Celebrating Independence and Honoring Our Responsibilities


                                                —Neal Lemery           

Celebrating our independence is a challenge for these times, and we are hard pressed to rise to the challenges facing those who signed the Declaration of Independence in 1776.  

            Those British subjects publicly declared their rebellion against their lawful government, asserted the new concept of self-determination and self-governance, and mutually pledge to each other “our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor”. 

            At the end of the uprising, many had lost their lives, their homes, and their livelihoods. In that six-year war, they had begun a new country, and the traditions of a federal democratic republic. It was the world’s first successful assertion that government should be based upon the consent of the governed. It was morally right to overthrow their government. 

            “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.”

            Today, we still struggle with giving practical meaning to those words, how that governance is structured, and what are the responsibilities each of us has as a citizen. We are still debating who is entitled to what rights and what voices will be heard.   

            The yearning to divide ourselves and shape new forms of governance is still part of our collective debate. In Oregon, some want to separate from our state and join Idaho. Others advance the ideas of the State of Jefferson or forming a new country, Cascadia.  Still others openly engage in insurrection and defy basic democratic institutions. 

Often, that debate ignores our history and the values of our precious liberties. We sometimes seem to have forgotten the Constitution’s directive to “provide for the general welfare” of our country. 

            We’ve always been a noisy and sometimes discordant society.  Early settlers defied the law and set up a provisional Oregon government at Champoeg in 1843. Pro-slavery and discriminatory language has a long presence in our state constitution. Tumultuous sessions of the legislature are not just ancient history.  The last election cycle was filled with heated debates and disagreements on fundamental principles.

            History is written by the winners, which is why we look today at the Fourth of July as a great celebration of our nation’s cherished values and achievements.  We tend to minimize how hard fought and tenuous that rebellion was, and the how deep the sacrifices that were made to establish a new country. 

Franklin Roosevelt spoke of the Four Freedoms: freedom of speech and expression, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear. We need to be advocates and freedom fighters for these ideals. 

Part of our celebration, and part of performing our civic duty is that we are also responsible for caring for this nation and its founding principles and ideals. We are caretakers and trustees for those ideals expressed in the Declaration of Independence. We are the torchbearers, the educators for future generations of Americans. Today we also need to “mutually pledge our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor” for the good of the country.


We Are All Immigrants

We all came from somewhere else. Maybe not in this generation, but somewhere in the not too distant past, we came from somewhere else.

This week, my country celebrated its political beginnings, a time of rebellion and war, a time of rising up against an imperial, oppressive power, and going ahead on our own.

America was a different place in 1776, thirteen separate colonies. Slavery was an accepted economic reality, and times were hard. Only white men who owned property could vote, and earning a living meant hard physical labor and going without much of what we would think are necessities.

Back then, we welcomed immigrants: new blood, new energies, new ideas. We needed more farmers, more merchants, more people in the cultural melting pot we have come to know as America. And, the America today is a result of all of those waves of immigrants, and the optimism and challenges that brought our ancestors here for a new beginning.

On our nation’s birthday, just before my neighbors decided to shoot off their fireworks at dusk, a photo showed up on my phone. My friend had landed at an American airport, and he had just passed through immigration and customs.

The photo told the story: his face ablaze with the biggest smile. He held a paper stamped with the date, and the words “inspected”. It was official. He was now a documented resident of the USA, a big step to becoming a citizen.

Becoming a citizen in this country now is a challenging, difficult journey, far different than when my dad made the trip to the local courthouse, filled out a form, and quickly became “legalized”, a citizen.

My friend’s journey is longer, more convoluted. It involves a lot of expensive paperwork, and a flight to another country and back again. And, he’s only halfway done with the process, even though he came here when he was seven years old.

Now, years later, he’s a college student, and has a career, a marriage. He is finding his way, focused on a profession, giving back to his community, showing his younger siblings they, too, can live the American dream.

His story is my family’s story, too. This anniversary day of independence, of throwing off the oppression of an unjust government, the shackles of poverty and hopelessness, of coming to a new land and being able to work hard and make a new, better life for yourself and your family, is the American story.

It is my story, and now, it is my young friend’s story.

Some of my ancestors left the sweatshops of an English woolen mill, becoming farmers in their new land, working as farm laborers on an unforgiving Iowa farm in the Midwestern heat. They became citizens, raising a new generation of farmers, Americans.

They took the Oregon Trail, finding a new land, and their own farm, becoming homesteaders, new Oregonians. As a child, I heard my grandmother tell the stories of carving out a farm in the forest, a winter spent in a leaky shack with a canvas roof. The next summer, they built a cabin and a barn, herding their new cows for a week through the forest to their new farm.

After the barn and the cabin, they built a school, taking their hard earned money to hire a teacher and educate their kids. Those immigrants, those refugees from an English woolen mill, they built a new life in a new world.

My grandfather came here, too, yet another immigrant, fresh from a prisoner of war camp after the First World War. There was nothing for him where he had come from, except poverty and disease. Coming to American offered hope, opportunity, a new beginning. He, too, worked as a farm laborer, learning English after a long day, taking the steps to become a citizen.

