Perspective: A Lesson in Freedom and Civility

by Chris Hardie

This year was our nation’s 246th July Fourth celebration.

Even though summer has just begun, I always viewed the Fourth of July as the midpoint of summer. Perhaps it’s because my perspective of summer as a kid was influenced by the school year. In those days, we were out of school by the end of May and starting at the end of August.

Most Independence Days involved a little break from farming as we would go to the nearby village of Melrose for its holiday doings, including a parade and fireworks. 

July 4, 1776, was the birth of American independence, when the formal adoption of the Declaration of Independence put into words the concepts of democracy and became the foundation of our freedom.

Surprisingly, the word “freedom” is not even mentioned in the Declaration of Independence, but it could certainly capture the essence of this famous sentence in the preamble: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable 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.”

Powerful words indeed. But nearly 250 years later, the concept of equality seems to be just a dream. We argue about what we think are inalienable rights; and fight over life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness; and are unhappy if we think someone else’s concept of liberty infringes on our own beliefs.

A few years ago, I would have said that our partisan bickering couldn’t get much worse. How wrong I was, as evidenced by a column I wrote in 2012 after the fall election.

It was titled “We Can Work Together,” and I wrote about the weariness of the battling. “We’re tired. We’re tired of the partisan bickering. We’re tired of politicians and party machines whose only goal is self-preservation and fighting with the other side. We’re tired of bloviated speeches and promises with the substance and staying power of yesterday’s autumn snow.

“It’s time to stop the focus on what divides us and talk about what unites us. We are Americans, a melting pot of individual beliefs, colors and creeds, to be sure, but united in our worship of freedom and the pursuit of happiness.

“We want and demand that our leaders work for the betterment of all, not just the few. The men and women who have died fighting for our freedom didn’t serve because of their political persuasion. They fought because they believed in a bigger cause that transcends labels like ‘liberal’ or ‘conservative.’

“Just as we want our leaders to work together, so should we. Let’s all find some common ground. We can model in our own lives what we expect from those we elect.

“It’s called compromise, and it can work – if we want it to.”

So it’s more than 10 years later, and the divide is even greater. Perhaps we need to send some kindergarten teachers to remind our elected officials that no one can get their way all the time, bullying is not acceptable and sometimes you need to share. No party is right all the time; no party is wrong all the time. 

The founding fathers who signed the Declaration of Independence didn’t achieve that document by being angry or unreasonable toward each other. Clearly they had their differences, but they set them aside for the pursuit of the larger goal of freedom.

It’s discouraging, but that doesn’t mean we should give up. Political pledges and party kowtowing be damned. Let’s use our day of patriotic celebration to begin the goal of proudly working together – as Americans – for the greater good of our nation and all its people from every walk of life.

There is a better path forward that guides us toward common ground.

It begins with us.

Chris Hardie spent more than 30 years as a reporter, editor and publisher. He was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize and has won dozens of state and national journalism awards. He is a former president of the Wisconsin Newspaper Association. Contact him at [email protected]. This column is made available by the Wisconsin Newspaper Association as a free service to its members.