CNN | 7/14/2020 | Listen

The lasting gift of the Fourth of July

Updated 6:24 AM ET, Tue June 30, 2020

Editor's Note: Douglas Bradburn is the president and CEO of George Washington's Mount Vernon and the former founding director of the Fred W. Smith National Library for the Study of George Washington at Mount Vernon. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. Read more opinion on CNN.

(CNN) - On the Fourth of July, Americans come together to celebrate their independence and their revolutionary experiment in democracy. This year, many voices believe that the experiment is failing.

A recent Gallup poll shows that national pride in the United States is at a record low. Our country's increasing division and the unwillingness by some to participate in a healthy civilized debate and listen to dissenting opinions is fostering greater fissures.

In the face of social unrest, economic distress, and the ongoing pandemic, it is perhaps not surprising that Americans have lost some faith in their institutions and in their national story. Another CBS News poll found that 67% of Americans consider the country is on the "wrong track."

Mindless pride should always be questioned, but mindless rejection is also a danger. These trends occur against a backdrop of low achievement in civics and history understanding, which exacerbates the problem of governance in this country.

Americans are expected to govern themselves, but we are neglecting to provide our citizens with the foundations to uphold these responsibilities, our shared values as a nation, and how this country has evolved over time. Nations need to have symbols, creeds and stories that allow different individuals to imagine a shared sense of purpose and interest. Without them, it is hard to find common ground. People who do not understand why they have the beliefs that they have are often unable to have a constructive conversation about the difficult issues that democracies need to fix collectively.

The Fourth of July should be a day for Americans to celebrate the common values that spring from the origin of our nation. When the American patriots separated from Great Britain, they famously declared their reasons, noting that "a decent respect to the opinions of mankind" required an explicit statement.

The first part of the Declaration would enshrine two powerful principles that have come to define the fundamental values of the American nation. The first was a claim that governments must be responsive to the consent of the governed, and the second was an assertion that all men are created equal, with rights that are inalienable and should be protected.

These two concepts created the cornerstone of American liberty, and the justification for American democracy. They have powerfully shaped American values and identity -- but it did not have to be that way.

Earlier in 1776, William Henry Drayton, a patriot from South Carolina, wrote a declaration of independence from Great Britain that had similar grievances against the crown -- the same complaints about the tyranny of the British -- but did not use any of the phrases regarding popular consent or the equality of rights for the people. Instead, he used a more conservative argument, which emphasized that the king had abdicated his responsibilities to his subjects in the colonies, and therefore the colonies were allowed to establish their own governments.

Without an emphasis on popular sovereignty and equal rights, it would have been a very different declaration indeed. Without the creed of liberty, the document would not have been so significant, and would not have contained the transformational fuel that powers the aspirational values of our nation.

But our Declaration of Independence did argue that all men are created equal and that governments need to respect fundamental rights and represent the consent of the people. And so, Americans immediately seized upon these concepts to reshape the world around them.

Despite the limitations of the right to vote for poor men, for women, the continued existence of slavery and limitations on the civil rights of African Americans in the moment of our independence, the powerful rhetoric of equality and consent had a transformative impact.

As early as 1780, language similar to that of equality in the declaration was used to create the first gradual law of manumission in Pennsylvania, which would end slavery in a generation. Language similar to the Declaration of Independence was used to end slavery in a judicial argument in Massachusetts in 1782, as well as other northern states -- the first large scale emancipations in modern history.

Poor men throughout the nation would use the language of equality and popular sovereignty to claim equal access to vote during the founding era. Equal rights language would bring down the monopoly on religious truth, long controlled by the state in the Eurocentric world, and guarantee a belief in the freedom of conscience of all people in the US.

Immigrants would use the Declaration to claim equal treatment and access to citizenship, and therefore representation. It would be used to justify the idea of the legitimacy of an opposition party against elected majorities, and it would be used to protect the rights of individuals in the Constitution, as well as the state constitutions, which came to define American citizenship.

Abraham Lincoln would use the language in his Gettysburg Address in 1863 to remind a shattered country that the nation was "conceived in Liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal," and that the fight in the Civil War would help see whether these assertions could endure.

Women would use the Declaration of Independence to demand equal laws and the right to vote. Unions would use it to organize labor against capital. The American people would use it to navigate between the charms of fascism and communism when our systems seemed to be failing. Abolitionists would use it to attack the institution of slavery and Fredrick Douglass and Martin Luther King, and many others, would use it to point out the hypocrisy of white citizenship in the face of continued black oppression. And we still use these principles to measure the freedom of other nations, whether or not we decide to shape our foreign policy to our values.

George Washington, as he became the first president of this new nation, with such grand ideals, declared that it was to be "a great experiment in human happiness." He also reminded the founding generation that "it is yet to be decided, whether the Revolution must ultimately be considered as a blessing or a curse: a blessing or a curse, not to the present age alone, for with our fate will the destiny of unborn Millions be involved."

The founding generation did not make a perfect country. In many ways, they failed to live up to their powerful vision of liberty. Nevertheless, they gave us our founding aspirations and institutional inheritance that we still rely upon to solve our problems. We can be proud of it. It is a foundation that has been continuously built upon, but it can only last if we teach our history.

Washington's challenge is still upon us as we struggle to live up to the high ideals of our nation. It is not the founders who are responsible for our failures to live up to the creed of this nation, we are free to shape our future. Our shared values of equality and popular consent still drive our frustrations with our imperfect society today, but these are our values and we should be proud to celebrate them.

So, on the Fourth of July, go ahead and have a cookout, shoot off some fireworks, raise a flag and salute the promise of America, and all those who have fought and lived for it. And be proud to recognize that we, the people, control the meaning of equality and popular rule in our future, which is our inheritance and our great trust.


© 2019 Cable News Network. Turner Broadcasting System, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Listen to CNN (low-bandwidth usage)

Go to the full CNN experience