Celebrating freedoms in spite of differences
Sometimes rivals can work together. Founding fathers John Adams and Thomas Jefferson had different ideas about how this new country should move forward, but were self-aware enough to allow each other enough space to contribute. Adams knew his own shortcomings enough that he said Jefferson should author the Constitution.
Two decades later, and during the presidential contests of 1796 and 1800, the two became heated rivals. After an 1800 defeat, Adams hurriedly made judicial appointments to stymie any progress Jefferson might make toward his agenda.
Today, we face similar situations when we get so caught up in our own political tribalism. We forget the foundation of our freedoms is being able to openly and safely disagree with one another. Ugly episodes seem to happen weekly and point to an increasing incivility in our discourse. It is as though some think they can’t even be around people with whom they disagree.
Democracies are imperfect. They’re messy and we’ve had to fight among ourselves for advances toward that “more perfect Union.”
But let’s never lose sight of the big picture that we are a free nation and many have fought and died to protect our right to speak our mind and disagree with one another. Let’s also safeguard those foundations which support that right — our three branches of government and a free press.
Some people act as though this infighting is a new phenomenon, since cable channels like to amplify political points for the right and left. But it’s not new at all.
Jefferson and Adams loathed one another throughout much of their political careers. Their political races contained as much vile, accusatory information as any today.
Yet an amazing thing happened. Twelve years after their heated presidential races, Adams, at the urging of a mutual friend, wrote to Jefferson offering well wishes. Jefferson returned a note, with the time-healing message: “We were fellow laborers in the same cause” of independence and extending “my sincere esteem for you … I salute you with unchanged affections and respect.”
The two became cherished friends as they aged and reflected on their accomplishments as well as their own faults. They both valued the same “big picture” priorities for the country while they firmly made their own points. We can continue to learn a lot from them today and their letters should be studied in every civics class. (Interestingly, the two also died a few hours apart on July 4, 1826, exactly 50 years after the nation declared its independence.)
Today, we see tribalism growing again. As Jon Meacham wrote in his recent book “Soul of America,” this tribalism has been amplified in the moment where many seem afraid and all too willing to compromise these ideals set forth 242 years ago. “Too often, people view their own opportunity as dependent on domination over others, which helps explain why such people see the expansion of opportunity for all as a loss of opportunity for themselves.”
Yet America has grown stronger over the past two centuries and two score when we move past these episodes — the abolishment of slavery, fighting tyranny during World War II and pushing through the Civil Rights Act at great political sacrifice. Our nation has grown when it rejected absolutism and fostered an attitude of wanting the best for all.
Theologian Reinhold Niebuhr wrote in 1944: “Man’s capacity for justice makes democracy possible, but man’s inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary.”
Let’s cherish our democracy this Fourth, stand up for our ideals and recognize the good in one another. God bless America. – K.E.C.