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A birthday gift for America

A Republic, if we can keep it: Part XXIV

Gift box with an American flag sticking out
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Breslin is the Joseph C. Palamountain Jr. Chair of Political Science at Skidmore College and author of “A Constitution for the Living: Imagining How Five Generations of Americans Would Rewrite the Nation’s Fundamental Law.”

This is the latest in “A Republic, if we can keep it,” a series to assist American citizens on the bumpy road ahead this election year. By highlighting components, principles and stories of the Constitution, Breslin hopes to remind us that the American political experiment remains, in the words of Alexander Hamilton, the “most interesting in the world.”

Coming together in shared purpose and mutual celebration is decidedly cheugy (meaning “uncool”… for those of us who are). Americans can hardly agree that 2+2=4 or that Taylor Swift is somewhat popular at the moment. To put it mildly, we are struggling to find common ground.

We have two years to get our act together. America’s semiquincentennial — it’s 250th birthday on July 4, 2026 — is a very big deal. It’s a time for rejoicing. The record of successful republics that have lasted this long is tragically short. Rome has a legitimate claim as history’s most eminent republic, but the United States, warts and all, is fast approaching GOAT status. That’s what makes our polarized, severely divided, deeply fissured present moment so dispiriting. We’re better than this, people.

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There is much to cheer about America’s unique story, just as there is much to jeer. Our commitment to the rule of law and to the power of an enduring written Constitution is inimitable. Our dedication to the principle of “unalienable rights,” the power of popular sovereignty, individualism, free will and so much more is unmatched in human history. By most measures, America is closer to “a more perfect union” today than at any other time in its long history.

Of course, the country and its people have a lot to be ashamed about, and we are still not a perfect union by any stretch. Economic disparities, bigotry, intolerance, inefficiency, corruption and the like still painfully afflict. Equality remains our most elusive aspiration. Opportunity vacillates based on the color of one’s skin, one’s gender identity, one’s socioeconomic status, one’s sexual orientation. The list is long. The trick, post-Jan. 6, is whether we can celebrate revolution without descending into it. Indeed, few have articulated the nation’s failures better than Rev. F. Willis Johnson, whose poignantly honest letter to America resounds.

But birthdays, especially ones as momentous as the semiquincentennial, are meant to be celebrated. Progress has been made since America’s bicentennial in 1976. To paraphrase a Virginia Slims ad from that same period, we’ve “come a long way, baby.”

Ella Grasso of Connecticut was the first woman officially elected governor of a state in 1975. Today there are 13 female governors occupying their state’s executive mansions.

Eighteen African Americans and five Latino representatives were elected to Congress in 1976. Today there are 133 lawmakers from traditionally marginalized racial groups, more than a quarter of the entire body.

The #MeToo movement has brought belated attention to the scourge of gender-based sexual harassment. In 1976, workplace predation was shamefully ignored. Today, an overwhelming majority applauds the closer scrutiny.

Progress in civil rights has been apparent, even if slow and spasmodic. In 1976, the Urban League released its first “State of Black America” report. It told a distressing tale. This year, the organization issued its 48th edition and the news is a bit more hopeful. “Doors [for Black people] have been opened, and new access has been achieved,” the report proclaims. “But the problem of full equality … is still elusive.” Truth. The problem of full equality for all those who haven’t ever experienced it remains regrettably elusive.

Progress has been measured in other areas as well — in the growth of the middle class, the innovation of American entrepreneurs, the commitment to renewable energy, etc.

We’re not yet there, though. Not even close. Plainly, we have yet to realize the true promise of a just, fair, free and equal America.

The time has come for something more. For a gift — a 250th birthday present that also amounts to a true reckoning, a long overdue and obviously owed gesture of apology when the nation finally confronts its shadowy past. I’m speaking here of reparations for the descendants of the brutally enslaved and the forcefully relocated. Start modest in the form of income tax relief for descendants of slavery. Then, over time, accelerate the initiative to reflect the NAACP’s proposal. It is time.

“Reparations — by which I mean the full acceptance of our collective biography and its consequences — is the price we must pay to see ourselves squarely,” Ta-Nehisi Coates said. He is right. He’s also brutally frank in insisting, “We must imagine a new country.” A new country that enters the next quarter millennium with a degree of modesty, a sense of humility, and still a deep well of pride and patriotism.

Regrets and reparations would go a long way towards achieving the lofty aspirations of our founding documents and the hope that, at last, we attain that more perfect Union. The celebration awaits.

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