We call that document, in the canon of national parlance, the Declaration of Independence, But it was then – and is to this day – as much a dedication as a declaration, a duty to carry out as much as a deed done.
Abraham Lincoln recognized this four score and more years after its penning. That all men are created equal and endowed with certain inalienable rights he took to be an American promise to which he pledged himself and to which he called every citizen.
Every movement defines itself first in terms of what it struggles against. Yet that cannot sustain it for long unless it turns toward a more enduring vision: What one is against must give way to what one is for!
Lincoln knew the country could not survive only on the energies of separation from England. He appealed again and again to the Declaration as the defining words of the American mission: “It was that which gave promise that in due time the weights should be lifted from the shoulders of all men, and that all should have an equal chance.”
According to Ronald White, in his book “The Eloquent President,” Lincoln’s goal was to increase the expectations ordinary citizens must have of one another.”
Between his election and inauguration as President of the United States, Lincoln made clear that in our system of government, elected leaders can do only so much:
“In all the trying positions in which I shall be placed, and doubtless I shall be placed in many trying ones, my reliance will be placed upon you and the people of the United States – and I wish you to remember now and forever, that it is your business, and not mine; that if the union of these States, and the liberties of this people, shall be lost, it is but little to any one man of fifty-two years of age, but a great deal to the 30 millions of people who inhabit these United States, and to their posterity in all coming time.”
Independence Day celebrations should be more than fireworks, flags and backyard feasts. They should include ceremonies of recommitment to the unfinished business of our country – that the dignity of every person created in the image of God shall be affirmed, and that liberty and opportunity shall be extended to all people everywhere.
To echo Lincoln, this is our business; this is what we should expect of one another as ordinary citizens.