Today the United States of America is celebrating its two hundred and forty-first birthday, something which among the nearly two hundred nations in existence today is a milestone. While people celebrate through fireworks, barbecues, family meals, and parties, I think that it is necessary to reflect on our nation’s history. Our Declaration of Independence was signed when there were no other true republics like ours would become. It was during a time when mercantilism and large colonial empires were commonplace with the British, French, Spanish, Portuguese, and Dutch fighting for lands far away from home. In 1776, fifty-six men signed that document at risk of their own lives, not knowing whether their venture started that day would lead to victory or defeat. So famous is this document that John Hancock’s own signature is now a colloquialism for signing one’s name, and much of the first part of the document can be commonly recognized and repeated by Americans today. Signing the Declaration of Independence was perhaps one of the bravest acts committed to by any American politician or statesman, with few other instances in our history comparing to this single act of defiance against another ruling nation.
Very few men and women repeat that bravery in 1776, but today most of all we lack those heroes. President Abraham Lincoln for example transformed the Civil War into a holy battle for the abolition of slavery (Although there is the misconception that the war was not over slavery in the first place), and at risk of his own life sought to free millions of slaves in the end. Senator Charles Sumner’s caning at the hands of Congressman Preston Brooks in 1856 is yet another example, Sumner standing by his abolitionist views while debating the Bleeding Kansas situation despite it all. Or to take this to the modern day, the pardoning of Richard Nixon by Gerald Ford was yet another instance of political bravery, risking his re-election in 1976 and his own reputation by pardoning the most unpopular commander-in-chief in recent memory to put the crisis in the country’s past and to move forwards. Despite these and countless more examples from this country’s history, there are few examples like that today from Washington or the other political capitals of the country.
In an era with so-called ‘mavericks’ and with alleged political bravery, there are few heroes for Americans to look up to today outside of our armed forces and uniformed services. Rather than having men and women of honor representing us in the White House and Congress being at the head of the Republic which serves as an example to the entire world, we are instead given profiles of cowardice and convenience who care more about re-election or their own special interests rather than in the interests and well-being of the people they claim to represent. We are far from the days of Jack and Bobby Kennedy, Dwight D. Eisenhower, the Roosevelts, Reagan, Lincoln, Monroe, Madison, Jefferson, Adams, Washington, and so many other famed statesmen who our people and the world could look to for examples of leadership. Instead we are left with the bare minimum needed to have a government running, and even less than that in the White House. Today in our Republic, while we need specific policies and pieces of legislation, we also need good examples of leadership which we are lacking in. We need those fifty-six men in a small room in Philadelphia who guided this nation to independence in 1776, now more than ever.
Things however might have changed for the better from 1776. During that time slavery existed, and now it is gone, and with that Jim Crow. Rather than being a nation of one faith as we were in 1776, we can find followers of every faith in our cities and our towns. And we now see Americans of such a wide array of national origins that it is difficult to imagine a nation where everyone looked the same and believed in the same book. That is the greatness of America today, that we can change so much in our two hundred and forty-one years of existence. It is that we are built on an idea, rather than on a religion or ethnic group like so many nations that came before us and after us were built upon. Every person has a chance to make it, and to live in a time where they too have the rights that are protected by the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. Our country has challenges and our government at times is tempted to restrict those rights, but each time that happens the American people stand up to defend those core rights enshrined in our founding documents. And in two hundred and forty-one more years, when 2017 to the people in 2258 feels like 1776 is to the people in the present day today, I have no doubt that our rights will be stronger, and that the United States better than ever before.
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