Happy birthday, America—you are very young for a nation—and you have so much to do.
Don’t we all?
On this, your 236th birthday, let’s remind ourselves that the word democracy comes from the Greek “Demokratia”…which translates into “People Power.”
In this large and diverse country, “People Power” means different things to different people. It always has.
In 1776, Thomas Paine, a Quaker’s son with a heart on fire, wrote an explosive, revolutionary pamphlet called Common Sense. In it, Paine reminded his countrymen of the marginalized lives they’d left behind in Europe. Without flinching, Paine’s words flew like buckshot from a musket—aimed at those in America who—through greed and avarice—would allow the new country to dissolve into nothing better than the old.
“A thirst for power is the natural disease of monarchy…Of more worth is one honest man to society in the site of God, than all the crowned ruffians that ever lived.”
Few could match Paine’s passion. Few took up their feathered pens to try…except for the other founding Thomas, our third President—Mr. Jefferson.
In public, Mr. Jefferson was a controlled pragmatist. It has been argued that Mr. Jefferson “loved the forbidden.” I would argue that Mr. Jefferson loved Sally. But that is another quintessentially American story for another time.
On this 236th birthday, suffice it to say that Mr. Jefferson was, like all great people, capable of extraordinary insight, ever changing convictions, and profound contradictions. For instance Jefferson wrote:
”The steady character of our countrymen is a rock to which we may safely moor.”
After referring to American citizens as “rock” steady, Jefferson never tired of telling the people of the new thirteen-state Republic to challenge the status quo, to challenge power. A Demokratia, he felt, was a living- organic-ever-changing process that could always use a little shaking up.
“Every generation needs a new revolution.” Jefferson wrote.
This is the constant imbalance and rebalancing that is the life-blood of our beloved birthright—America. It is the constant push and pull of Americans trying to sort out the meaning and the future of that birthright.
We fight like Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr—two men so much alike they felt the world too small a planet to contain them both. Aaron Burr after killing Hamilton later wrote:
“Had I read Sterne more and Voltaire less, I should have known the world was wide enough for both Hamilton and me.”
On this glorious nation’s birthday, then as now, we are growing, expanding and reaching for unexplored ways to navigate new complexities—new challenges. We are more diverse than ever and more in need of visionaries of all varieties—the pragmatists, the thinkers and the fighters.
On this day, let’s challenge ourselves to, as Vice-President Burr suggested, read the likes of Laurence Sterne—an Anglican Clergyman who wrote these words.
“So often my Judgment deceived me in my life, that I always suspect it, right or wrong. At least I am seldom hot upon cold subjects. For all this, I reverence truth as much as anybody; and…if a man will but take me by the hand and go quietly and search for it…I’ll go to the world’s end with him. “
Happy birthday, America.