.