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Henningsen: Independence Forever

07/02/12 7:55AM By Vic Henningsen
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(Host) As the 4th of July nears, teacher, historian and commentator Vic Henningsen suggests that we think carefully about what exactly we're celebrating.

(Henningsen) On the muggy morning of June 30th, 1826, a delegation of townsfolk of Quincy, Massachusetts, made a pilgrimage to the home of their leading citizen, hoping to persuade him to play the central role in the town's Fourth of July celebration. This would be the fiftieth anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Would he lead the parade? Would he make a speech? Would he at least offer a toast?

Ninety-three years old and ailing, John Adams was well aware that he had little time left. Commenting on his health one day, he is supposed to have said: "I have lived in this old and frail tenement a great many years; it is very much dilapidated; and, from all I that I can learn, my landlord doesn't intend to repair it." Self-deprecating humor aside, Adams knew he was dying. He was struggling to survive until the 4th - indeed, he would die that day. There was no way he would, or could, play an active role in Quincy's celebration.

And anyway, Adams wasn't the celebratory type. A skeptic, he rejected the sunny optimism of Thomas Jefferson, his one-time friend, long-time political enemy, and now fast friend again, who would also die on the 4th. True son of the Enlightenment, Jefferson believed in the inevitable perfectibility of man. He saw the American Revolution as only a moment in the steady march of human freedom everywhere.

But Adams worried about the inherent fallibility of man. He retained a healthy dose of New England Puritanism with its strong emphasis on Original Sin and viewed the future with hope, but without Jefferson's certainty. Adams believed that accident, misunderstanding, greed, envy, pride, and plain old stupidity played significant, at times determining, roles in human affairs. Nothing was certain.

And so, when asked for a toast to be offered at the great feast, he responded: "I give you, ‘Independence Forever!" Asked to elaborate, he refused: "Not a word."

But he actually had elaborated, years before, when he observed that Americans were "destined in future history to form the brightest or the blackest page, according to the use or the abuse of those political institutions by which they shall in time to come be shaped."

In other words, independence was what Americans made of it and would make of it in the future.

Adams believed that Americans had the capacity to govern themselves wisely, but he wasn't convinced that they'd muster the collective will and self-restraint necessary to do so. History, he noted, provided no remedy "against the universal gangrene of avarice." "[T]he steady advance of Wealth," he went on, "has overturned every republic from the beginning of time."

And so, on this Glorious Fourth, we would do well to remember Adams's ambiguous toast - "Independence Forever!" - and take a moment to ponder what we're making of it.
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