It was never great, say some cynics in response to Donald Trump’s talk of making America great again, but you don’t have to be a Trump fan to say oh, yes, it was — or a bleary-eyed optimist to say it still is.
For those dubious of such patriotic assurance this Fourth of July, here is a possible solution: Go behind the scenes of an incredible coincidence and see how greatness can dance with inevitable faults but arrive at good ends.
On July 4, 1826, the 50th anniversary of the ratification of the Declaration of Independence, two prime players in its creation died — Thomas Jefferson, 82 years old, and John Adams, 90. They were the last of the founders who told the British to get going because they preferred life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
A brilliant man, Adams repeatedly stood up for what was right when what was wrong would have advanced his career. He was a leader in spelling out fundamental American principles. He played a key role in getting a decent treaty from the British after the Revolutionary War and, as the second president, accomplished much to keep the American experiment charging ahead.
What many consider a disgrace was his backing of the Alien and Sedition Acts, which among other things aimed to shut up a critical press. This was a constitutional affront, said Jefferson, a champion of limited government put out with this Federalist favoring a stronger, more empowered federal presence. Jefferson challenged him for the presidency, won and, as one of his achievements, expanded the nation with his Louisiana Purchase.
He is hit a lot these days.
The main reason is that he owned slaves, but what many get wrong about him is thinking he did not see the contradiction between liberty for some and bondage for others. He in fact fought for laws to inhibit slavery and believed in eventual emancipation through democratic procedures. Especially toward the end of his life, he worried that the splendid union he, Adams and others had helped forge would be split apart because of this issue.
What happened, of course, was the Civil War, and we should not forget what President Abraham Lincoln said at the Gettysburg Battlefield, namely that America had been “conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men were created equal.” The war, he said, was “testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived, and so dedicated, can long endure.” What he forecast was that we would “have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
As the author Gary Wills says about that speech, Lincoln took words from the Declaration and gave them new life in an idealism that keeps fighting on. It whipped segregation. It made possible the election of a black president, and, as that president said in a speech to students at Howard University this year, they are better off than any previous black generation even though they still have issues of justice to confront.
In their last 14 years of life, Jefferson and Adams began exchanging letters about their beloved country, becoming close friends at a distance. On the day of their deaths, Adams’ famous last words were, “Thomas Jefferson still survives.” Actually, Jefferson had already died, but in a way, both survive, their ideals of liberty, equality of respect and opportunity, inalienable rights and the consent of the governed survive.
They have much to combat every direction you look, but there are also many pluses, and our greatness will not lose unless we give up on these ideals or even the idea that political antagonisms can do good and sometimes heal as well.
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Jay Ambrose is an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service. Readers may email him at [email protected]