Saturday, July 4, 2009

Happy Birthday, America

I recently read the book The Great Upheaval  by Jay Winik.  Right now I'm reading American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson  by Joseph Ellis. That's appropriate reading to contemplate on Independence Day, even knowing that the Revolution was already under way by the time they got around to signing the Declaration of Independence, and the outcome was anything but certain.  That odd cast of characters ranging from little Jimmy Madison to wise old Ben Franklin, and with guys like Washington, Adams, Jefferson in the middle -- not to mention Hamilton, whose genius was on some other plane entirely -- did the impossible. 

My God, it gives me chills just rattling off their names!  Men with a crazy  idea, or, more accurately, men with a whole array of conflicting crazy ideas but all of which revolved around the preposterous notion that people should not be subject to dictatorial rule by a king.  If that wasn't insane enough, these particular folks happened to be subjects of the greatest imperial power on the planet at the time (Catherine of Russia might quibble about that).  In any case, it seems to me the American Revolution was something akin to American Samoa declaring war on the United States! King George must have laughed his ass off when he first got wind of the idea. 

But, a few people with courage, passion and a big dream can change the course of history.  It's been done many times.  One of those times occurred in the American Colonies in the late 18th century.  It still astonishes me every time I read a new book about the period. Maybe that's why I've read so many of them.

For me the most remarkable thing about the period was the pantheon of dazzlingly amazing people who were alive at the same time , and who all had influence over one another (on which, by all means, read The Great Upheaval). Reflecting on the giants who gave birth to our country is both inspiring and a little depressing. I'm inclined to wonder where the greatness in our country is now. 

It would be easy to be frightened for our future when the country can come so unglued over the death of a really sick, sad and pathetic person who happened to be a musical genius while seeming not to care at all about the needless deaths and suffering of Americans and Iraqis in a war half way around the world.  It would be easy to get all self-righteous about the abysmal state of leadership in our country when I read about the antics of clowns like what's-his-name from South Carolina or Sarah Palin.  It would be easy to do, but it would be unfair, because there were corrupt and horrible leaders in the 18th Century as well.  (On which read the charges against King George enumerated in the part of the Declaration of Independence that nobody reads.)

Our country seemed to have taken a tiny step away from the brink of self-destruction when, in what I still consider to be something of a miracle, we elected Barack Obama to be our president.  That event still can make me a little weapy.  It won't be easy to turn the ship of state around, and the president can't do it all by himself.  He has to have the help of the Congress and the support and cooperation of We The People.  Considering what a motley crew we are, that's going to take some bodacious leadership on his part.  

My faith in our system and our potential for continued greatness remains strong, at least it has most of the time since the Bush Brothers left office.  But, beyond our political leaders, I hope and pray that the everyday folks will continue to serve as the backbone of our republic, doing what needs to be done when it needs doing and taking care of business.  I'm a liberal wacko, but I'm also a capitalist and a republican (note small "r").  

As a general rule, I don't go in for patriotic displays because most of it is sentimental mush, but I make two exceptions:

On Veterans Day and Memorial Day I buy a Buddy Poppy (and I keep one in my car, one in my purse and one in my office) to remind myself to be grateful for the sacrifices of our veterans. 

On the Fourth of July, I stop to ponder the wonderful miracle of the American Revolution and to be grateful for the courageous (and crazy) men who signed it, and (in a phrase that rarely is quoted), who were willing to "mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor."

 The Document is here.  Bios of the Signers are here.

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