I heard the seasonal phrase for the first time Friday, the onset of the long holiday weekend. I’d just swiped my card at my neighborhood drugstore and was taking my bag of goods from the clerk.
“Have a safe and happy Fourth,” he said, smiling from behind the Plexiglas.
“You too,” I replied, and headed out the sliding doors.
A safe and happy Fourth, I repeated as I crossed the parking lot and climbed into my truck. The phrase is so pervasive and automatic around Independence Day. It’s a well-intentioned and, frankly, a very exact wish. Many of us are quite literally handling small bombs this weekend, after all.
That we emphasize safety on Independence Day is also fitting: The Declaration of Independence, following its big intro about self-evident truths, calls for the American people to form a new government by “organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness.” The concept of being safe has been embedded in our American faith from the start. It’s also very much necessary today, in many senses of the word.
When we think of safety, we often think of freedom from physical threats. True enough. The world is dangerous and national security is paramount; though, two long decades of armed conflict has increasingly morphed July 4 into a holiday honoring our modern armed forces instead of the lawyers and philosophers who envisioned a free and independent America. And, of course, we require public safety – freedom from criminal activity, terrorism, and such – for democracy to work. Without our physical safety, there can be no happiness.
But it has to go deeper than that, doesn’t it? As Americans, we also enjoy democratic security, one that manifests in a deeper, more powerful personal agency. The safety to speak up without fear of government reprisal, for example. Or the security to challenge the status quo in pursuit of greater equality for all. Or to gather in the public square, to organize for change, to claim civic power and circulate it.
These are the innate protections arising from our American traditions, institutions, and values. They’re fail-safes in our democracy. They’re American entitlements. It’s our birthright to feel secure and protected in our democratic lives.
Yet, at the same time, this can all lead to a false sense of security, even in the most powerful nation on earth. And that can lull us into inaction. Be wary of this trap; such stasis isn’t just undemocratic, it’s wholly un-American. The number of updates to our flag and amendments to our Constitution tell us so. Our country’s power has been in the intentional active process of forming a more perfect union.
That power is weakened, though, when we delude ourselves into thinking we’ve actually achieved perfection, even when we’ve stopped short of true equality and prosperity in the United States. If this is left untended, it undermines our overall democratic safety. Ronald Reagan’s famous quote about freedom never being more than one generation away from extinction comes to mind here. So, too, does this lesser-known quote from Helen Keller: “Safety does not exist in nature, nor do the children of men as a whole experience it. Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. Life is either a daring adventure or nothing.”
A daring adventure, or nothing. Today is our nation’s birthday, a time for celebrating with “bonfires and illuminations from one end of this continent to the other,” as John Adams once suggested. As we commemorate our country’s big day, we can – should – guard against this satisfaction from drifting into complacency. We can do this by leaning into the democratic restlessness that first brought the United States into the world. We can step outside our comfort zones and imagine what the next iteration of America might be: a healthier, more inclusive, more just, and – yes – safer America, in every sense of the word. And then set out to build it.
Because our country is at its best when we are pushing forward, not standing still. It’s strongest when we are challenging the “old ways,” not clinging to them for their own sake. It’s most vibrant when we are testing boundaries, not building barriers. Democracy is noisy; it’s a commotion of progress. And it creates shockwaves far more powerful than any pyrotechnics we might witness this weekend.
Ironically, this can leave us feeling a little prone and vulnerable and unsafe. It can strike at our insecurities, dredge up fears and anxieties about our place in our society. But in the end, the noise and commotion of progress are worth it. Especially if the goal is to realize greater, meaningful democratic security for everyone.
Today is our nation’s birthday. From one end of the continent to the other, may we all celebrate. With happiness and in safety.
Steve Smith is Civic Nebraska’s director of communications and the co-author/editor of Reclaiming WE: Twenty Everyday Acts to Strengthen the Common Good and Defend Democracy.