Our country was founded as an act of bold resistance. The Declaration of Independence we celebrate on July Fourth was not merely the expression of one’s right to protest — it was the exercise of that right.
Last month, on a visit to Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, I found myself reflecting on the meaning of Independence Day. This national holiday celebrates the vision and values that Jefferson imbued into America’s founding charter, along with the defiant act of protest that gave the charter its meaning.
The idyllic grounds were a fitting home for the statesman who boldly affirmed those self-evident truths: that all human beings are endowed with certain unalienable rights; that government is constituted to protect these rights; and that government derives its “just powers” from the “consent” of those it governs.
This place and its legacy inspire a deep sense of awe — almost enough to let you forget that you are visiting a former slave plantation.
I was there to celebrate the Thomas Jefferson Foundation’s new exhibit on Sally Hemings, together with more than 300 of Jefferson’s and her descendants — to acknowledge and embrace a more complicated but inclusive story of America. Through the day’s proceedings, we unearthed America’s founding contradiction, while illuminating the way we transcend it. This is also what we do when we celebrate July Fourth.
On one hand, we extoll what Alexis de Tocqueville called “the greatness and genius of America” — the ideas and ideals that inform our grand experiment in self-government. On the other, we recognize that we consistently fall short of these ideals.
During our own trying times (to borrow a phrase from Thomas Paine), many of us feel something between paralysis, discouragement, and blinding rage. Our government interns children and their families, while banning immigrants from certain Muslim-majority countries. Our allies abroad feel abandoned and our adversaries emboldened. We find ourselves divided anew along the old borders of tribe.
But while “the summer soldier and the sunshine patriot” Paine decried might succumb to cynicism or despair, true patriots embody the courage to do and be better.
Precisely at moments like these, Americans must re-declare — through our words and our deeds — the creed that Jefferson and our founders laid out 242 years ago: That we are a nation with a moral purpose and backbone, led by a self-determined and generous people. That we prize freedom and fairness. That all deserve to pursue their livelihoods with dignity. That we refuse to ignore, as the Declaration of Independence says, “the voice of justice.”
In such affirmation, moreover, we might disentangle the patriotism we demonstrate today from the nationalism that distorts its symbols and language to deepen our divides.
Patriotism is driven by love — love of a community, a set of principles and practices, the ethos of a people. It reflects a sense of faith in our country, one that not only allows but encourages us to question its actions. Nationalism is driven by fear — the fear of outsiders or opposition.
A nationalist looks backward and inward, and believes their country belongs to them and them alone. A patriot looks forward and outward, and seeks to build and belong to something greater than themselves.
Patriotism can take as many forms as there are points of view. It can mean enlisting in our armed forces. It can mean running for office, advocating for your community, serving as a police officer or firefighter or teacher. It can mean speaking truth to power by objectively reporting the facts. It can mean standing up for equal justice under the law by kneeling down on one knee, and using whatever platform you have to demand that your country do good — and do better.
In this moment, nothing could be more patriotic than protest. After all, our country was founded as an act of bold resistance. The Declaration of Independence we celebrate on July Fourth was not merely the expression of one’s right to protest; it was the exercise of that right.
From Seneca Falls to Selma, from Stonewall to football Sundays, Americans have matched symbolic acts with righteous words. They have done so to call attention to the injustices around us and expand the promise of America from generation to generation.
So, this Independence Day, let us remember that patriotism is not only watching the fireworks, but also shining a light on injustice wherever we see it. Patriotism is marching in parades, and marching in protests to defend the freedoms we hold dear. Patriotism is celebrating our flag, and also celebrating the wider fabric of American society that it represents.
What does patriotism mean to you? What are you declaring on this Independence Day? Post a comment — I’d love to hear from you.