When we visited Philadelphia on family business last February, my wife and I decided to take our teenage son to Independence Hall, where both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution had been debated.
We relished the chance to see where figures such as Thomas Jefferson, John Adams and Benjamin Franklin helped create the republic. How odd to remember that they weren’t just a set of principles but people — real human beings. Looking at the spindled chairs and ancient inkwells, the quill pens and brass candlesticks, the high windows and glass chandelier, I felt a great chasm between then and now.
Beyond Independence Hall, as I’d been reminded while reading that morning’s paper, America looked tired. A gunman had killed 17 students at a high school in Florida. A porn star disclosed that she was ready to offer more details about her alleged tryst with the president of the United States. In Louisiana, lawmakers were considering what could be done to prevent fraternity pledges from being forced to poison themselves with alcohol. This didn’t seem like the kind of nation envisioned by the founders who had once gathered in the room where I stood.
I sighed a little as we stepped outside, then entered a companion exhibit featuring vintage copies of the Declaration of Independence and Constitution. Visitors filed past the old documents, entombed in glass, as if paying their respects to a departed relative.
Then I noticed a Chinese tourist in the corner, holding his own copy of the Declaration of Independence. He was slowly tracing his index finger across the calligraphy of the opening passage, feeling the words as he read them: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness …”
The scene reminded me of something I’d experienced as a Capitol Hill intern in 1984. Three weeks into that Washington, D.C., summer, I’d already grown ambivalent about working in the nation’s capital. No longer did I look in awe at the great monuments to representative government.
I was walking past the Supreme Court when a Japanese tourist beckoned me over, handing me his camera so that I could photograph his family on the court steps. He raised his hands to frame three words chiseled at the top of the building, making it plain that he wanted them to be the centerpiece of his picture. So I took a snapshot of the couple and their children, careful to capture them beneath a simple promise I’d never noticed on each day’s stroll to work: “Equal Justice Under Law.”
As another Fourth of July arrives, it’s easy to assume that the republic’s best days are behind it. But many beyond our shores still look to America as a beacon of promise. It’s up to us to keep that promise alive.