As is my family’s custom, on the morning of July 4 we attended a reading of the Declaration of Independence and the original Bill of Rights to a packed house at the iconic Unitarian Church on Nantucket. The reading was preceded by audience participation in the singing of patriotic American songs including “America The Beautiful”, “Yankee Doodle Dandy”, “It’s a Grand Old Flag,”, and others. It was a rousing event, one that amid the celebration reminded me of how hard it was to get where we are today as a country.
But for the first time, I can remember, it wasn’t all rah-rah. Two passages from the Declaration generated specific applause from many in the audience who saw them in the light of our current political situation:
“The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States.”
“He (the King) has endeavored to prevent the population of these States; for that purpose obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migrations hither, and raising the conditions of new Appropriations of Lands.”
Regardless of whether you agree or disagree with the reasons for it, there was great significance in that applause. The fact that Americans can freely and openly express their grievances with not just our government but the person leading it and not fear repercussion is a freedom that enables our country to continue to not just survive but thrive.
I happened to sit next to a young woman from Chile who is doing a summer internship involving historic preservation here on the island. We had a great conversation. It was exciting for me to see her thoroughly engaged and enjoying the experience of witnessing how Americans feel about their country, even when they express their displeasure.
As inspired as I was by the festivities I, too, felt emotions this year I had not previously experienced at these Declaration readings. Recalling my visit to Charlottesville earlier this year I found myself wondering how the Black Americans in the Nantucket audience were feeling during the reading. They were there and fully participating in the celebration. But do they feel differently about the country than I do? What was in their thoughts when they heard these words:
“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”?
America has its challenges, but July 4th reminds me that living Americans have more fundamental things in common than they have differences. My hope is that we can increasingly work outward from those common elements and shared culture. If we can each harness the spirit and deep resolve behind the Declaration, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights in our civic engagement we can find common ground, make progress on the issues that divide us and make this already great nation even better.