Tuesday, July 4, 2017

keeping promises

"All men are created equal."

The more I think about it, the more I think the 241-year story of these words and their effect doesn't sound as new as it does old. Thousands of years old, maybe. Just about every culture has a story like it, taking place in storybook land.

A king, or person of great power, makes a promise. The promise seems generous and reasonable. Then a crafty peasant comes along to hold him to the literal terms of the promise's wording. It's something far broader, that the king didn't foresee and wouldn't have agreed to. No one else would have foreseen it either, but his being forced to keep it winds up in great good being done, or a great evil being defeated, or a seemingly unsolvable problem solved.

Except with us, it took place in a real land. Let yourself be amazed by it: Hancock and Jefferson and company were trying to accomplish something. They did accomplish it. But in the process they generated words that later generations held them to, in ways they would have considered unacceptably broad. If you could go back and say, "All men are created equal? OK, then: all means all," they would have said, "Well yes, but." They did say that, with later words and actions.

America stands as a beacon to the nations, partially because we made the fairy tale come to life. It's crucial to recognize something, though. We're a beacon not just because we had that king in our history, but also because we had that crafty peasant. We had a series of them, each extracting, with much trouble, greater and greater implications from that phrase. Our greatest heroes are often people who brought about new actions from a new understanding of it. Even some of us as individuals, during our lifetimes, have had our own sense of that phrase expanded. In the process, great good has been done, great evils defeated, seemingly unsolvable problems solved.

What's in our future? More.


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