This Friday is the Fourth of July, the anniversary of the formal announcement of the Declaration of Independence. Two hundred and thirty-eight years ago, the nation's founders launched what is still, in retrospect, one of the most audacious experiments, it's fair to say, in the history of civilization. It's a fairly sweeping idea, the notion that the people, as opposed to self-designated elites, monarchs, military-backed "strongmen" (and perhaps a few strong women as well, although, as we all know, that's been much less frequent), rule. Or are supposed to.

The breath of that vision continues to amaze, especially when you consider the context of their times. The prevailing norm of the 18th century was monarchy backed by powerful aristocrats. True, more democratic ideas were percolating below the surface as "Enlightenment" thinkers began to challenge the accepted state of things, and those were soon to burst into clearer view during the French Revolution of the 1790s. Still, it was a wild leap of faith to conjure a state of government where, in theory, the people would govern themselves and the powers of the state were, ideally, as limited as possible, to allow individual liberty to flourish.

Cynicism and seeming gridlock in Washington D.C. in recent years have made is easy for many to view our present state of political affairs with a more jaundiced eye. The focus has certainly been more about how impossible it is to get anything meaningful done. Glaring infrastructure needs are going unmet.


Advertisement

The tax system favors the wealthy and twin revolutions in technology and global trade are overturning the traditional routes to the middle class for many Americans. Colleges are expensive, and millions of students and recent graduates are mired in debts from loans taken out to attend school that may never be repaid. The economy still seems stuck, unable to break out into the 3-4 percent annual growth range that would create jobs and more prosperity. Meanwhile, the politicians, and the pundits, bicker on.

All true, but the bigger picture does offer hope. We've been here before.

The early 1800s were a time of breathtaking partisanship. Testy as things can sometimes get in Washington, no one is seriously suggesting a Civil War might somehow solve them. And despite all the setbacks the Middle East has had to offer in terms of challenges to global leadership, as the recent crises in Iraq, Syria and the Ukraine demonstrate, nothing happens without American leadership. Nothing positive, anyway.

It's worth remembering that as we struggle through a sometimes discouraging present, with politicians saying all kinds of inane things about what the government should or should not do. We'd like to see the government do more to upgrade educational achievement and fix crumbling roads, bridges and public transportation; modernizing a few airports would be nice also. It would be excellent if some meaningful gun control legislation would pass. A loan forgiveness program that builds on what the Obama administration is attempting would be good. And now that finally, climate change is once more returning to the spotlight in the wake of a spate of unusual weather and hard to deny evidence that the world is indeed warming and the potential economic impact of that could be mind boggling in the all of a sudden not-too-distant future, it would be reassuring to see red state and blue state leaders reach consensus on how to use the market as a source of solutions, instead of an excuse for further inaction.

But of all of these, perhaps resolving the impasse over immigration would be possibly the most profound action Congress could take in the relatively near term. That is of course unlikely as we enter the election season of 2014. Overhauling the nation's defective process for attracting and controlling immigration strikes close to the core of our identity. We are a nation of immigrants. With the exception of Native Americans, everyone came from someplace else. It's part of the glory of the United States that - almost unique in the world - you don't have to be of a certain ethnicity to be an American. Yes, of course - white Anglo Saxons have more or less run the show since 1776. But over the past two plus centuries, people from all over the world arrived here, most of them voluntarily, most of them attracted by the hope they could better themselves and the prospects of their children. It's been far from perfect, and discrimination has marred the record and still does to a degree. But overall, we have created a mosaic where no matter what part of the other five continents you started from, when you got here and settled down, you became an American. That's an amazing legacy.

Borders must be protected, but children of immigrants shouldn't be expelled either. And why we can't develop a system that encourages skilled immigrants to come here, to start businesses and employ people and spread the wealth further, is astonishing and depressing. As has often been noted before, why we don't staple a green card to every college diploma earned by a foreign national at a U. S. university, to encourage them to deploy their skills here, rather than competing with us from over there, is a head scratcher of the first order.

But on the 4th of July, we should see a glass half full, and be grateful for the freedoms and opportunities that we do have. Not every place offers them; in fact, it's remarkable that by some reckoning, at least half the world's population still labors under repressive, autocratic regimes. Shifting to a more local note, we'll also take this opportunity to encourage all who can to take in the fireworks and special audio presentation at the Recreation Park commemorating Manchester's Equinox Guards.

Two hundred thirty-eight may not be one of those milestone years, but it's remarkable that such a bold experiment begun in the minds of such a relative few has survived, prospered and reshaped the world so profoundly. Despite our many shortcomings, there's much to feel good about. There's also much that can be improved upon, and we'll get back to commenting on those aspects next week.