So, 241 years ago we had that whole Declaration of Independence thing. The July 4th holiday is always a good time to think about what true patriotism is, and to think about history a little— especially about the lessons of history for the moment we are living in right now.
Patriotism at its best is the kind that loves our country passionately, treasures what is great about it (which is a lot), but also looks honestly at our flaws, past and present, and resolves to make our nation better.
That’s what our founding fathers did when they realized that the Articles of Confederation had left the federal government too weak and ineffectual, and wrote a constitution that started out by stating that its central goal was to form a more perfect union. That whole preamble is worth quoting in full:
"We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”
Note that there is some important stuff in that old preamble. It is the people establishing the Constitution, not the various states, for one thing, which suggests that the whole states rights arguments of conservatives from John C. Calhoun on down was more than a little specious. Note the fact that providing for the common defense was not the only thing listed for the federal government to do, nor even the first. Note that insuring domestic tranquility was in there, and tearing the country apart by scapegoating certain classes of people was not. Note that establishing justice and promoting the general welfare were both included, that the founders thought the federal government had a big role to play in that regard. Finally, please observe that the idea was to secure the blessings of liberty was not just for ourselves in the short term, but for our posterity as well— that the founders had this strange idea that future generations actually mattered and that we ought to be thinking about and planning for them.
As you look at the arc of American history, it is important to observe how we keep coming back to the Declaration and the goals of that preamble. Abraham Lincoln proclaimed in the Gettysburg Address that the Declaration meant that our nation was “conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” 100 years later, here’s how Martin Luther King, Jr. referred to the promise made in the Declaration and Constitution:
"In a sense we have come to our nation’s capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
We keep coming back to our history, to the words of our founders. We keep trying to form a more perfect union. And we’ve made it a lot better over the years. The slaves were freed. Poor people, women, African-Americans, and others won the right to vote long denied them. More of us have won civil rights for ourselves and our children. Most senior citizens no longer live out their years in dire poverty due to Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. More of us have been able to go to college, and due to labor unions, the minimum wage, and those college educations, more of us have been able to have decent incomes. More of us have access to quality health care.
But in these troubled times, everything we hold dear is under attack. Demagogues and extremists are trying to roll back the gains won for us by those on whose shoulders we are proud to stand. We need to fight to keep the vote. We need to fight for our civil rights and liberties. We need to fight for health care and decent incomes for all our citizens. And we need to keep fighting as well for that more perfect union.