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The Declaration of Independence and Our American Identity

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Duluth, Minnesota (OpEdNews) July 4, 2016: The Fourth of July is a suitable time to reflect on our American identity. On the Fourth of July each year, we Americans commemorate the signing of the idealistic Declaration of Independence, which officially announced the beginning of the American Revolution. To this day, we Americans really do have to be rather idealistic to buy into the ideals articulated in the Declaration of Independence.

Because the rebels emerged victorious, they went on to found our American experiment in representative democratic government and certain civil rights.

Historically, our American political liberalism is paired with economic liberalism. In our American political culture today, economic libertarians venerate economic liberalism.

The spirit of economic liberalism was expressed in the nineteenth-century American myth of the self-made man. No, that myth is not usually understood to include the self-made woman. I do not mention this to make a case for more inclusive language, because I want to focus instead on the words self-made.

The myth of the self-made man is expressed in Horatio Alger stories. As the stories go, with pluck and luck, the hero moves from rags to riches, or at least relative success compared to his starting point. The hero's law-abiding pluck eventually pays off. With luck, he gets ahead and prospers materially. No doubt a certain measure of material prosperity is good for the soul, as Abraham Maslow suggests with his hierarchy of needs.

However, as I say, I want to focus on the words self-made. Through the decisions we make about choices in our lives, we make our personal identities. In this sense, each adult person is self-made.

Now, starting in the latter part of the nineteenth century and moving forward in the first half or more of the twentieth century, existentialism accentuated personal decision-making. In this way, existentialism was consistent with the spirit of the American myth of the self-made man (and woman, in existentialism), except that existentialism did not venerate material prosperity. (But it also did not venerate extreme poverty.) In any event, existentialism was imported from Europe and found a home in American culture, mostly among college-educated Americans who were not enamored with material prosperity but who enjoyed a certain measure of material well-being (as Maslow's hierarchy of needs suggests).

Freud and Jung and the personal therapy movement in the twentieth century obviously aimed at personal therapy. Not surprisingly, the personal therapy movement also found a home in American culture, where it thrives to this day. But poor people tend not to have the financial resources to pursue personal therapy.

Now, to the chagrin of economic libertarians, the federal government expanded its scope in the twentieth century under President Theodore Roosevelt and again under President Franklin D. Roosevelt and again under President Lyndon B. Johnson. To this day, economic libertarians want to down-size so-called big government. But we need so-called big government to help provide the social and economic structures that we as a collective group need to survive and prosper.

Long before the Declaration of Independence in 1776, earlier in American culture, Governor John Winthrop famously described the venture of the Puritans in Massachusetts Bay Colony as founding a city on a hill -- an exemplary city for the world to see, a light to the world. Both President John F. Kennedy, who was born and raised in Massachusetts, and President Ronald Reagan, the former actor and governor of California, invoked Winthrop's famous imagery in the twentieth century.

Now, the Greek word for a city is "polis," the root word of our word political. Historically, the city of Athens famously engaged in the first experiment in limited participatory democratic government. Historically, when our American experiment in representative democratic government emerge, it was also originally a much more limited experiment than it is today.

As a result of the expanded citizen participation in voting today in our American polity, we should perhaps remember William Butler Yeats' famous lines in his poem "The Second Coming" about the center not holding and things falling apart. In the title of his famous novel Things Fall Apart (1958), the Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe borrows Yeats' imagery.

Will our American center -- the ideals expressed in the Declaration of Independence -- hold and thereby keep things from falling apart as we Americans collectively negotiate the emerging claims of various groups of Americans who historically have been submerged and thereby excluded from the prestige culture in American culture -- as expressed in so-called identity politics (also known as multiculturalism), including now the white identity politics that the wealthy developer Donald J. Trump of New York, the presumptive presidential candidate of the Republican Party in 2016, uses to advance his campaign?

But Winthrop's famous imagery also calls to mind another ancient city on a hill, Jerusalem. Symbolically, Jerusalem was important to God's Chosen People. Taking a hint from President Abraham Lincoln, we Americans could also think of ourselves as God's Chosen People. Surely our American experiment in representative democratic government involves a covenant of sorts among us, as did the famous Athenian experiment in limited participatory democratic government.

But if we take a hint from Kennedy and Reagan and apply Winthrop's famous imagery to our American experiment in representative democratic government, then our American city, figuratively speaking, has grown a wee bit since 1776 -- and so has our American federal government.

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Thomas James Farrell is professor emeritus of writing studies at the University of Minnesota Duluth (UMD). He started teaching at UMD in Fall 1987, and he retired from UMD at the end of May 2009. He was born in 1944. He holds three degrees from Saint Louis University (SLU): B.A. in English, 1966; M.A.(T) in English 1968; higher education, 1974. On May 16, 1969, the editors of the SLU student newspaper named him Man of the Year, an honor customarily conferred on an administrator or a faculty member, not on a graduate student -- nor on a woman up to that time. He is the proud author of the book (more...)

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