Celebrating the American experiment on July Fourth

Celebrating the American experiment on July Fourth
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The Founding Fathers launched the American experiment 242 years ago. As Thomas Jefferson later recounted, “The Fourth of July, the epoch of American independence, is a day when the heart of every American must glow with pride and gratitude.” For many of us, it is a day of revelry and relaxation. It is a deserved summer break to spend with friends and family. At a time when the tumult of politics seems to pervade every aspect of modern American life, it is also a chance to look back on the American experiment of our Founders, and just how far we have taken it.

Sometimes, it is easy to forget the bold step that the Founders took in Philadelphia. The United States at the time was made up of just 13 colonies clinging to the coast of a largely unexplored continent, and to become independent, they would have to face the military and economic might of the most powerful empire on earth. However, they held a belief that a free people, secure in their rights and liberties and governed by their elected representatives, could establish their independence and create a nation that would be an example for generations to come.

They would recognize the pioneering spirit of America in explorers and entrepreneurs that stretch in an arc from those early attempts to push back the wilderness to the modern technologies of today. The Founders could barely imagine a digitally interconnected world and the space exploration of worlds beyond ours, but they would take pride in knowing that Americans have led, and continue to lead, the way.

At a time when international trade and the structure of alliances with foreign partners are hot button issues, the Founders would see that these are the tangible reminders of how their experiment grew into a global power capable of sharing the benefits of prosperity and peace around the world. Yes, some Founders warned of entangling alliances, but they would probably look with envy on the community of likeminded nations that we are fortunate to lead. As descendants of those who first ventured across the Atlantic to chart new lives, they would recognize an immigrant’s desire to find freedom and security in the United States.

They would not be strangers to the tumult of our politics. In creating government that reflected the will of the people, they knew that it could reflect our highest aspirations and our greatest flaws. Having built coequal branches of government to ensure that “ambition counters ambition,” the Founders would be rightly concerned to see how Congress, through partisanship and bureaucratic inertia, has handed over so many of its prerogatives to the executive branch.

The Founders were concerned about the equally tyrannical nature of individual autocrats and populist mobs, as both can deprive a nation and its people of their rights and liberties. Seeing the ascendency of both trends at home and abroad, they would take solace that the American experiment produced not only a democratic republic, but also the institutions, civil society, and the rule of law that protect these rights. The Founders would see how generation after generation of Americans has continued to expand rights and liberties to cover greater and greater segments of our society. While they would take pride in this, they would be shocked over how many Americans still stay home at each election.

The partisanship and personal attacks written in pamphlets and tabloids of the era of our Founders would be right at home on partisan cable networks and social media. Still, they would wonder how political opinion could displace the pursuit of the truth across so much of the media environment. In building the United States, the Founders built a political system and a society capable of reform, renewal, and rebirth. The fundamental challenges that we face would not be so foreign to our Founders, and they would believe that they can be overcome with the right mixture of vision, leadership, and shared spirit.

On the first Fourth of July, George Washington doubled the rum ration for the troops of the Continental Army to celebrate the holiday. Many of us will do the same for ourselves today, as we celebrate the founding of our nation with friends and family. As we inherit the next year of the American experiment, we must remember that for better or worse, the spirit of our politics and the nature of our government are derived from our own collective character. Ultimately, if we want to uphold the legacy of our Founders, it is our responsibility to ensure that this unique experiment not only endures, but also achieves its great potential.

Dan Mahaffee is senior vice president and director of policy at the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress in Washington, D.C.