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Editorial: Lessons from the past

It’s almost the Fourth of  July – a holiday we did not get to celebrate with large gatherings in 2020. This year, we will. 

This year, we’ll be able to sit next to neighbors, friends and yes, even strangers. We’ll be able to listen to concerts and watch parades, decked out in red, white and blue. We’ll be able to sit beneath a sky filled with fireworks, wave miniature flags and sing patriotic songs. Perhaps we will recite the Pledge of Allegiance: “I pledge allegiance to the Flag of The United States of America and to the Republic for which it stands, one nation under God, indivisible with liberty and justice for all.”

Indivisible. But are we? 

“All through our history, our presidents and leaders have spoken of national unity and warned us that the real obstacle to moving forward the boundaries of freedom, the only permanent danger to the hope that is America, comes from within,” former President Ronald Reagan said in his 1986 Independence Day address.

His words seem prophetic 35 years later. 

“It’s easy enough to dismiss this as a kind of familiar exhortation,” he continued. “Yet the truth is that even two of our greatest Founding Fathers, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, once learned this lesson late in life. They’d worked so closely together in Philadelphia for independence. But once that was gained and a government was formed, something called partisan politics began to get in the way. After a bitter and divisive campaign, Jefferson defeated Adams for the presidency in 1800. And the night before Jefferson’s inauguration, Adams slipped away to Boston, disappointed, brokenhearted, and bitter.

“For years their estrangement lasted. But then when both had retired, Jefferson at 68 to Monticello and Adams at 76 to Quincy, they began through their letters to speak again to each other. Letters that discussed almost every conceivable subject: gardening, horseback riding, even sneezing as a cure for hiccups; but other subjects as well: the loss of loved ones, the mystery of grief and sorrow, the importance of religion, and of course the last thoughts, the final hopes of two old men, two great patriarchs, for the country that they had helped to found and loved so deeply. 

“‘It carries me back,’ Jefferson wrote about correspondence with his cosigner of the Declaration of Independence, ‘to the times when, beset with difficulties and dangers, we were fellow laborers in the same cause, struggling for what is most valuable to man, his right to self-government. Laboring always at the same oar, with some wave ever ahead threatening to overwhelm us and yet passing harmless . . . we rowed through the storm with heart and hand . . . .’

“It was their last gift to us, this lesson in brotherhood, in tolerance for each other, this insight into America’s strength as a nation. And when both died on the same day within hours of each other, that date was July 4th, 50 years exactly after that first gift to us, the Declaration of Independence.”

Today, as we prepare to celebrate our independence from Britain and from a pandemic, perhaps we should heed the lesson of two old men. 

To move America forward we must be willing to labor together, focusing not on our differences but on our common nationality, rowing through the storms that threaten to defeat us with heart and hand.

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