Be silly, but recall profound wisdom behind July 4

Tom West - West Words
West Words by Tom West

When our children were young, one Fourth of July we decided to have a parade on the spur of the moment.

Since our community had no parade, it was left to us, and it wasn’t all that much. But we had a record of marches by John Philip Sousa, and I keyed the record to “Stars and Stripes Forever.”

Then we marched around the house like drum majors, from the living room, through the dining room, into the kitchen, to the front hall and back to the living room, around and around we went until the song ended.

It was silly, and it was great fun. Like many habits, when we did it that first time we did not realize that it would become a tradition. The following year, however, one of them asked if we were going to march again, so we did.

We spent one memorable Fourth of July looking up at Mount Rushmore under a cloudless sky, and a few others visiting family in Illinois and Ohio, but most years, we marched around the house until the kids entered the awkward teen years when it was too embarrassing to be doing something silly, knowing if their friends ever found out, they would suffer terminal embarrassment.

And then, just to plague them — or perhaps to roust them if they were sleeping in — I continued to play the “Stars and Stripes Forever” each Fourth of July loud enough to wake the dead.

Eventually they grew up and moved away, working summer jobs during college or finally striking out on their own. Then the Secretary of Health and Human Services at our house took over, prodding me to use the tradition as an excuse to call them.

Thus, this Wednesday I will again key a Sousa CD to “The Stars and Stripes,” and phone them. Most of the time, they don’t answer directly, so it goes to their voice mail, but I know that it brings a smile to their faces now, and, were I to stop, they would ask, “How come?”

Of course, I had an underlying purpose to the silliness. I always wanted my kids to know that they live in a special place and time. The concepts of self-government, individual freedom and fundamental rights are relatively new in human existence.

We are about to celebrate the 236th anniversary of our National Experiment.

And that’s all it is, an experiment. We don’t yet know if circumstances will change, if we will get tired of the responsibility of caring for ourselves and our families, if we will finally succumb to the siren song of some charlatan.

It is human nature for most people to embrace a “get along, go along” approach to life. We take what the world throws out until, once a generation, we realize that things are not going all that great, and then we get upset about it.

Why? Because not all of us are “get along, go along” people. Some of us try to exploit the rest of us for money, power or prestige.

What’s more, even the most  well-meaning or learned among us don’t have enough information in some cases to make sound decisions for all of us.

Thus, the Founding Fathers undertook a daunting task in 1776 when they decided to throw off the shackles of British rule and create a republic — a nation where the people as a whole rule through their elected representatives.

It took seven years to win the War of Independence and then several more years to create a workable form of self-government.

For 224 years, under the Constitution, that form has succeeded with one notable exception — the Civil War — which tested in blood and treasure whether we were to become one nation or many. In the end, we opted for one.

Why has the United States been more successful than other attempts at creating and maintaining self-government? Because the Constitution makes it exceptionally difficult for any one faction of us to gain or keep control.

The ultimate power belongs to all of us. While we have to surrender a little of that power to our elected representatives, the system is set up so only the best ideas make it into law, and even those are subject to revision.

In The Federalist No. 51, Publius, the pen name used by James Madison, reflected on the need for an arrangement that divided up legislative, executive and judicial power as much as possible. He wrote, “Ambition must be made to counteract ambition. … It may be a reflection on human nature that such devices should be necessary to control the abuses of government. But what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. … The great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.”

The Founding Fathers understood human nature. They could not begin to imagine some of the issues we deal with today — we’ve come a long way from leeches to Obamacare — but they understood the imperfection of mankind, the dangers of mob rule and the importance of making the rule of law supreme.

Many of you will be working on your sunburns this holiday. My family will pretend to have a silly parade. But I hope all of us will take a moment to reflect on the profound wisdom that brought us to this day. Tom West is the editor and general manager of the Record. He may be reached at (320) 632-2345 or by e-mail at [email protected].