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Commentary: Fourth of July

When the Declaration of Independence was signed two hundred and thirty-six years ago, Michigan was a sparsely populated place which the French considered part of the province of Quebec.

Once the Revolutionary War got going, the British speedily occupied our future state. Michigan was then so much of a backwater that the redcoats stayed here till the war had been over for thirteen years – even though the peace treaty made it clear that we’d be part of the United States.  So Michigan doesn’t have much of a glorious revolutionary past. But our nation does – and I think there are Fourth of July lessons that apply to the situation our state is now in.

Consider this, first of all. When the Declaration was signed, all thirteen colonies had perhaps two and a half million people, combined. That’s one-quarter the population of Michigan today. 

What’s more, maybe half a million of those were slaves, and at least a third of the rest remained loyal to the king. Nevertheless, those rebelling won their independence, created this country and changed the entire world. They built a system that has endured to this day, thanks to a Constitution strong enough to ensure democratic values and elastic enough to change.

They did a great thing. But my question is, why can’t we do another one? Why can’t we work together and solve our economic and social problems, at least as well as humans can?

Whenever I say this to people, they tend to give me a skeptical stare. “Yeah, well, they had the Founding Fathers,” one said. “We have Rick Snyder and a bunch of hack politicians.”

Well, we do have Governor Snyder, who is better educated than most of the founders were. But we’ve got some others who aren’t apt to be remembered in the same breath as Pericles. But, so what?

Here’s a little secret for you: Contrary to what you might have been taught in elementary school, the founding fathers weren’t a bunch of plaster saints. George Washington padded his expense account. Alexander Hamilton and Benjamin Franklin were outrageous womanizers.  

Thomas Jefferson couldn’t manage money and apparently repeatedly impregnated his young slave girl. However, they put their minds and hearts to work creating this nation.

They succeeded in large part because they remembered something Franklin said when the Declaration of Independence was signed: “We must all hang together, or we’ll all hang separately.”

They held together in pursuit of the common goal, and won. Today, our challenge isn’t military. Most would say it is economic. But while that’s part of it, I think our real difficulty is sociological. Believe it or not, Dick DeVos and Peter Karamanos have something in common with the inner-city dropout who can’t read, the laid-off manufacturing worker, and you.

Our fortunes are all tied in together. The rich will not benefit from a state that doesn’t educate its kids or properly pave its roads. The poor will gain nothing if new jobs aren’t created. We’ve proven in the past that we know how to act for the common good in wartime. Now, it’s time to learn how to work together again. We’ve been getting a taste of the every-man-for-himself future.

And as we should know by now, it doesn’t work. Happy Fourth!   

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s Political Analyst.Views expressed in the essays by Jack Lessenberry are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.