07/02/2013 08:21 am ET Updated Sep 01, 2013

Don't Despair, America

About to commemorate Independence Day, many Americans are feeling in a funk. Gridlocked in Congress, deep in debt, widely divergent on social issues, fearful of an overbearing government, still struggling to put people back to work, and confronted with an upstart thirty-year-old holed up in a Russian airport doing a one-man hack job on America's prestige at home and abroad, is all this any cause for celebration?

Actually, yes. As bleak as these things seem, how many countries can claim to allow the freedom for such diversity, generate so much energy for change, and not fly off into fighting in the streets? Would you rather be in Egypt? Pakistan? Russia? The great immigration debate should serve as counterweight to our despair: people are still clamoring to get into, not out of, America.

It is an enduring strength of America that we have two documents that bookend our politics. The Declaration of Independence is the vision statement. The Constitution is the organizational operating manual. We follow the rules in the latter, but our greatest source of energy comes from the former. Madison, the Father of the Constitution, was the pre-eminent political thinker in 1787. Jefferson, the author of the Declaration, was the masterful political feeler in 1776. Our blogs, our newspapers, our political assemblies, our K Street lobbyists are filled with the mechanics and machinations surrounding the former. Our hearts and hopes are filled with the values in the latter.

The tug and pull, the dynamic dance between the Declaration and the Constitution, have been the source of great trials and terrible tragedies. But they have also given us soaring achievements. Appropriately today, it is battles over the meaning and use of the Constitution that seem to consume us, the Declaration serving as the background to the foreground of our daily politics. But we should not forget that our struggle for liberty took place before there was a Constitution. Our Civil War, in the end, as Lincoln put it, was about "a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal." On the way to Washington for his inauguration in 1861, Lincoln passed through Philadelphia, where, at Independence Hall, he said that "I have never had a feeling politically that did not spring from the sentiments embodied in the Declaration of Independence."

The Declaration drives us still. It is the fuel for the engine of constitutionalism. The real end of slavery, with the civil rights struggle of the 1960s, would have been improbable if not impossible without Jefferson's words. As Martin Luther King Jr. so often reminded us, "the arc of history is long, but it bends toward justice." The push for gender equality and equal rights for women, from the vote to the corporate boardroom, drew its energy from the Declaration. The drives for ending discrimination against people with disabilities, against older Americans, against freedom of religious expression owe their great appeal to the promise in the Declaration. The current drive for gay marriage as well as our ongoing struggle on how to reconcile the rights of women with the rights of unborn children are equally driven by the call to core values in the Declaration.

To say that America is failing, as so many now seem wont to do, is to say that somehow America has not lived up to its ideals, the promise of "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." But we can only fail if we have no ideals, for the simple act of voicing our discontent is an admission that there is a gap between who we are and who we have committed ourselves to be.

Winston Churchill once quipped that "you can always count on Americans to do the right thing, after they have tried everything else." Our Constitution is a slow set of rules. It was designed to be, since the greatest dangers against liberty come when there is too little, not too much, dissent. But the Declaration demands that the Constitution, in the end, deliver. It has, and it will, as long as we continue to celebrate the promise not just the practice of America.