4th of July – What Does it Mean to be an American?

Heritage unites us. Diversity is our strength.

Sometime during the 4th of July long weekend, take a break from your festivities to reflect on what it means to you to be an American.

I am all for whipping up a batch of your famous potato salad, or competing in a sack race with your kid, or dipping your toes in the ocean to celebrate the 4th of July. I am also for spending a few minutes contemplating what it means to be an American, which entails both rights and responsibilities.

In previous years, for 4th of July posts, I have railed against the American consumer label, suggested we declare our independence from harmful corporations, and proposed the right to a habitable planet as a new addition to the Bill of Rights. This year, I found myself drawn to the Statue of Liberty and thinking about what it means to be an American, today, as a member of a global society.

First, let’s remind ourselves of some of the salient facts about the Statue of Liberty and then contemplate being an American.

Statue of Liberty Brief History

Liberty Enlightening the World Poster 1884
Liberty Enlightening the World Poster, 1884

“The Statue of Liberty Enlightening the World” was a gift from the French people to the people of the United States to strengthen ties between the two countries and promote democracy.

Imagine the difficulties the French people had to overcome to finance, build, and then ship the 151’1” tall bronze statue in parts across the ocean in the nineteenth century. The United States encountered its own problems raising money and then constructing the enormous base that supports the 156-ton statue.

Originally, the intent was to unveil the Statue of Liberty in 1876 to commemorate the centennial of the Declaration of Independence but only her torch-bearing arm made it to the U.S. in time. The completed Statue of Liberty was dedicated ten years later on October 28, 1886.

The Statue of Liberty gained federal protections in 1924 when President Calvin Coolidge exercised his authority under the Antiquities Act of 1906 by designating the statue and its site, called Fort Wood at the time, as a national monument.

During the 1930s, President Franklin Roosevelt ordered the War Department to turn over control of the Statue of Liberty National Monument and the rest of the island, known as Bedloe’s Island, to the National Park Service.

Bedloe’s Island was renamed Liberty Island by an Act of Congress in 1956 and nearby Ellis Island was added to the Statue of Liberty National Monument by President Lyndon Johnson in 1965.

The Statue of Liberty underwent a massive restoration project in the 1980s and she was rededicated on her centennial in 1986.

To this day, people around the world recognize the Statue of Liberty as a symbol, perhaps the symbol, of freedom and democracy.

Statue of Liberty Sonnet

As part of a fundraising effort for the statue’s pedestal in 1883, Emma Lazarus penned the now famous sonnet below. In 1903, her words were inscribed on a plaque and placed on the wall of the Statue of Liberty’s pedestal.

The New Colossus

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

This beautiful and powerful poem speaks to the essence of what it means to be an American.

What it Means to be an American

We are all immigrants. Either you are from another land or your ancestors were. If you are a Native American, even your ancestors started out somewhere else, although it was a long, long time ago.

Today, the United States of America is home to a wondrous mix of people all seeking freedom, opportunity, equality, liberty, independence, democracy, and a chance for happiness. This is our heritage. Our diversity is our strength.

The healthiest ecosystems are the ones with a myriad of different species of plants and animals living together. Sometimes they compete with one another and sometimes they cooperate, but somehow they manage to find a balance for the good of the overall community.

It is going to take the kaleidoscope of American people all working together with other people around the world to grapple with global warming and to learn how to live sustainably on Earth. There is no Planet B.

We have our American heritage to guide us, but at the moment, we seem to be out of balance with an excess of competing against one another and not enough cooperating.

I wish I could wave a magic wand that would help Americans remember who we are and what we can accomplish when we work together, but alas, I do not have one. Yet, I am an American and I can do something.

This may sound silly or even ridiculous but I believe our country could use an influx of kindness, especially towards people who have dissimilar opinions, hold different beliefs, or disagree with us. I know that I could be more kind and I want to be. The good news is that neither you nor I need to wait even a moment to be kind to another person.

“A single act of kindness throws out roots in all directions, and the roots spring up and make new trees.” —Amelia Earhart

This 4th of July, let’s celebrate being Americans and make a pledge to never miss an opportunity to be kind. We are the United States of America (the key word being united) so let’s act like it.

Featured Image at Top: Statue of Liberty Holding Torch and Tablet of Law – Photo Credit iStock/EG-Keith

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4th of July – Be a Green Citizen

This 4th of July let’s celebrate being Americans and promote green citizenship by exercising our First Amendment freedoms and rights.

I Still Like to Call it Independence Day Cartoon - Source: Interfaith Power & LightLast year for 4th of July, I reacquainted myself with the Declaration of Independence so this year I decided to focus on the Constitution of the United States and specifically the First Amendment.

In this post, we’ll explore events that led up to the Bill of Rights and discuss how we can use our First Amendment rights to advocate for a habitable planet.

Articles of Confederation

The U.S. Constitution enshrined at the National Archives that begins, “We the people…” was not the first constitution of the United States.

On June 12, 1776, with the Revolutionary War in its second year, the Second Continental Congress appointed a committee to draft a constitution for the newly formed confederation of 13 independent states. Concurrently, other committees were drafting the Declaration of Independence and a Model Treaty (a template for relations with foreign countries).

