As we approach this Fourth of July, we — the heirs to the Declaration of Independence — are engaged in nationwide introspection on the nature of "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" nearly two and a half centuries after those seven words became an uplifting shorthand for the American creed.
In the wake of the police killings in Minneapolis and Atlanta, and with a surge of support for new protections and equal opportunities for Black Americans, people across the country are examining their own communities, their own practices, their own beliefs and their own hearts.
In an earlier time, those reflections were prompted by the soaring rhetoric of July 4th addresses, often issued from town bandstands or in local assembly halls. John Quincy Adams on Independence Day 1821, for example, spoke of how the American Revolution "swept away all the rubbish of accumulated centuries of servitude."
In 1876, the centenary of the signing of the Declaration, his son, Charles Francis Adams, issued a plea that "the rights to life and liberty and the pursuit of happiness, which we have honorably secured, may be firmly entailed upon the ever enlarging generations of mankind." Some 110 years later, Ronald Reagan, in words Americans might appreciate and appropriate today, said, "Tonight, with heart and hand, through whatever trial and travail, we pledge ourselves to each other and to the cause of human freedom, the cause that has given light to this land and hope to the world."
Most of the Independence Day speeches of our American past have faded with the paper they are printed on — some of the originals are available in faint type on the internet, proof that eternal virtues can live through eternity — but their message seems fresh in our national time of tumult and introspection.
One of those addresses that has disappeared from memory was delivered in Boston's Faneuil Hall, known as the "cradle of liberty" but named for a Massachusetts Colonial trader who both held and sold slaves in the 18th century. There, in a setting where Frederick Douglass beseeched his listeners to work to end slavery in the 19th century, a fresh voice of the 20th century was heard for the first time by a large audience.
"I propose today to discuss certain elements of the American character which have made this nation great," said the World War II war hero John F. Kennedy on July 4, 1946, months before he would be elected to his first term in Congress. "It is well for us to recall them today, for this is a day of recollection and a day of hope."
For Kennedy it was a day, too, of commemoration. In the audience was John F. Fitzgerald, known in his time and in historical lore as "Honey Fitz," a onetime member of the Boston Common Council, a mayor of Boston, and a House member during the administrations of both William McKinley and William Howard Taft.
Exactly a half-century earlier, Kennedy's grandfather had given an Independence Day address in that very same setting. In the years that passed, the United States moved from splendid, self-satisfied isolation to global engagement and fought two world wars, all in pursuit of liberty abroad but in denial of liberty to Black Americans at home.
In his speech, Kennedy — a political novice, but a deep reader of history — cited several elements of the American character, one of which was religious piety and the power of the central ideals of religion. "This nation has ever been inspired by essential religious ideas," he said. "The doctrine of slavery which challenged these ideas within our own country was destroyed."
True, to a point, but actually a half-truth. Slavery was gone; the pleas of Douglass had been heeded. But his broader goal — to end a national culture "where justice is denied, where poverty is enforced, where ignorance prevails, and where ... one class is made to feel that society is an organized conspiracy to oppress, rob and degrade them" — was not achieved in 1946, and eludes us still in 2020.
In time, Kennedy — who possessed what the Harvard historian Fredrik Logevall, in a brilliant forthcoming biography, described as "limited imagination on race" — would embrace the cause of civil rights. But in 1946 he said that "recently, the philosophy of racism ... was also met and destroyed." In the years that followed his assassination, and that of his brother, Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, a late-career warrior on civil rights, it would become clear how short America had fallen from its ancient goal.
But the elements of the fight for racial justice were evident in the young candidate's critique of the American character. Here he expresses the hope that animates us, more than a half-century after his death:
"Inspired by a deeply religious sense, this country, which has ever been devoted to the dignity of man, which has ever fostered the growth of the human spirit, has always met and hurled back the challenge of those deathly philosophies of hate and despair. We have defeated them in the past; we will always defeat them."
Kennedy eventually would recast the rhetoric of American idealism, but that would require three terms in the House, two elections to the Senate, a presidential inauguration and a thousand days of testing. But traces of his January 1961 Inaugural Address and his June 1963 speeches on peace and racial justice can be discerned in these remarks from the less-experienced Kennedy: "It does remain a fact, and a most important one, that the motivating force of the American people has been their belief that they have always stood at the barricades by the side of God."
Now we approach an Independence Day that is the perfect distillation of Kennedy's characterization of July 4 as "a day of recollection and a day of hope."
On this holiday, we recall the brave words of the Declaration of Independence but with the acknowledgement that its author was a slave owner. On this day we are fired with hope that Jefferson's words can be transformed from aspiration to realization.
"It is well for us to consider our American character," Kennedy said in 1946, "for in peace, as in war, we will survive or fail according to its measure." That was true in the July following the end of the fight for freedom that was World War II. It is just as true today.
David M. Shribman is the former executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Follow him on Twitter at ShribmanPG.