With the passage of time and a de-emphasis on the teaching of history, the American Revolution that we celebrate today has been recast as a series of iconic images: George Washington crossing the Delaware, Paul Revere's midnight ride, the Founding Fathers signing the Declaration of Independence, the Battle of Bunker Hill and, of course, the ubiquitous fife-and-drum corps. But these were more than idealized characters on a canvas. These early upstarts were real flesh and blood who put their lives on the line to free a fledging nation from the bonds imposed upon the colonies by England's King George III. On this Independence Day of hot dogs, fireworks and parades, we should celebrate their heroism, treasure their humanity and honor the democratic legacy that is the United States.
Even 236 years after the first shots were fired at Lexington and Concord, America remains a work in progress. We are far from a perfect union as a nation still struggling to come to terms with its past original sins of slavery and American Indian genocide. But those chapters notwithstanding, the United States remains a worldwide template symbolizing the power of a free society to promote democracy, protect human rights and confront the evils of oppression — often at great cost in life and treasure.
It is not easy being us. We remain a fractious, argumentative, sometimes politically polarized people. We have confronted a Great Depression, the horrors of wars, natural disasters from the San Francisco earthquake to Hurricane Katrina to the current ravages of catastrophic floods and tornadoes, and, of course, the terrorism of Sept. 11, 2001. But it also is part of America's character that in our darkest hours come our greatest bonds of a united citizenry striving for a common goal.
This year the Arab Spring has spread across Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Bahrain and Syria as hundreds of thousands of people have taken to the streets demanding freedom from brutal, autocratic regimes. In time these countries will find their own level of democracy. The end result may not resemble America's democratic ideal, but it is noteworthy that none of these emerging societies is seeking to become more like Cuba.
In that sense the Fourth of July is more than a mere date on a calendar. It is an eloquent reminder that democracy can be born anywhere — from the bitter cold of Valley Forge to the shores of Tripoli.