No where in our founding document is it called The Declaration of Independence, but you can find the word “united” multiple times.
The most well known passage of our founding document is… say it with me:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
After listing the twenty-seven different ways in which England was violating these rights, we declared our separation from this tyrannical rule and the rest is our history.
The document also served another, perhaps unintended purpose - establishing the idea of independence as the centerpiece of our national character. We are the country of the pioneer, the self-reliant, and the boot strapped.
While the declaration was the story of breaking apart, it was equally the story of coming together. It is the origin story of our country, the United States of America - thirteen colonies coming together to form a “more perfect union.”
- Just prior to the signing of the Declaration, Benjamin Franklin admonished his fellow founding fathers, reportedly saying, “We must, indeed, all hang together, or most assuredly we shall all hang separately."
- Also on July 4th, a committee was tasked to create a seal for our new nation. Six weeks later they presented their recommendation featuring the phrase, E Pluribus Unum – meaning out of many, one. It still remains on most of our currency.
- Speaking of money, after the war our country was on perilous financial ground until Alexander Hamilton proposed consolidating all state debts. By forming the Federal Reserve, he paved the way to our future financial security.
- And consider, the final words of the declaration, “…we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor.”
It is interesting to note that nowhere in Jefferson’s actual text, will you see the term “Declaration of Independence.” In fact, the top of the document reads “The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America.”
There is little doubt that as a legal document the purpose of this declaration was to announce our separation from England. Yet that declaration was only possible if we first agreed to join together to do so.
This interdependence extended well beyond our shores. During the war, the Netherlands provided loans and war supplies and without the aid of the French and Lafayette, who knows what the outcome of the war would have been.
Yet, national narratives can be stubborn and pernicious things. Over the last 241 years, we have struggled with this idea of interdependence.
- On the world stage it has sometimes led us act unilaterally or most recently disengage from important global agreements.
- As states, we have often recoiled at the idea of federal intervention, leading to the Civil War and most recently leading some states to opt out of federal programs like Medicaid.
- And as individuals, it has translated into the widely held belief that our lives are largely determined by our independent actions and not impacted by those around us.
Many studies have confirmed this world view formed around individual independence (including the Michigan Fish Test, where upon looking at a picture of fish in a tank, Americans will tell you about the biggest or strongest fish, while people from other cultures like Japan will instead talk about the broader environment and how all the elements are interacting with each other).
Less has been studied about how to effectively counter this narrative.
Our recent project, Your American Dream Score, developed in conjunction with the Ford Foundation and the PBS flagship station, WNET, offers one potential solution.
In trying to address how people think of their own life journey, we didn’t challenge their perception that their independent actions drove their life outcome. If fact, we began by rewarding it, both in our text and in establishing a base score of 45 (out of a possible hundred) to reflect their independent effort. We then asked a series of questions to reflect the other types of factors that may have added to their initiative. In the end, they were given a score and a short write up on those factors that may have helped and hindered their efforts.
In just a few weeks, almost 400,000 Americans have found their American Dream Score. The overwhelming majority, expressing gratitude and a new found appreciation for the myriad of factors that helped them along the way.
By adding to their existing narrative rather than directly challenging their deeply held beliefs around independence, we were able to expand their personal story to include elements of interdependence.
In essence, we said, “yes, you are an independent fish, but check out everyone and everything else around you that makes it easier or harder to swim.”
As we celebrate what we so affectionately refer to as Independence Day, and contemplate where we are as a nation, it provides the perfect opportunity to square what should not be seen as two opposing ideas – independence and interdependence – as ones that are complementary.
- We can believe we are the greatest country in the world AND that’s countries have always worked together to do great things like win world wars or eradicate disease.
- We can respect that states have the right to govern themselves AND that the federal government can provide value to them through projects like the interstate highway system, creating the intranet, and providing national defense.
- And we can take pride in what we have accomplished as individuals AND appreciating that our family, friends, teachers and mentors have helped us along the way.
So as we wave our flags this July 4th, symbolizing our independence, lets all take a moment to appreciate the thirteen stripes, fifty stars and thousands of threads that hold it all together.
Bob McKinnon is Entrepreneur in Residence @ The New School, author of Moving Up: The Truth about Getting Ahead in America and creator of Your American Dream Score