On July 4th, 2019 Americans will celebrate our country’s 243rd birthday, born of a declaration 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.”
After I retired from my “job” I became a school bus driver in the small town of Cottonwood, AZ. I drove all ages from pre-school to eighth grade and loved the interaction with kids. One Monday I challenged them. On the bulkhead over my driver’s seat I wrote “We hold these truths to be self-evident.” The first to tell me the meaning of that phrase would receive a silver dollar. I gave them a week. By the second day they were frantic and asked for a hint. I said I’d give them a huge hint. I said that the answer was “obvious.” No one tumbled onto the answer. Not until Friday morning, refusing to get off the bus as they tossed nonsensical words about did a timid 6th grade girl say “Does it mean…obvious?” On Monday, I presented her with her silver dollar and used the opportunity that week for discussion of why the signers of the Declaration of Independence risked their lives and their fortunes to declare themselves free from foreign governance.
Today, in my 79th year, I wonder how many of those kids, all voting age adults now, really do hold those “truths” to be obvious. How many of them have read and understand that the U.S. Constitution was written to protect those “truths”. Of course they believe they are entitled to “Life”. Unfortunately, many believe “Liberty” is a given, even as we pass the 75th anniversary of D-Day and the 74th anniversary this year of the end of a World War, fought to ensure the “truth” of Liberty. Also, unfortunately, many have come to translate the “Right” to pursue “Happiness” as a “guarantee” of happiness. But most unsettling is that there are those who, although they give lip service to it, don’t quite get the “all men are created equal” part, as they strive to deny equal voice to those with whom they disagree politically.
When asked what the members of the Constitutional Convention had accomplished, Ben Franklin answered “We have given you a Republic, if you can keep it.” He fully understood that one of the greatest documents ever written not only gave us the means to maintain our liberty but, also, the means to abolish it. He understood the frailties of the human ego, when extreme power is placed in the hands of the few. Daniel Webster was blunt. He wrote “It is hardly too strong to say that the Constitution was made to guard the people against the dangers of good intentions…. There are men, in all ages…who mean to govern well: but they mean to govern. They promise to be kind masters: but they mean to be masters….”
The American experience will never be replicated. Our country was born at a time when two oceans, a vast wilderness to the north, and a weak, disorganized neighbor to the south, protected our shores while we fulfilled our potential. But for it to endure, we must believe in and trust one another. We have to ensure that our children understand what they are inheriting – that they understand that the power belongs to the people; the elected are just temporary caretakers. For it to endure we must deserve it for, as John Adams said “Our Constitution was made only for a moral…people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.
Every year I donate a U.S. Constitution booklet, complete with the Declaration of Independence and all the Amendments, to the entire 3rd grade of the school where my granddaughter started her teaching career, hoping they will take it home with questions for their parents. Those questions – and the answers given – will determine the future of this great country.