America has had two civil wars; today marks the official beginning of its first - though the Declaration of Independence followed the "shot heard 'round the world" by more than a year. We are a nation forged by war, and as a percentage of our population killed, the Revolution was the bloodiest of our conflicts.
From our earliest days, our founders and leaders were torn by the conflicts between our most sacred ideals and the reality of the world in which we lived. The history of liberty is a history of expanding the definition of who is included as one of those "created equal [and] endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights…"
The beauty of those timeless words is that they need not be rewritten to account for our expanding definition of who is included.
President Lincoln, in an Independence Day address in 1858, argued forcefully that "the negro race" was very much a part of our heritage. Freedom, our American birthright, he said, could be traced by blood to the founders for many of us, but not for recent immigrants. Yet liberty, our "father of all moral principle," is "the electric cord in that Declaration that links the hearts of patriotic and liberty-loving men together, that will link those patriotic hearts as long as the love of freedom exists in the minds of men throughout the world."
It is a feature, not a bug, that Frenchmen, Germans, Irish…all those who came here shared equally in our birthright, just as if it had been passed down by blood. We stand unique among peoples in that founding principle. America is an ideal, not just a place.
Against those who argued that slaves must be considered unworthy of that birthright, Lincoln asserted that if one argues that a man, by virtue of race, is unworthy of freedom, what’s to stop him from declaring others unworthy, also? It’s "the same old serpent," he said.
And so we entered a second Civil War, in which those who wished to form a new nation, founded on the principle that some people deserve to be enslaved, ultimately surrendered, but not until "every drop of blood drawn with the lash" was repaid "by another drawn with the sword…"
In the end, the circle of humanity, those endowed with the rights to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" was expanded, and America was stronger.
I have read recently some people describing our current time as a "Civil Cold War." They argue that we are divided culturally, socially, economically, politically, and irreconcilably. There are many on both sides of all those divides who believe this to be true. We have certainly seen outbreaks of actual violence - rocks thrown, fires set, and assassination attempts against Congressmen.
Many are angry. Because Trump! Because Pelosi! Because things are different now!
But is it really the times? St. Augustine taught that "we make our own times. Such as we are, such are the times."
Vote, by all means. Petition the government for redress of grievances. But please stop criminalizing disagreements; stop dehumanizing political opponents; please stop excusing the ugliness.
If you don’t, I am quite sure there are enough weapons held by angry and determined people to sort it out another way, to fight a third civil war. We got lucky twice, but history does not guarantee the "right side" will win. Our Constitution, that brilliant document, quite cleverly limits the amount of damage any temporary officeholder can cause.
May we remember today the admonition of that great 19th century observer of America, Alexis de Tocqueville, who said that “America is great because she is good. If America ceases to be good, America will cease to be great.”
Be good, my friends, my fellow Americans. And on this greatest civic holiday, maybe also follow the words of President Lincoln, speaking to time-traveling Bill & Ted:
"Be excellent to each other....and....PARTY ON, DUDES!"