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Cornelius: Lighting out for the territory, and for a new birth of freedom

POSTED: July 18, 2008 5:01 a.m.

At the end of his adventures, Huckleberry Finn, the boy hero of the quintessentially American novel, did a quintessentially American thing: He decided to "light out for the territory." It was natural. Aunt Sally's ways were suffocating, stifling for a boy like Huck.

And lighting out for the territory was what Americans had been doing since their earliest days: moving west, heading to new frontiers. In fact, our earliest settlers -- the English, the French and the Germans -- were lighting out from across the Atlantic for the new territory that was America.

They were leaving their own Aunt Sallys behind, rigid societies with too little opportunity. They saw new promise, new possibilities here. And once on the Eastern Seaboard, settlers kept right on lighting out.

The declaration we celebrate today was itself a lighting out for new territory. It was a founding step toward, in Abraham Lincoln's words, "a new nation conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal." These ideals created new hope for individuals, a new landscape for life and new hope for self-government.

The declaration, combined with the institutions that created and sustained the world's first federal republic, created a new kind of community. It was built on the complementary but often conflicting values of liberty and equality, on consent of the governed, and a balance between individual rights and rights of the community.

This new kind of community meant people from all over the world would begin lighting out for America, a territory unlike their own. They saw freedoms and opportunities. They kept coming from Europe, and eventually from Asia, Africa and Latin America, and they keep coming.

Today, 232 years after the signing, we are a multitude of races and ethnic groups, religions and beliefs. Unlike Huck Finn, not many of us flee community and its responsibilities. Instead, we live in community in the midst our many differences.

Even with our original sin of slavery, our ability to live together with these differences -- political, religious, racial, social -- has been a marvel to the world from the start.

This is true even though our early population was heavily European. The fact is Europeans living in peace was itself a new thing. The history of Europe was largely a history of Europeans making war on one another. (And the slaughter continued as late as 1945.) But in America, people whose ancestors had warred on one another for thousands of years lived in peace.

This tempering effect of the very idea of America, the creation of a new territory of common ground that drew people together, was a sign of what was to come.

As slavery made glaringly clear, our evolution was certainly not idyllic. Early, only a few could vote. The vote came late for women and later still for African-Americans. As with all people everywhere, there has been prejudice and bigotry, sometimes enshrined in law and denying even the most basic civil right, segregation being the most widely spread and long-lasting.

But just as our ideals and constitutional arrangements meant slavery would eventually die, so did they mean segregation would die, far too slowly by the promise of our hopes and ideals, but die nevertheless.

The upshot is that the overall arc of American history has been toward expanding our community -- expanding the territory of self-evident truths -- so more people could vote and enter the mainstream of American life.

The declaration spurred us toward this territory. We're still exploring it, and celebrating it, as plucky people, dissatisfied with life in their country, continue to flee here.

Tack Cornelius is a writer who lives in Gainesville and an occasional columnist.



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