Janie Stevens is the retired Missioner for Christian Formation in the Episcopal Diocese of Texas. She is currently the chair of the Standing Commission on Lifelong Christian Formation and Education for the Episcopal Church. The following essay is from Growing Together: Secular Celebrations for Spring & Summer (Volume 4), a resource – soon to be relaunched – of eight intergenerational celebrations that includes lesson plans and activities.
A Bold Declaration
Each year on July 4, we celebrate our nation’s birthday, the anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. We also let this day remind us of the ongoing struggle to insure that all Americans enjoy the rights enumerated in the Declaration of Independence as they continue to develop since the nation’s founding.
Our nation’s foundational document sets forth a bold, revolutionary vision for a new nation, with a statement that “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, which among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
John Adams, one of the founding fathers and our second president, wrote the following to his wife Abigail: “The fourth day of July, 1776, will be the most memorable epoch in the history of America. I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival. It ought to be commemorated as the day of deliverance, by solemn acts of devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations, from one end of this continent to the other, from this time forward forever more.”
Freedom for All
Yet 87 years later Abraham Lincoln at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania invoked biblical language to remind his listeners that it has been “four score and seven years” since the founding fathers had put forth that bold vision for the new nation and “we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nations so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure.” The idea that we could continue to exist half slave and half free had finally ripped the nation in two.
In 1869 the proposed Fifteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, which gave the vote to black men following the Civil War, caused a split in the nascent movement to give that same vote to women. One group, led by such women’s suffrage campaigners as Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, refused to endorse the amendment, as it did not give the vote to women as well. Others, such as Lucy Stone and Julia Ward Howe, argued that the enfranchisement of black men would make giving the vote to women inevitable. In fact, it was another 50 years before the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920 secured the vote for all American women.
A century after the Gettysburg Address found our nation engaged in another monumental struggle in the fight for civil rights for the descendants of the slaves freed by Abraham Lincoln. Martin Luther King, Jr. urged his people to employ the tactics of peaceful disobedience in the fight for freedom, to fight for the rights they were guaranteed in the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights. The dream of his famous “I Have a Dream” speech was that one day all citizens of the United States, including blacks, would share in the equality so nobly envisioned by our founding fathers. The movement culminated in the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
In the more than 200 years since the Declaration of Independence, our nation has come a long way in fulfilling the bold vision set forth by the founding fathers for a nation in which all people are created equal. It continues to be a model for freedom around the world. We have been and continue to be the envy of many. Our freedom and equality are very special gifts, to be celebrated, honored and treasured. On this day we remember John Adams’ hope that we celebrate with all our heart with cookouts, barbecues, parades, fireworks, prayers, speeches that help us remember our story on this great anniversary festival.
But as we celebrate on this day we should also remember the more than 200 years of struggle on the part of those who realized that the vision of our founders could only be complete when all of our citizens enjoyed its benefits. In our Baptismal Covenant we promise to strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being. This promise obligates us to continue to be open to the aspirations of all those who still find themselves short of full inclusion in our founders’ vision.