Why Should We Celebrate July Fourth? | Opinion

It was an important moment in China's history, memorialized by a photograph. A lone man, two shopping bags in hand, standing in front of a row of tanks in defiance of the crackdown by the Chinese government at Tiananmen Square.

An AP photographer snapped that picture on June 5, 1989. Two decades later, writer Louisa Lim visited Beijing's top universities and showed students a photo of "Tank Man." Out of the 100 students she approached, only 15 correctly identified the picture.

Those results were no accident. As Lim explained in her book, The People's Republic of Amnesia: Tiananmen Revisited, the Chinese authorities worked diligently to scrub those protests out of public memory.

In America, we face a different problem. Many progressives who don't much care for America, free enterprise, our Founding Fathers, and our founding documents, are working hard to promote the most shameful aspects of our history, while erasing from public memory our most positive stories.

It's China in reverse. And a very different kind of amnesia is being promoted.

Take what happened at the University of Virginia in 2016, when then president Teresa Sullivan was reprimanded by professors and students—469 of them—for quoting Jefferson in an email. At Jefferson's college, no less!

"We would like for our administration to understand that although some members of this community may have come to this university because of Thomas Jefferson's legacy, others of us came here in spite of it," the letter read.

Prof. Lawrie Balfour explained why she signed the letter. "The point is not that he is never appropriate, but the point is that the move that says, he owned slaves, but he was a great man, is deeply problematic."

And that, in a nutshell, is what progressives have been doing to American history: turning it into a never-ending narrative of grievances, devoid of historical context. And consequence.

To be fair, American history taught in schools too often glossed over the sins of our past. But to emphasize our sins to the exclusion of what made America great—and to whom we owe our foundational freedoms—is a great sin, too.

How can citizens love a country they're taught to hate? Or don't know?

A survey conducted by the United States Mint revealed that only 57 percent of respondents knew that Thomas Jefferson had written the Declaration of Independence.

"At the rate our historical illiteracy is progressing, soon Thomas Jefferson will just be 'that racist slave owner who slept with Sally Hemings and for some reason is on the nickel,'" lamented Alexandra Petri in a Washington Post column. "Honoring Jefferson's achievement does not mean denying that he was, by most measurements, a horrible man. Nor does acknowledging the flaws of his life mean denying that he was instrumental in creating something great."

American presidents George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln, carved into Mount Rushmore, South Dakota, circa 1964. Fox Photos/Getty Images

"We have to know who we were if we're to know who we are and where we're headed," David McCullough explained in a 2005 Hillsdale College speech. "How can we not want to know about the people who have made it possible for us to live as we live, to have the freedoms we have, to be citizens of this greatest of countries in all time? It's not just a birthright, it is something that others struggled for, strived for, often suffered for, often were defeated for and died for, for us, for the next generation."

McCullough wasn't finished. "The Revolutionary War was as dark a time as we've ever been through. 1776, the year we so consistently and rightly celebrate every year, was one of the darkest times, if not the darkest time in the history of the country."

When the founders signed the Declaration of Independence, they were committing an act of treason against the world's greatest superpower.

"Do you recollect the pensive and awful silence which pervaded the house when we were called up, one after another, to the table of the President of Congress," Benjamin Rush said, "to subscribe what was believed by many at that time to be our own death warrants?"

The lines that opened the world's most famous birth certificate still resonate around the world, but one man wasn't pleased: George III.

"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed, by their Creator, with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness."

It was the next line that Kings and dictators around the world still can't stand:

"That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed."

But it was not a foregone conclusion that American independence would be won. General George Washington had profound doubts.

"The reflection upon my situation and that of this army produces many an uneasy hour when all are wrapped up in sleep," Washington lamented on January 14, 1776 "Few people know the predicament we are in."

Indeed, if Vegas had handicapped the war, America would've been 1–20 underdogs to make it through that year. But we triumphed over the mighty British empire with a ragtag army assembled on the fly.

It's a story worth telling again and again, the story of how America came to be. The story of the birth of our nation.

Thanks to those echoing demands of Jefferson, and the remarkable Constitution that followed, America has achieved more than any nation on earth.

We owe it to those flawed, great men. And so many more.

U.S flags are seen near the Mall in Washington, D.C. on July 3, 2018, a day ahead of the Independence Day holiday celebrated in the U.S. MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images

We overcame the original sin of slavery with a civil war that left America with 600,000 fewer men—in a nation of only 35 million—and with much of the South burned to the ground.

We beat the Nazi menace and helped end Soviet totalitarianism.

We survived depressions, recessions, runaway inflation, stagflation, and deflation. We survived the not-so-real threats of mass famine, population explosion, and the China syndrome. And mad-cow disease, bird flu, swine flu, killer bees, SARS, and Y2K. We survived global cooling, and we'll survive global warming, too.

We were told in the 1930s that Communism was superior to the American way, and 50 years later, a new gang of elites told us that Japan's way was the future. We're now being told that the way of the future is China's way—the autocrats' way.

We've survived all of it—the real and not so real threats—since our nation's founding. What we can't survive is our loss of memory.

"The universe is made of stories, not of atoms," the poet Muriel Rukeyser once noted. Stories teach us who we were. And are.

So let's start telling stories about our country. The great and good ones. And the bad ones, too. And especially the old ones.

This fourth of July, take out a copy of the Declaration of Independence and read it. Out loud. And then go celebrate as John Adams instructed, with "with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations from one end of this continent to the other from this time forward ever more.''

Though it was then confined to territory east of the Allegheny's, Adams was certain America would one day stretch across the continent.

That was the American character. Bold and hopeful.

It still is.

Lee Habeeb is a Vice President of Content at Salem Media Group, and is host of Our American Stories, a nationally syndicated radio show and podcast.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.​​​ A version of this column first appeared on the National Review Online.​