July 4, 2000

Sanders Independence Day Statement

224 years ago, during a hot couple of weeks in late June and early July 1776, some of the most remarkable men this nation - or any nation - has ever seen, put pen to paper and produced a document that did nothing less than change the world. John Adams, Pennsylvania's own Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson served as the core of a committee charged with the audacious task of spelling out the reasons we wanted our independence from Great Britain, reasons so compelling that they induced farmers to take up arms against the mightiest nation on earth.

What Jefferson ultimately produced, and what Adams and Franklin refined, was the American catechism. The soft-spoken gentlemen from Virginia, full of his own contradictions, set forth a set of beliefs, faith in which set us as a people apart from the monarchic British. The words Jefferson used illustrated an idea - a unique one - that we all begin alike, that we are all created equal, and have the right to pursue our own courses in life without hindrance by an oppressive government, or repressive neighbors.

It is that idea that made us, in a word, Americans. Being an American is not a geographic accident of birth, like being German or Russian or Japanese. Being an American does not hinge on the length of time you or your family have been in this country, or if you've even set foot here. No, the extent you are an American is entirely contingent on your belief in that catechism, in equality and freedom for all.

The Declaration was not perfect, though. The founders couldn't do it all. They left a great responsibility to the rest of us. It left many people out - like women and blacks. Abigail Adams, every bit a patriot in her own right as her amazing husband, asked John to "remember the ladies" because "every man would be a tyrant if he could." And Thomas Jefferson included a clause in the document rightly attacking slavery as a miserable institution allowed by King George III, but it was removed because southern delegates wouldn't sign the Declaration if it remained. Adams, Jefferson, and Franklin left us with much work to be done.

The Constitution, meant to create the institutions that would implement the principles of the Declaration, was enacted not long after the Revolution and still it left us with unfinished business. America, it turned out, would be a work in progress.

Implicit in both founding documents, though, is a responsibility to every citizen - and especially to every member of Congress - to work every day to make everyone more equal than they were the day before, to make us a "more perfect union." To the extent we do not do that, we fail the great gift of freedom we have been given and we do no honor to the sacrifices made by those who fought to secure the blessings of our liberties.

On this Independence Day, let us put aside party labels, and remember the only truly important label we all carry - that of American citizen, and the wonderful responsibility that comes with it. As you watch the fireworks on Tuesday with your families, and watch the flag go by in parades, and listen to marches and patriotic tunes, think about how far we've come and be proud. But then consider how much farther we still must go and be resolved to get back to our unfinished business. Enjoy Independence Day. But on Wednesday, join me and let's get back to work.