The Great American Discovery

Patriotism, declared Dr. Johnson is the last refuge of scoundrels. Abigail Adams said that women weren't very interested in patriotism since, in her time, they were "excluded from offices and honors."

Another Fourth of July is almost upon us, giving rise to contemporary musings on patriotism. Mrs. Adams's complaint is less justified than it was in 1782, the year she wrote it. Women have more offices, honors, and control over their own property than they did then - albeit they have not attained full social parity with men in some aspects of our national life.

Dr. Johnson's 18th-century declaration is still right. When caught at some outrage, the perpetrators, if it is appropriate, still frequently claim they were motivated by patriotism. Oliver North implied that he was serving some higher law when he participated in the Iran-contra business.

That's an interesting comment in terms of the Fourth of July. Technically, the day commemorates the adoption of the Declaration of Independence. We subsequently gained our independence, so July Fourth has special significance. More specifically, we gained our independence from Britain and then floundered around for awhile in a totally unworkable confederacy.

Finally the increasingly abrasive competition between the states, plus the symbolism of Shays's rebellion in western Massachusetts, inspired a small meeting at Annapolis to mediate in Virginia's and Maryland's tug of war over the Potomac River. That led to a grand convention at Philadelphia that chucked out the Articles of Confederation and produced the United States Constitution.

Fireworks in June or September?

It can be argued, therefore, that Independence Day should be celebrated in mid-September, when the 1787 constitutional convention completed its work - or on June 21, when the ninth state ratified the Constitution in 1788.

Independence, as America's own history shows, is relatively meaningless unless you have a workable system of government to give civic substance to the ex-colonial condition. Indeed, during the period of the Confederation there was more than a little nostalgia for the years of British rule of North America because, at least, institutions and the acts of government were predictable.

Collectively protecting individuals

The US Constitution is one of the most radical state-founding documents in history. As well as laying out the mechanism for a central government (and making some attempt to define its relations with the governments of the states), the Constitution enunciates the rights of the individual as the supreme postulate of the new nation.

The principles of the Bill of Rights were deeply embedded in the thought of American political theory long before they were made into the first 10 amendments to the Constitution by the first Congress. The majority of those principles guarantee a swarm of individual rights (most of them nonexistent during British rule) - from the right of religious freedom to the right to refuse to quarter soldiers in private homes during peacetime, from freedom of speech to freedom from cruel and unusual punishments.

We have come to take these individual rights for granted We have half forgotten that they are the very essence of what America is all about.

On Thursday, flags will be waved, orators will declaim on this or that, but few, if any, will publicly marvel at the great American discovery - that only by guaranteeing the rights of each of them can a mass of people live together as a collective society for as long and as successfully as we have.

*Rod MacLeish is Monitor Radio's Washington editor.

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