As we approach this Fourth of July, we are engaged in nationwide introspection on the nature of "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" nearly two and a half centuries after those seven words became an uplifting shorthand for the American creed.
In the wake of the police killings in Minneapolis and Atlanta, and with a surge of support for new protections and equal opportunities for Black Americans, people across the country are examining their own communities, their own practices, their own beliefs and their own hearts.
Most of the Independence Day speeches of our American past have faded with the paper they are printed on, but their message seems fresh in our national time of tumult and introspection.
One of those addresses that has disappeared from memory was delivered in Boston's Faneuil Hall, known as the "cradle of liberty" but named for a Massachusetts Colonial trader who both held and sold slaves in the 18th century. There, in a setting where Frederick Douglass beseeched his listeners to work to end slavery in the 19th century, a fresh voice of the 20th century was heard for the first time by a large audience.
"I propose today to discuss certain elements of the American character which have made this nation great," said World War II war hero John F. Kennedy on July 4, 1946, months before he would be elected to his first term in Congress. "It is well for us to recall them today, for this is a day of recollection and a day of hope."
In his speech, Kennedy — a political novice but a deep reader of history — cited several elements of the American character, one of which was religious piety and the power of the central ideals of religion.
"This nation has ever been inspired by essential religious ideas," he said. "The doctrine of slavery which challenged these ideas within our own country was destroyed."
True, to a point, but actually a half-truth. Slavery was gone; the pleas of Douglass had been heeded. But his broader goal — to end a national culture "where justice is denied, where poverty is enforced, where ignorance prevails, and where ... one class is made to feel that society is an organized conspiracy to oppress, rob and degrade them" — was not achieved in 1946 and eludes us still in 2020.
In time, Kennedy — who possessed what Harvard historian Fredrik Logevall, in a brilliant forthcoming biography, described as "limited imagination on race" — would embrace the cause of civil rights. But in 1946, he said that "recently, the philosophy of racism ... was also met and destroyed." In the years that followed his assassination and that of his brother, Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, a late-career warrior on civil rights, it would become clear how short America had fallen from its ancient goal.
But the elements of the fight for racial justice were evident in the young candidate's critique of the American character. Here he expresses the hope that animates us more than a half-century after his death:
"Inspired by a deeply religious sense, this country, which has ever been devoted to the dignity of man, which has ever fostered the growth of the human spirit, has always met and hurled back the challenge of those deathly philosophies of hate and despair. We have defeated them in the past; we will always defeat them."
Kennedy eventually would recast the rhetoric of American idealism, but that would require three terms in the House, two elections to the Senate, a presidential inauguration and a thousand days of testing. But traces of his January 1961 inaugural address and his June 1963 speeches on peace and racial justice can be discerned in these remarks from the less-experienced Kennedy: "It does remain a fact, and a most important one, that the motivating force of the American people has been their belief that they have always stood at the barricades by the side of God."
Now we approach an Independence Day that is the perfect distillation of Kennedy's characterization of July 4 as "a day of recollection and a day of hope."
On this holiday, we recall the brave words of the Declaration of Independence but with the acknowledgement that its author was a slave owner. On this day, we are fired with hope that Jefferson's words can be transformed from aspiration to realization.
David M. Shribman is the former executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Follow him on Twitter at @ShribmanPG.