“O say, does that star spangled banner still wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?”
We are all familiar with The Star Spangled Banner, but we typically only sing the first stanza. There are actually four.
The first ends on the question above, and this is the burning question for our time, isn’t it?
Our country was founded on principles that were radical in their day and still radical in much of the world now: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
Our founding documents, the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights, then go on to outline a form of government and society that build on this belief.
They include cornerstones such as representative democracy, equality in justice, balance of power, and freedoms of religion, expression, and a free press. They also give us the ability to change and adapt as necessary by amendment, law, or judicial precedent. The theme running through it all is to maintain fairness, equity, and balance. No branch should become as powerful as the monarchy we had just defeated. The government would work for the common good, “Of the People, by the People, for the People,” as Abraham Lincoln said.
This has been called The American Experiment, because no one really knew if it would work. When asked what kind of government had been decided upon after the constitutional convention in Philadelphia, Benjamin Franklin famously replied, “A Republic, if you can keep it.”
Thus it is fitting that we so often honor our country and remember her principles by asking a question. We are not done. We are never done. America is not a land mass or a jurisdiction; it is an idea. An aspiration. That is why walling us off from the rest of the world will never work. You can’t contain an idea. And if we lose the idea in favor of becoming a location, then the experiment has failed.
We should expect to fall short. The Constitution explicitly states its purpose is “to form a more perfect union”. “More perfect”; never “perfect”. We were a contradiction from the very beginning — a slave nation founded on the high-minded principles of freedom and equality. Only land-holders and men could vote. But we fixed these gaps between our practice and our aspiration. The nation prospered and grew. The United States of America became a beacon of freedom, equality, and justice for the entire world.
And then, we became self-centered. We forgot the question mark. We started wearing with unearned pride the mantle our forefathers worked, fought and died for. What would they say of this most prosperous time in history? Having achieved so much of what we set out to do, having survived a civil war, beat back Nazism, flown to the moon, and created the internet, we have started fighting each other in 150-character insults.
We shout blame and avoid responsibility. We take sides in political battles we don’t even understand. We close ourselves off from our fellow humans and revert to tribal, geographical instincts. Fear is a powerful motivator. We have accumulated so much. We have earned it! We could lose it all!! And for what? Some “other” who isn’t like me? Some common person I don’t know?
Yes. Because it was for the common people, for all people, that the signers of the Declaration of Independence in 1776, pledged “our lives, our fortunes, our sacred honor.” It was not for land, for title, or to preserve and increase their own wealth. All of that could be more easily obtained with politics, treachery, and guile. No, it was for the American ideal that they had all come to embrace, and they were willing to risk everything to see it brought forth in the world.
And now, it is yours. This American Experiment. What will YOU do with this fragile thing? You have inherited freedom, but it perilously includes the freedom to throw it all away. To pass along to your children your property and wealth, but not the dream that died with you. It might make you feel secure for a while, but as Benjamin Franklin wrote, “Those who would give up essential Liberty to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty or Safety.”
Before you cast another vote, take a moment to reflect on what has been entrusted to you and what is at stake. This is not about sticking it to your fellow countrymen, your team winning, or protecting “your own.” Liberty and justice is supposed to be for all.
Does that Star Spangled Banner still wave o’er the land of the Free and the Home of the Brave?
It’s up to you.