BY WALTER CRONKITE
It is said that on July 4, 1776, as they all signed the Declaration of Independence, Benjamin Franklin warned his fellow "founding" rebels, "We must all hang together or assuredly we shall all hang separately." But John Adams, who would become our second president, had a more optimistic message: "We shall make this a glorious and immortal day," he said. "When we are in our graves, our children will honor it. They will celebrate it with thanksgiving, with festivities, with bonfires, and illuminations."
And we have done that. For the 228th time, we have celebrated the signing of that declaration and the unique form of government the signers went on to create. It was to be a government, in John Adams' phrase, "of laws and not of men." And it would be a government constitutionally required to uphold and protect those "unalienable" rights the Declaration proclaimed.
After the speeches and fireworks, the nation's birthday also should be a time for reflection on our stewardship of the gift bequeathed us by those refugees from the gallows. Can we say, with anything like Adams' assurance, that our children and their children will continue to honor and celebrate it?
Today, independence is hardly an issue for the world's only superpower. And the blessings of liberty are manifold. Americans are healthier, wealthier and generally safer than ever before -- and live longer. But they vote in ever-decreasing numbers.
It was obvious that in any real democracy, the people ultimately would rule. But several of the Founders were concerned about the practical implications of that ideal. Would the people be knowledgeable enough to rule wisely? As Thomas Jefferson famously put it, "If a nation expects to be ignorant -- and free -- in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be."
Are the schools equipping young Americans today for the global complexities of the modern world? Not when they turn out young people who don't know the name of their congressional representative or their state's senators, or where to find Europe on a map.
The system of rights and liberties, checks and balances, created by the Founders has been severely tested since Sept. 11. We witnessed the terrible destruction of the World Trade Center in New York and the attack on the Pentagon in Virginia, and watched with growing trepidation the collateral damage to our liberties caused by fear and overreaching at the highest levels of government. We remembered then Franklin's stern judgment: "They that can give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety."
We have witnessed the president and attorney general of one of the most secretive administrations in American history claiming war powers to deny civil liberties protected by the Bill of Rights. We've seen the creation, in America, of a detention procedure in which detainees have had no recourse to lawyers, no chance to plead their innocence -- people who simply disappear into a system right out of George Orwell's "1984."
But then, last week, the Supreme Court -- the same conservative court that civil libertarians had begun to despair of -- told Mr. Bush in a nearly unanimous ruling that "a state of war is not a blank check" and that he did not have the power to imprison American citizens or anyone else indefinitely, without any ability to challenge their accusers in a court of law. In other words, he could not suspend the Bill of Rights.
The system the Founders gave us still works as long as we guard it jealously and use it courageously -- as did the attorneys who brought the detainees' cases to the high court. The foundations of American democracy laid by the Founders still are there --still sturdy. That's the good news. And even in these fearful, fractious and polarized times, we might still learn to deserve that liberty won for us by the men we celebrate and quote on the Fourth of July.
Write to Walter Cronkite c/o King Features Syndicate, 888 Seventh Ave., New York, NY 10019, or e-mail him at email@example.com.
(c) 2004 Walter Cronkite
Distributed by King Features Syndicate