On the other side of the family, there are other stories, of pulling up stakes and moving to a new land, the promise of education, the value of hard work and adjusting to challenges, the possibilities that came with America’s promise.

Looking back, I see that all my family were immigrants. Coming to America, making your life better, working hard, it was who we were, and who we are.

Looking around, I see that my town was built by the sweat and commitment of immigrants, newcomers who didn’t take opportunities for granted, but were willing to work and make this community their home.

American immigration isn’t just Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty. Not eighty miles away from here, over 100,000 immigrants came to Oregon through the Knappton Quarantine Station on the Columbia River, from the 1880s to the 1920s. We are literally a nation of immigrants, refugees seeking a better life.

They came seeking what my friend wants: opportunity, freedom, a chance to be part of a great freedom-loving nation.

We celebrate the Fourth of July, and in doing so, we also celebrate our history of welcoming others, to make this nation even stronger, even more a land of opportunity.

My family all wanted the same thing: opportunity. They wanted justice, and freedom from violence and a dead-end, oppressive life. They wanted a chance to prove themselves, and make a better life for their kids. They were willing to work hard, and make sacrifices.

They built farms and schools, created communities, and raised their kids. They worked hard, and helped make this country strong and healthy, a place where the rule of law and individual rights are common values.

My friend wants that, too. He sees a bright future for himself and for his family here. He’s working hard, and wants to do his part in making America an even healthier, stronger place, a place where freedom and justice for all is just not a political slogan, but a deeply held belief, and an aspiration for all of us.

–Neal Lemery, July 6, 2016

Some Thoughts on Independence Day

Some Thoughts on Independence Day

Two hundred and thirty seven years ago, a group of educated, politically popular entrepreneurs and leaders got together and declared war against their country, and told their King they were starting their own nation. They endorsed a revolution against the world’s largest political power.

They listed their grievances against their government, telling their sovereign it had abused its power, had deprived its citizens of liberty, and acted immorally. Their extensive list is familiar to us, the topics and grievances familiar to what we hear today in Syria, Egypt, China, Turkey, and closer to home.

These rebels, speaking for their communities and neighbors, declared they were done with trying to reform their nation. Their grievances were so extensive, and the inability of the government to listen and respond, and to reform, had become obvious and without remedy.

So, they denounced their government, and declared their independence. They rebelled.

This was treason of the highest order. If caught, they would be hanged, and all their property would be confiscated, their families impoverished, and likely imprisoned. And the war would risk devastating their cities, their farms, everything they had worked for.

No one had ever declared independence from Great Britain before, and succeeded. “The King can do no wrong” was the major theme of politics and governance. Indeed, the King’s reign was blessed by All Mighty God, His Majesty exercising unlimited, even divine power. Laws and taxes were enacted by a parliament comprised of noblemen and wealthy businessmen, who were making huge profits from the lucrative trading laws and colonial economy of the British Empire. American colonists had no voice. And, they had discovered they had few rights.

The Empire had the world’s largest navy, and the world’s largest army. And, Britain was the world’s largest economy. The American colonies depended on British trade to sell all of their goods, and to buy the supplies and goods they needed. Trying to make their way in a world without the umbrella of the British economy was a dangerous road. They were risking everything they had for their values.

Their rebellion wasn’t popular with everyone. Many people supported the Crown, and the rebellion dragged on for seven terrible, bloody years. Cities were beseiged, New York City was burned, trade was blockaded. People starved, and thousands died of disease and the ravages of war. The British were ruthless and brutal, as they brought large armies to track down the rebels, and end the rebellion.

Yet, the flame of wanting liberty and human dignity, and self governance eventually prevailed. Sheer determination and courage won the day, and eventually Britain conceded American independence.

That new nation was not perfect, and faced enormous obstacles. Slavery, disparity of wealth, onerous taxation, the needs of justice, and a fragmented and inexperienced government burdened the young nation. And, those issues and the wide range of political thought continue to be part of our national conversation today.

Yet, there was hope. There was a shared belief that whatever we do as a nation, we will act with respect to personal opinions, we will engage in serious debate, and we will be willing to share our collective burdens. We will make our decisions, and then we will move ahead, together, as a community.

Our Founding Fathers started a revolution. They risked everything, in order to be able to live in a community where there is freedom of speech, due process of law, and respect for the opinions and rights of others.

Are we that committed to those ideals today? Are we willing to be the revolutionaries when we are called upon? Are we willing to sign our own Declaration of Independence in bold strokes, telling the King that he is wrong, and we will be free, and that we are willing to die for that? Or, have we even given that much thought, as we head out for a Fourth of July picnic, or to watch the fireworks at the park?

The words of the Declaration of Independence resound today within our national fabric. Those words have inspired people throughout the world to believe in themselves, and to take charge of their lives, to cherish life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Today, our challenge is to remember that revolution, and to continue to rekindle those flames of liberty and freedom, and the willingness to put all that we have on the line for the betterment of our community and freedom for all.

—Neal Lemery, July 3, 2013