Articles of Confederation - Image: U.S. Library of CongressAfter more than a year of debate, on November 15, 1777, Congress approved the first constitution entitled the Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union between the States and submitted it to the states for ratification.

The Articles of Confederation included a name for the confederation “The United States of America,” ensured state sovereignty was protected and defined the responsibilities of Congress, which was single body back then (there was no president of the United States).

Although ratification of the Articles of Confederation dragged on for several years and it did not become officially effective until February 2, 1781, the document served as the de facto system of government for the fledgling United States of America through most of the Revolutionary War and the early years of the freedom.

Constitution of the United States

By 1786, the weaknesses of the Articles of Confederation were apparent. The states had retained most of the power and the central government did not have the authority to impose taxes, set commercial policy, or mediate issues between the states; inflation was out of control, businesses were struggling, and farmers were going into debt or losing their farms.

On May 25, 1787, delegates to the Constitutional Convention from the 13 states gathered in the Pennsylvania State House to begin the process of drafting a new constitution.

Assembly Room of the Pennsylvania State House, Philadelphia, PA - Photo: NPS

Throughout the sultry summer months, the delegates sweltered in woolen suits and wigs while sitting on hard wooden chairs in a hot stuffy room, and debated the future of the country. They did not have air conditioning, running water, or indoor toilets. There were no white boards, post-it notes, or computers. Imagine keeping records of the sessions and drafting the constitution by scratching an ink covered quill pen across a piece of parchment. Mistakes or revisions required literally scraping the word or phrase off the parchment or crossing it out and writing the correction above it or scribbling it in the margin.

The delegates proposed and debated various plans, forms of government, taxation, representation, commerce, foreign affairs, state sovereignty, slavery, and individual rights. After more than 3 months, on September 17, 1787, the delegates met for the last time and signed the newly crafted Constitution of the United States.

The state ratification process did not go smoothly. The Federalists believed in a strong central government, but the anti-Federalists were concerned the federal government would become too powerful and usurp the rights of the people, and they’d end up back in the situation they had just fought a war against a few years earlier.

The anti-Federalists demanded the Constitution be amended to include the people’s bill of rights. Influential delegates fearful the Constitution would not be ratified by the required nine states agreed. This strategy worked, and the Constitution was ratified on July 2, 1788.

Bill of Rights

American Flag Flying with Statue of LibertyIn 1798, pursuant to the Constitution of the United States, Article V, the First Federal Congress took up the issue of amendments. The House of Representatives approved 17, the Senate narrowed them down to 12, and 10 were actually ratified by the states and added to the Constitution on December 15, 1791.

The first of the list of 12 amendments concerned the ratio of constituents to each congressional representative, and the second concerned congressional pay (it became Twenty-seventh Amendment) were never ratified by the states.

Thus, the third amendment became the First Amendment and leads the Bill of Rights.

First Amendment

The First Amendment guarantees the personal freedoms and rights of individual American citizens.

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

Be a Green Citizen

In honor of the 4th of July and on behalf or our children and future generations, let’s be green citizens by using our First Amendment freedoms and rights to advocate for a habitable planet. Here are a few ideas to serve as thought starters.

Freedom of Religion

Collectively, people of faith constitute the largest social network on earth. Religious organizations already have a long history of outreach, advocacy, and service, which make them ideally suited for implementing green actions, projects, and programs.

Solar Panels with Congregation Members Holding Banner - Photo: Green FaithReligious leaders are including stewardship of the earth in sermons and teachings as an act of piety.

Congregations are conducting energy audits, installing solar panels, planting organic gardens, using recycled paper, and reducing waste.

Volunteer to participate in a green project or suggest one.

Freedom of Speech

Exercising your right to freedom of speech is easy.

  • Talk with a coworker about the environmental impact of drinking bottled water or chat with your neighbor about composting.
  • Call, write a letter, tweet, post, or send an email to your elected officials letting them know what environmental issues are important to you and what you think they should do about them.
  • Attend a school, community, or government meeting and speak up to support fresh food in school lunches, curbside recycling, or a ban on single-use plastic bags.
  • Shoot some photos or make a video about your green actions and post it online. Digital cameras and smartphones make it easy and fun.
  • Write a letter to the editor or an editorial for an online or paper newspaper to share your water-savings ideas, promote distributed solar for your community, or report how living near a coal-fired power plant affects your family.
Freedom of Assembly

The First Amendment “right of the people peaceably to assemble” contains two keywords, peaceably and assemble.

Freedom of assembly covers a lot of ground including congregations, meetings, sit-ins, conventions, rallies, and protest marches. Find a green project or cause that speaks to you, or come up with your own. Then exercise your right to peaceably assemble to promote, advocate, or protest on behalf of it.

Eleventh Amendment to the Bill of Rights

I propose an eleventh amendment to the Bill of Rights (it would actually be the twenty- eighth amendment to the U.S. Constitution).Group of Kids Playing at a Park

“The people have the right to a habitable planet with clean air, clean water, fresh food, and nontoxic places to live, study, work, explore, and play.”

Happy 4th of July!

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A few of the organizations working towards a habitable planet include:

References