By MARSHA MERCER
Independence Day brings more than a long holiday weekend for cookouts and concerts, flags and fireworks. This year, especially, it’s a chance to step back from our cares and reflect on the inspiring history of our country.
Recent polls confirm a sobering fact: Americans are less optimistic than we were a decade ago or even last year. Nearly two in three Americans believe the country is on the wrong track. People are angry, and they want change. Generally viewed in political terms, the sour national mood affects more than the fall elections; it speaks to our national identity. We need a tonic.
On the 234th anniversary of our severing ties with Great Britain, we can reclaim the promise of the Declaration of Independence and savor its assertion of the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
We don’t need to shout, wave Old Glory or wear a flag pin – but we also need not take as gospel Samuel Johnson’s line that patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel. Everybody loses when only the grumpiest speak out about what it means to love this country.
Negativity pays, of course. Commentators make a handsome living tearing down our leaders and dividing us from one another. And there’s no shortage of people to blame after years of recession, joblessness, housing and energy crises, and war on two fronts.
In April, 64 percent of Americans said they were optimistic about life for themselves and their families over the next 40 years. That number was down substantially from 1999 when 81 percent said they were optimistic.
Asked about the long-term future of the United States, in April 61 percent were optimistic and 36 percent pessimistic. A decade ago, 70 percent were optimistic.
The survey by the Pew Research Center for People and the Press and Smithsonian magazine also found several upbeat predictions. People think that by 2050 we’ll find a cure for cancer, ordinary people will travel in space, and computers will chat like humans.
And yet, the future holds bleak prospects too. Many under 30 expect World War III by 2050. People expect a warmer planet, energy shortages and the risk of a major nuclear attack on the United States, the Pew survey reported.
As for the economy, 56 percent predicted it will be stronger in 2050. But that was down from 64 percent in 1999. Bear in mind that this recession began in December 2007. In 1999, we were enjoying the longest-lasting economic expansion in decades.
The Pew survey was taken just after the Gulf oil spill occurred. A Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll conducted June 17 to 21 found majorities dissatisfied with the spill response by the federal government, Congress and BP. President Barack Obama’s job approval rating, 70 percent when he took office, dropped to a dismal 45 percent.
But tough times shouldn’t stop us from commemorating how far we’ve come.
On July 3, 1776, John Adams wrote his wife Abigail from Philadelphia that the “Declaration of Independency” should be celebrated by succeeding generations as a great festival “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 forever more.” I’ve modernized his spelling and punctuation.
Across the country, Independence Day means parades and patriotic music and readings. In Washington, the National Archives -- where the Declaration, Constitution and Bill of Rights are on display -- will extend viewing hours until 9 p.m. on July 2, 3 and 4.
Adams, clear-eyed about the new country, wrote his wife, “You will think me transported with enthusiasm but I am not. I am well aware of the toil and blood and treasure that it will cost us to maintain this Declaration, and support and defend these states.
“Yet through all the gloom I can see the rays of ravishing light and glory. I can see that the end is more than worth all the means.”
In 2010, as we endure our own troubles, we could do worse than reread the Declaration and recommit ourselves its promise: “For the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor.”
© 2010 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.