In a typical year, the Fourth of July would be an occasion to celebrate America’s origins, history and future. Marking the anniversary of our nation’s founding should be an opportunity for reflection on the past and optimism about where we’re headed.
But let’s face it: 2020 is not a typical year.
The last six months have presented extraordinary challenges to both the American people and our public institutions. Many are wondering whether our governments are up to the challenge of solving these crises, and there’s no shortage of dark predictions about the future.
But I’d argue that the 244th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence should be an occasion for hope and optimism. As the Declaration makes clear, America was built on the resilience and ingenuity of individual Americans, free from the strong hand of government power. These principles have allowed our nation to survive hard times and emerge even stronger than before — and I’m confident they will this time, as well.
There’s no question the challenges of 2020 are significant, and that the response of our institutions have been less than inspiring. The coronavirus pandemic continues to stalk the nation, posing tremendous costs in human lives, taxing the health care system and disrupting the social fabric. The economic contraction, a direct result of the pandemic, has many American workers and families deeply anxious about their financial futures. And the nationwide protests focused on police brutality and racial equality have only heightened the sense of uncertainty.
Any one of these challenges would have been difficult for our institutions to contend with. To have all three strike at once has, for many Americans, fostered a sense that “things are spiraling out of control.”
But it’s worth putting these challenges in perspective. Because the reality is that we’ve faced more severe challenges before and emerged stronger.
After all, thus far, the coronavirus pandemic has taken far fewer lives than some earlier outbreaks. The 1918 Spanish flu pandemic claimed more than a half-million American lives, much higher than the current estimated impact for coronavirus.
As for the economic slowdown, The Great Depression crippled the American economy for years. Ultimately, economic downturns set the stage for recovery and expansion to follow.
And while the protests and unrest of the last month have been widespread, they pale in comparison to earlier cataclysms like the Civil War, which tore the country apart and claimed more than 600,000 American lives.
But what sets today’s crises apart is that they’ve revealed with stark clarity how ill-prepared our governing institutions are to addressing these challenges.
With the pandemic response, government agencies and leaders at every level stumbled badly Bureaucracies like the Centers for Disease Control were unprepared for testing and lacked adequate supplies of protective equipment; it was up to private providers to step forward to meet the need.
Likewise with the economy: while government lockdowns and inconsistent closure policies decimated small businesses, it’s the private sector that will do the heavy lifting of reopening and creating jobs that will fuel the (eventual) recovery.
And while the protests have brought attention to the very real problems of police violence, the truth is that America is a less racist place than it ever has been. The expansion of individual rights and legal equality accomplished during the Civil War and the Civil Rights eras did more to help Black Americans than today’s online flame wars.
It’s when we respect the power of individual people to overcome problems that we see true American resilience. And this power is made possible by individual liberty, the core principles articulated in our nation’s founding documents. In the oft-quoted words originally drafted by Thomas Jefferson: “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.”
July 4 is a good time to reflect on our timeless American values — and to understand that they’re rooted not in our government, but in our people. Our energy, our resilience and our progress don’t come from whoever is in power. They stem from embracing the rights of individual Americans that give us our strength and resilience, which will ultimately see us through these hard times.
Scott Barton is senior director of communications and outreach at the Pacific Legal Foundation, which litigates nationwide to achieve court victories enforcing the Constitution’s guarantee of individual liberty.