We Should Celebrate the Self-Evident Truths with a National Call to Service
This article is adopted from remarks given by Justin Louis Pitcock on July 3, 2021 in Graham, TX.
On Memorial Day, I wrote we need to tell the full story of our nation complete with our successes and failures. On July 4 this year, we have reason to celebrate and to reflect. We can celebrate a near-unanimously welcomed Juneteenth holiday commemorating “an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property” for former slaves. We can also reflect on denying them the truths our founders declared were self-evident 89 years earlier.
This is our guiding vision: all are created equal and have the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. It is an aspirational vision, and we often fall short. Jefferson went on to say in the Declaration the purpose of government is to secure these truths. The constitution and the power of every American institution flows from these truths and each citizen is duty-bound in service to secure them. We are much closer to securing the self-evident truths for all citizens today than we were 245 years ago, but there remains work to do. With guiding vision in hand, we seek common cause.
In 1776, a diverse group rallied behind these self-evident truths. Puritans in Massachusetts, Puritan dissidents in Rhode Island, convicts in Georgia, Catholics in Maryland, Dutch and German immigrants in New York, and all thirteen colonies with different agendas were united in common cause around these words. One of the reasons they did so was they had the common experience of British oppression and a common cause in breaking free of British rule. They prevailed.
But our failure to include all people in our guiding vision came to a head 1861, when Confederate rounds hurled toward Fort Sumpter. The two sides fought over divergent experiences and causes. The agricultural South chose to preserve chattel slavery while the industrial North rallied to stop the them from seceding. For 89 years, we failed to extend security of the declared truths to slaves and over 600,000 Americans died. Our experiment in self-governance almost destroyed, the nation survived, and the Constitution was amended. 55 years passed before we extended equality to women, 45 more before we outlawed efforts to suppress equality, and another 6 before we included adults under 21.
To right our failures, we must struggle internally, but to meet external challenges we must unite. Common challenges and common experiences help distill what is important. In 1945, when World War II was finally won, almost 10% of the American population was actively serving in the military compared with less than 1% in the most recent decades. The national effort included victory gardens in every town and converting factories across the country to support the war. Most folks knew someone who deployed to defeat the Nazis and Imperial Japan. Americans were rowing in the same direction serving a common cause and won an important victory.
It is hard to imagine being as unified as we were 1945 or after September 11, 2001. In many ways, the pandemic highlighted our need to be ready to confront a challenge and to serve a common cause. Competing agendas and visions impaired our ability to beat the virus. A broad, national cause can bring us together, but to prepare to overcome these challenges we must focus on the “service“ aspect of serving a common cause.
Many veterans like me in our all-volunteer military had the experience of signing up to serve first before discovering the common cause. When I joined the Marines in 2005, I had no idea I would be delivering aid to flood victims in Pakistan a few years later, long before I deployed to Afghanistan. We ready ourselves in service to our neighbors and our nation. The act of serving itself can bind people together and is the basis for a cohesive and effective military unit.
One way to encourage service and ready the nation for the next common cause is an old idea championed by philosopher William James more than 100 years ago: a national call to service. Imagine if every graduating high school senior is expected to serve their nation, their state, or their community for two years. Compulsory service does not fit in our national character but expected and encouraged service absolutely does. These two years would instill service as a national virtue and create common experience among our youth. When meeting new people, you might ask where someone did their service years after you asked them where they are from and what school they went to. This call to service is an old idea, but is eminently relevant today and was even part of presidential candidate platforms in 2020.
On America’s 245th birthday, let us unite to renew our dedication to securing, and extending to all, the self-evident truths we declared in 1776. Let us do so by proclaiming service as an important virtue which will prepare us for the next great common cause and ensure we can secure the self-evident truths for generations to come. Let our guiding vision inspire us to lay down our grievances and pick up our pack to get to work.
Pitcock, a US Marine Corps veteran and member of the principled conservative organization, Principles First, is from Graham, TX and is a small business owner in Houston. Twitter: @jlouispitcock