Searching for the American Soul
July 1, 2008
July 4, 2008: 232 years after the main event, and like many Americans, I just want to be inspired.
Blame it on veterans leading parades, waiving Old Glory. Blame it on John Hancock, Common Sense, the faces on Mount Rushmore and the words “we the people, in order to form a more perfect union.” Blame it on the occasional history teacher who had the audacity to call America the greatest country in the world.
We breathed it in and allowed it to penetrate our hearts. Without apology, we, the people, still believe in that America.
But today, we scarcely believe our ears.
Things will be better sometime after November, politicians promise, assuring us that their fingers are on the nation’s pulse. This time, it’s about the economy, the war in Iraq, health care, securing the borders and the environment. This time things will be different.
But the message – however eloquent – is polluted by special interest groups, lobbyists, media bias, partisanship and the discrepancy between political promises and voting records. This America gives us pause.
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“I don’t trust any candidate.”
“Our founding fathers must be rolling over in their graves.”
“We’re just giving the country away,” disgusted voters say.
We, the people, have issues … like integrity, like putting America’s interest first, like returning to the spirit of 1776 – before special interest groups, before corporate influence, before “party first” politics. We want the America of John Adams.
He was Number 2, father of Number 6. If you remember more than that about him, you are in the minority. Our public schools have treated him as a mere footnote between Washington and Jefferson. If not for David McCullough’s recent book and the HBO mini-series, many of us would still be in the dark – forever cheated of a story that begs to be told.
“We have not men fit for the times,” John Adams wrote on the brink of revolution. Yet when he looked himself in the mirror, he was equally critical, wanting more than what he saw.
His world was a powder keg. Armed British soldiers roamed the streets, stationed themselves in colonists’ homes and emptied their pantries. The English monarchy legalized the intrusion and taxed everything imaginable. Then came the Boston Massacre.
Five colonists died at the hands of British soldiers, who were charged with murder. Before the trial, Paul Revere indicted the shooters with his famous engraving – depicting unprovoked soldiers firing upon innocent civilians. Colonists everywhere were united, full of vengeance, wanting blood.
John Adams did not join them. Despite fearing for his personal safety, he defended the British soldiers when no other attorney would. His motivation had nothing to do with court fees, notoriety or political gain. It was something far more compelling.
It turns out that the slain colonists provoked the soldiers, swinging clubs and throwing sticks and snowballs. “Kill them! Kill them!” they chanted.
“Facts are stubborn things,” Adams argued in court. He painted a much different picture than Revere had: one of self-defense. Adams took the case for one reason: so he could look himself in the mirror, knowing that justice had a voice.
No focus group dictated his actions, just a conscience and guts – a one-two punch that he demanded from our founding fathers on July 1, 1776. That day, he delivered what some call the most influential speech in American history – a two-hour plea to commit treason, to draft a “declaration of independency,” to sign a death warrant, should the colonists lose the war.
“All that I have, and all that I am, and all that I hope in this life, I am now ready here to stake upon it. And I leave off as I began, that live or die, survive or perish, I am for the Declaration. It is my living sentiment, and by the blessing of God it shall be my dying sentiment.” he said.
His words penetrated the “American” soul. History credits Thomas Jefferson with writing the Declaration, but John Adams’ voice echoed in the signers’ ears: a voice of integrity that could not be ignored. A voice that asked one thing of politicians: to obey the dictates of conscience.
Two centuries later, that voice still holds many of our hearts captive, and we, the people, want desperately to see that America with our own eyes.
Everyone has a story. What’s yours? E-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org
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