Remarks of the Archivist at the annual 4th of July celebration, Washington, DC, July 4, 2008
Remarks by Archivist of the United States Allen Weinstein
National Archives Building, Washington, DC, July 4, 2008
Good morning, and welcome to the National Archives on this 232nd Fourth of July since American independence was launched in 1776. We have gathered here, as in past years, not simply to celebrate the holiday and to witness this ceremony followed by a terrific parade. Yes, we welcome the flag-waving, the patriotic costumes, and the revolutionary patriots back for another year. Join me in giving them all a robust "hello."
But we have come to stand together today, as on every Fourth of July, as Americans, to renew our unbreakable solidarity as a nation. Central to our purpose this morning is following the National Archives' tradition of reading aloud—in its entirety—the Declaration of Independence, as adopted by the Continental Congress on this date 232 years ago. Congress had voted for independence two days earlier, on July 2.
The Fourth of July is a conflicted occasion for many Americans, a holiday that the late Librarian of Congress, Daniel Boorstin, called a "festival of justification": a day on which Americans displayed a candid mixture of national pride and periodic outrage in appropriate proportion. We recognize on this day, in short, not only the degree of our confidence and patriotic self-assurance but also our collective national anxieties, our unfulfilled hopes alongside our recognized achievements.
Thus, before the Civil War put an end to slavery, few African Americans could disagree with the words of black antislavery leader Frederick Douglass's 1852 Independence Day speech: "This Fourth of July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice. I must mourn"—any more than most American women at the time would dispute Susan B. Anthony's speech on the 100th anniversary of the Declaration in portraying that past century's history as "a series of assumptions and usurpations of power over women."
Whatever the actual facts of oppression confronted at the time, historian Joseph Ellis is correct in his eloquent book American Creation describing the pivotal passage in the Declaration—a mere 55 words—as the "seminal statement of the American creed." Please repeat after 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: that to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.
As Ellis correctly observes:
"With these words, [Jefferson] . . . plant[ed] the seeds that would grow into the expanding mandate for individual rights that eventually ended slavery, made women's suffrage inevitable, and sanctioned the civil rights of all minorities."
We forget sometimes that the key founders of our nation saw themselves operating on a global stage, asserting values that were universal, avowing lessons important not only for their own country but for all humanity while recognizing that the unresolved issue of slavery remained to be addressed.
This trans-Atlantic perspective could be seen in the letter that Jefferson wrote to the committee organizing the Declaration's 50th anniversary celebration:
"May [the American revolution] be to the world what I believe it will be, (to some parts sooner, to others later, but finally to all) the signal of arousing men to burst the chains under which . . . ignorance and superstition had persuaded them to bind themselves, and to assume the blessings and security of self-government. . . . [The] mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their back, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately, by the grace of God."
A few questions now for our own time, as well as that of the founders, with an occasional conclusion:
Are we still "one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all"? Are we all patriotic Americans, whether Democrats, Republicans, or independents; liberal, moderate, or conservative? And will we reunite as Americans regardless of party or creed after the election?
Answers: Decidedly yes, probably yes, and gad, we had better.
After the election, will we again become a welcoming country, leading the world through generous example and not drift further into unwelcoming and self-defeating habits? Answer: Hopefully, yes, though immigration remains an intractable problem—akin to the earlier slavery issue.
Will our National Archives be known in future for maximal access and openness provided to citizens and scholars alike, while recognizing genuine claims for national security secrecy? Answer: Yes. I and the Archives staff fight for greatest possible access and transparency every working day. We shall continue on the front lines of this complex struggle.
In our present situation, finally, have we learned to recognize and avoid the abuses of civil liberties, and cynical attacks on political adversaries as unpatriotic, common to earlier wartimes? Answer: I sincerely hope so, but we remain, on the evidence to date, poised between hope and despair.
As with most issues, then and now, Abraham Lincoln said it best. In an 1861 speech at Philadelphia's Independence Hall, made at the Union's moment of gravest jeopardy, Lincoln reminded his fellow citizens of the essential quality that bound together past and future in our American republic:
"I have often inquired of myself," Lincoln mused, "what great principle or idea it was that kept [the United States] so long together." After rejecting the notion that the break with England alone—"separateness" and the act of revolution—was sufficient for this purpose, Lincoln concluded that it was "that sentiment in the Declaration of Independence which gave liberty, not alone for the people of this country, but hope to the world for all future time. 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. This is the sentiment embodied in the Declaration of Independence. . . . I would rather be assassinated on this spot than surrender it."
One can only hope that the United States will retain those values which produce the same strong, principled loyalty of its citizens today as they did more than two centuries ago. "My country, right or wrong," the 19th century immigrant political leader Carl Schurz observed, quickly qualifying his point for greater clarity: "My country, right or wrong. When she is right, support her, but when she is wrong, correct her."
But for those seeking an immediate infusion of the spirit of the Declaration of Independence, I conclude by commending you to a story that President Eisenhower told of a stranger to Washington who hired a taxi to see the city. When passing the National Archives Building—this building—he saw the sign stating simply, "What Is Past Is Prologue." The tourist asked the cab driver what that expression meant, and the driver replied: "Oh, mister, that's simply a polite way of saying 'you ain't seen nothin' yet.'"
Happy Independence Day, 2008! Happy Fourth of July—especially to our troops and our veterans wherever they are today! The work continues . . .