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Why We Keep This Creed

By Michael Gerson
Wednesday, July 4, 2007

One of the great Independence Day speeches of American history was an attack on Independence Day.

On the Fourth of July, 1829, William Lloyd Garrison-- who looked like a shop clerk and set rhetorical fires like an arsonist -- took the pulpit at the Park Street Church in Boston. Rather than celebrate, he said, Americans should "spike every cannon and haul down every banner" because of the "glaring contradiction" between the Declaration of Independence and the practice of slavery. The grievances of slaves, he argued, made the grievances of the American colonists look like trivial whining. "I am ashamed of my country," he concluded. "I am sick of our unmeaning declamation in praise of liberty and equality; of our hypocritical cant about the unalienable rights of man."

Even across the centuries, his gall is startling. But Garrison laid bare the central contradiction of the American experiment: that the land of the free was actually a prison for millions of its inhabitants.

The war that ended slavery, it turned out, did not end oppression. In "Redemption: The Last Battle of the Civil War," Nicholas Lemann recounts how armed paramilitary groups, often consisting of former Confederate officers and soldiers, conducted a violent guerrilla campaign to reimpose race-based rule across the South in the 1870s. In our own period of ethnic cleansing, local officials were assassinated, elections were overturned and resisters were massacred. Lemann tells the story of Charles Caldwell, a black state senator from Mississippi, lured to a bar for a Christmas drink and shot in the back. Staggering to his feet, he said: "Remember when you kill me you kill a gentleman and a brave man." He was then shot 30 or 40 more times.

Why love such a country? Why celebrate its birth? The answer was given from the pulpit of the Ebenezer Baptist Church on Independence Day 1965.

The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. recognized that America has a "schizophrenic personality, tragically divided against herself." But we are redeemed, he argued, by our creed, expressed in the Declaration of Independence, which manages "to forever challenge us; to forever give us a sense of urgency; to forever stand in the midst of the 'isness' of our terrible injustices; to remind us of the 'oughtness' of our noble capacity for justice and love and brotherhood." Americans, he said, believe in "certain basic rights that are neither derived from nor conferred by the state. . . . They are God-given, gifts from his hands."

"You may take my life," King said, "but you can't take my right to life. You may take liberty from me, but you can't take my right to liberty." And this creed of "amazing universalism" calls "America to do a special job for mankind and the world . . . because America is the world in miniature and the world is America writ large."

The privileged and powerful can love America for many reasons. The oppressed and powerless, stripped of selfish motives for their love, have found America lovely because of its ideals.

It is typical of America that our great national day is not the celebration of a battle -- or, as in the case of France, the celebration of a riot. It is the celebration of a political act, embedded in a philosophic argument: that the rights of man are universal because they are rooted in the image of God. That argument remains controversial. Some view all claims of universal truth with skepticism. Some believe such claims by America amount to hubris.

Which is why some of us love this holiday so much. It is the day when cynicism is silent. It is the day when Americans recall that "all men are created equal" somehow applies to the Mexican migrant and the Iraqi shopkeeper and the inner-city teenager. And it is the day we honor those who take this fact seriously. Those in our military who fight for the liberty of strangers are noble. Those dissidents who risk much in Burma, Zimbabwe, North Korea and China are heroic. Those who work against poverty and injustice in America are patriots -- because patriotism does not require us to live in denial, only to live in hope.

In America we respect, defend and obey the Constitution -- but we change it when it is inconsistent with our ideals. Those ideals are defined by the Declaration of Independence. We have not always lived up to them. But we would not change them for anything on Earth.

michaelgerson@cfr.org

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