The views expressed are the author’s own and not necessarily those of the Brennan Center for Justice.
In 19th century America, the Fourth of July was celebrated with poems, pageants and patriotic addresses. These speeches, delivered on village greens and in town squares, often celebrated national unity. Edward Everett—the leading orator of his era—declared in orotund tones in 1833 that the purpose of the holiday was to inspire citizens to consider “those common topics of grateful recollection, which unite the patriotic feelings of every American.”
Nothing better symbolized the triumph of patriotism over party than the deaths of those early American antagonists—John Adams and Thomas Jefferson—on the same day. That day was July 4, 1826, the fiftieth anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. In a speech in Boston soon afterward, Daniel Webster pointed to this “striking and extraordinary” coincidence as a sign from God “that our country and its benefactors are objects of His care.”
These days, any reference to Divine Providence would be accompanied by a bitter debate over whether bakers have the right to refuse to make gay wedding cakes. And angry charges that Barack Obama somehow encouraged ISIS by refusing to use the precise expression “radical Islamic terrorism.”
In fact, virtually all the staples of old-fashioned Fourth of July oratory celebrate values that are unfathomable amid the blood-sport politics of today.
Even Parson Weems’ inspirational tale about George Washington and the cherry tree would be comically out of place in a contemporary context. The modern version, inspired by the 45th president, would feature young George telling his father, “The story that I chopped down the cherry tree is Fake News. It’s a lie being spread by the failing Poor Richard’s Almanack.”
In the early nineteenth century, Washington’s decision to retire to Mount Vernon after the Revolutionary War was often likened to the Roman general Cincinnatus returning to his plow after saving Rome from invasion. Lord Byron even eulogized Washington as “the Cincinnatus of the West.”
But the only way the story would be comprehensible today would be if Washington instead had announced that he was forming a small boutique lobbying firm called the Mount Vernon Group to represent business interests before the Continental Congress.
A favorite patriotic trope for Fourth of July orators in years gone by was the bravery of Dolley Madison as British troops in 1814 burned Washington. Only her last-minute heroism as she fled an imperiled White House saved a Gilbert Stuart portrait of Washington and a copy of the Declaration of Independence.
Just try that tale on a 2017 audience.
It would seem baffling why Dolley Madison did not simply move to her husband’s hotel a few blocks away. The British would never have dared torch a hotel with the president’s name on it since it would be filled with foreign dignitaries trying to curry favor with the administration.
Nothing says out-of-touch old-timer like quoting Henry Clay’s dictum “I would rather be right than president.” If a politician tried that gambit today, people would assume that he was angling for Bill O’Reilly’s old slot on Fox News. Or that he was proving his extremist bona fides to a Super PAC billionaire.
Not even Abraham Lincoln would pass patriotic muster these days. Take his line from the Second Inaugural in 1865 promising “malice toward none” and “charity for all.”
As President Trump has demonstrated, malice toward cable TV morning show hosts is a requirement for serving in the Oval Office. And before any president can offer charity—let alone a universal entitlement like “charity for all”—he would need a cost estimate from the Congressional Budget Office.
There is a serious point lurking beneath the levity. The Fourth of July is an apt time to dwell on the lessons about our political system that children and teen-agers are absorbing in the Age of Trump. As weird as our reality-show president seems compared to his predecessors in both parties, remember that there are 11-year-olds who will always regard this period in Washington as normal.
The challenge facing all of us—Democrats and Republicans alike—is to teach these children that it is not normal when a president routinely lies about matters large and small. It is not normal when the president and his paid mouthpieces smear any news organization that criticizes them. And it is not normal when the president and his family, including those holding White House jobs, deliberately blur the line between public service and private profit.
The glory of the Fourth of July is that it commemorates not a war but a piece of parchment. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal…” are words that have inspired generations of idealists, dreamers and freedom fighters the world over. Now, more than ever, they should remind us that the petty battles of the present so dishonor the stirring story of our nation’s birth.