Tomorrow we’re going to light the fireworks and sing the songs and wave the flags and pay all the due reverence to the Founding Fathers, just like we do every year. And, also like every year, we’ll do it without really putting all that much thought into it. We’ll toss up these historical figures as infallible arbiters of liberty and democracy, and praise them for the perfect document they created (nowhere near July 4th, 1776, but why let that get in the way of a good party).
Except they weren’t infallible, and it wasn’t perfect. They pretty much admitted that right out of the gate with the Bill of Rights. And by leaving a framework for future changes that we’ve employed twenty-seven times without the country falling apart and without one recorded instance of the Fathers rolling in their graves. Because, for all their imperfections, they were smart enough to know that they couldn’t possibly conceive of every possible scenario for the future of the country they were founding. And that it would be the height of shortsighted arrogance to assume their words should be set in stone, never changing, never adapting to a world none of them could imagine.
And let’s not forget the massive hand-waving they did over the issue of slavery. They basically punted it down the road to get the southern colonies on board, and had to continue punting it to keep them there. That divide eventually led to the Civil War, which some call the last battle of the American Revolution, since it’s outcome established the United States pretty much as we know it today. Desire for unanimity and economic stability were certainly the reasons for leaving the issue unaddressed, but there’s a definite irony to all the talk of equality and liberty when hundreds of thousands of people in the colonies didn’t have either.
None of which is to say that we shouldn’t appreciate or venerate the men behind the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution. Just that to do so blindly is to lose sight that these weren’t demigods, but men. In many cases brilliant, accomplished, influential men, but men nevertheless. Capable of indecision, compromise, impatience, passion, hubris, all the messy emotions that make us human. And that the true miracle of the Constitution is the very flexibility that some bemoan whenever we stretch it to make room for more life, more liberty, more pursuit of happiness.
The Founding Fathers knew they and their works weren’t perfect. America was a lifelong project, never finished. And they were kind enough to leave us the tools to keep working on it. Fourth of July should be a recognition of the start of that process, not its completion. So set off those firecrackers tomorrow, and eat your barbecue. Have fun. But remember that we were left work to do. That’s the real promise of the Fourth of July.