Fair Words for the 4th

THE Fourth of July is America's most celebratory national holiday - as much an official advent of summer's green and languid days as a celebration of the Declaration of Independence. Our images of July 4 are collective, how we celebrate as a nation: the lovely chaos of children romping at lakefront, the wash of fans at a baseball game, the anticipation of fireworks in the heavens ("oooooh!"), a mass munching of hot dogs - with relish please - from sea to shining sea.

Self-government based on justice - born in a world that knew only kings, dictators, and rule by power - has survived and become a transformative force for freedom. That's worth lighting a sparkler or two about. Even with all our inequities, scandals, and sad infatuations, many of the better angels of our nature are intact. Please pass the potato(e) salad.

Yet amid the triumphal strains of July, and in a season and era oddly uncertain and undefined, it's worth remembering that most of the religious and political liberties we enjoy originated not in glorious consensus - but in contested views held by a devout and demanding minority.

This was true of the early Puritans. It was true of the founding of the nation: The colonists were a small band taking on the world's greatest power; and no more than 20 percent of Americans actually fought for the Declaration. More recently, Taylor Branch, Martin Luther King Jr.'s biographer, says Dr. King's genius was seen in 1961 when, down to just himself, a few aides, and a group of school children in Birmingham, he persisted - and the civil rights movement was reborn.

Consider Abraham Lincoln: A year after victory at Gettysburg (July 4, 1863) only a fraction of the public supported him, and he despaired of being reelected and of keeping the Union together. A new book by Garry Wills suggests that Lincoln's Gettysburg Address represents a rebirth of the Declaration of Independence - but applying to all Americans.

Lincoln did not (as some did) find the Declaration outmoded. Rather, he felt a divided nation had been unfaithful to it. "Our republican robe is soiled and trailed in the dust," he said in an 1854 speech: "Let us re-purify it.... Let us re-adopt the Declaration of Independence and with it, the practices and policy, which harmonize with it," and not only save the union, but make it "worthy of saving." Fair words for the Fourth: Have a happy one!

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