Two hundred thirty-two years ago, the nation's founders wrote that equality, certain God-given unalienable rights and the need for a government that derives its power from the people were "self-evident" truths. That remarkable Declaration of Independence later served as the basis for a Constitution that enumerated those rights and set up a government to protect them while allowing the nation to prosper.
Americans argue endlessly over the meaning of the Constitution. The Supreme Court regularly weighs in on the debate, as it did most recently with rulings on how far states can go in applying the death penalty and on what the Second Amendment to the Constitution really means. Central to many of the arguments is the question of whether the Constitution ought to be interpreted as to the original intent of the framers, or whether it should be interpreted in light of the conditions and thoughts of current times.
Remarkably, however, virtually all sides in the debate proclaim reverence for the document itself. Other than a few fringe voices who have little influence on the mainstream, nobody advocates scuttling the Constitution and writing a new one.
That's not the case in every country, and it is a powerful testament to the wisdom and foresight of the founders.
This is a day to celebrate those documents that secure freedom. But it also is a day to celebrate the men who laid the foundation of our prosperity and liberty. As marvelous as the Declaration and the Constitution are, they would be of considerably less worth today if not for the founders and early leaders who set the tone for a nation that subjects personal ambition to the rule of law.
George Washington's decision to voluntarily leave office after two terms as president is but one example of this. Had he decided to be president for life, it would have set the nation on a different course one that might have resembled modern dictatorships in nations where constitutions mean little.
As recent studies have shown, Americans take patriotism seriously. They respect its outward display, even to the point of making absurd assumptions about people. A USA Today/Gallup Poll found that 60 percent of Americans believe a person to be patriotic if he or she wears a flag pin; 80 percent view support for U.S. policies the same way.
We suggest a better way to show patriotism would be to study and understand the founding documents themselves. Surveys consistently show Americans are woefully ignorant about the freedoms they enjoy. One found that, when asked about the First Amendment, less than 20 percent could identify it as protecting the freedom of religion and the right of assembly.
Perhaps a good review would be to look at a sample list of 100 questions immigrants must answer in order to become naturalized citizens (the list can be found at usgovinfo.about.com/blinstst.htm). Those questions cover everything from who the current vice president is to the duties of Congress.
But don't do it today. This is a day for parades, (responsible) fireworks and family fun. It's a day to celebrate a moment 232 years ago that was unique in all of human history.