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The Spirit of 1776 in 2016

Author: Michael Cooper Jr.

As we celebrate the Fourth of July and the anniversary of American independence, we should take a moment to reflect on what it means to be an American in this election year.

We're a divided country with unpopular leaders and broken institutions. Millions feel left behind in the new economy and the temptation to withdraw from globalization threatens peace and stability in the western world.

The United Kingdom and the European Union are coming apart. Authoritarianism has overwhelmed civil liberties in Russia. Nationalist parties on the left and the right are on the rise, democracy is in retreat and America must remain a beacon of hope in an ever darkening world.

We are after all, a nation founded by immigrants; by English Puritans and Scots-Irish Presbyterians who escaped religious persecution for the freedom to worship in the New World. In the days following the Battle of Bunker Hill, when George Washington assumed command of the Continental Army, Congress issued the "Declaration of the Causes and Necessity of Taking up Arms," heralding the colonies as a home "for civil and religious freedom."

Religious liberty is in our DNA and this election is about passing that freedom on to the next generation. While the United States and her western allies are at war with the Islamic State group and radical Islamic terrorism (and increasingly susceptible to attacks like San Bernardino and Orlando), we cannot respond to barbarism by becoming our enemies, succumbing to fear, refusing refugees or banning all Muslims.

We're not going to surrender who we are because we're afraid. We're going to remain open, as Washington once said, "to receive not only the opulent and respectable stranger," but also, "the oppressed and persecuted of all nations and religions; whom we shall welcome to participation of all our rights and privileges."

Syrian refugees and Honduran children have as much right to become Americans as my ancestors from England and from Scotland. We're not a white country, an Anglo-Saxon country or a Christian nation. We're not the borders, or the people. We are an idea.

The freedom passed down by frontier settlers as a birthright. The practice of self-government learned out of necessity in New England town halls, South Carolina's Commons House of Assembly and Virginia's House of Burgesses. The individual rights and responsibilities found not in monarchies, but in the Enlightenment and the republicanism of Ancient Rome. And the stubborn defiance of colonial patriots who declared their independence from the divine right of distant kings.

We stand for equality and rule of law. We established checks and balances to guard against despots and mob rule. We amended the Constitution to protect a free press, our free speech, our right to worship freely, to defend ourselves and to be secure in our homes.

We defended those ideas for over two centuries, at Lexington, Concord and Shiloh, not to own a house in the suburbs, but to keep ourselves free, and to free other men. And after the hardships experienced by our greatest generation on the battlefields of France and the Pacific, we owe it to them to carry on the torch.

Lincoln once prophesized that no foreign army will ever "take a drink from the Ohio or make a track on the Blue Ridge in a trial of a thousand years," because as a "nation of freemen, we must live through all time, or die by suicide."

And Honest Abe was right; America's threats are now internal. After the Cold War, with no adversary left, Americans allowed commercialism and apathy to take root. And more than NAFTA or immigrants from Mexico, it was our own materialism that caused the Great Recession and the growth of inequality – just as it did before the Great Depression.

Now we're bouncing back and millions of Americans in Appalachia and the industrial Midwest deserve to bounce back too. But there is no easy path. As John F. Kennedy said during his presidency, there will always be Americans who seek "to escape their own responsibility by finding a simple solution, an appealing slogan, or a convenient scapegoat," or blaming tough times on too many immigrants and looking to a "man on horseback" for change.

But a strongman can never be the answer. Racism and xenophobia have no place on the ballot. A trade war would only make life worse. And isolationism isn't an option when China and Russia are poised to lead an undemocratic and illiberal world.

I live in a county second in the nation in median income decline, and we're still grieving over what we've lost. But it's time to move on and to embrace the uncertainty of the future with the same courage displayed crossing the Delaware and storming the parapets of Yorktown.

Patriotism is not about loving America when it is easy. It's about loving America when it is hard. And we must show our patriotism now not by sacrificing freedom for higher wages or the return of furniture factories, but by remembering the principles that made America the envy of the world, and the destination for those seeking a better life.

We're a nation of underdogs. We're going to get back up, we're going to start again and we might even win, but we're not going to trade who we are to get there, because we don't shoot off fireworks because we're wealthy; we celebrate because we're free.

Michael A. Cooper, Jr. is an attorney at the McElwee Firm in his hometown of North Wilkesboro, North Carolina.

DMU Timestamp: February 08, 2018 18:47

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