A Fragile Union

The United States of America: we take the name of our nation for granted. From the perspective of nearly two and a half centuries of history, it appears obvious that we should be one country, bound together by constitutional principles, stretching from the Atlantic to Pacific Oceans. But that assumption undervalues the remarkable accomplishment of a founding generation and endangers the future of republic.

On July 4, 1776 the Continental Congress in Philadelphia issued "The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America." That statement--not the declaration of inherent rights to "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness"--was the most audacious claim in the entire document. In truth, the thirteen states represented a very loose coalition at best. They were a long way from becoming a nation, and even during the War for American Independence the confederation they formed was tenuous and fragile. Uniting thirteen different colonial provinces is the founders' legacy.

Today, however, most Americans revel in the regional, ethnic, sectarian, and political rhetoric of disunion. We have become superficial people, living in the moment, casually indifferent to the history of our nation.

By the time of the American Revolution, the North American continent had seen more than 150 years of British colonization. Yet, there was no sense of unity between the colonies. They were separated by geography, ethnicity, religion, and politics. Virginia planters, Rhode Island merchants, Maryland Catholics, New York Dutchmen, South Carolina plantation owners, and Pennsylvania Quakers had little in common with each other. More important, they saw little advantage in association. Opposition to the 1765 Stamp Act brought the first real coordinated action. It would be another decade before these disparate people built a precarious unity and declared independence. It required another decade of hard work to arrive at our Constitutional form of government. Even then it was uncertain the union could be sustained.

This American republic struggled to survive. Human beings do not accomplish political union naturally and without effort. Read your American history. It is the story of divisive political parties, regional conflict, religious turmoil, ethnic friction, economic disparity and upheaval, mob actions in our communities, and even civil war. For these reasons, Americans should be well aware how difficult it is to accomplish and maintain a national union, especially as we look across the world to see the Middle East, Africa, South and Central America, Eastern Europe, Asia, and the Indian subcontinent torn by political, sectarian, religious, and ethnic warfare. It is powerful testimony to the amazing accomplishments of the united American republic that most of this has been avoided. But the American people cannot afford the arrogance of believing that we are somehow superior, that for us the work of unity is simple, easy, and second nature. Make no mistake: without care and nurturing, our seemingly strong national unity can also devolve.

We care for this tenuous American union when "We the People" of this republic engage in the debates that are essential for sustaining the unity of our communities, our states, and our nation. We care for our union when we protect and revere an open debate that reflects the nation's diversity of opinion and perspective. We care for our union when we strive to find common solutions to the critical problems that face us.

I worry, however, that we have forgotten the function of these debates. The purpose is not to make the most dramatic demonstration about the righteousness of individual ideology. The aim of the American debate must be to forge an ongoing unity.

This 4th of July, Americans will gather on Boston Common, at Independence Hall in Philadelphia, at Colonial Williamsburg's 18th-century Capitol, and in every community across the nation to celebrate a national holiday and the legacy of our American Revolution. No matter where you are on that day, rededicate yourself to the great accomplishment of the Declaration of Independence--the creation of a united nation. Rededicate yourself to sustaining that union. We should never forget it is our responsibility--that of each individual American citizen--to insure, in the words of Abraham Lincoln, "that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth."