A few summers back, I took the kids to visit the National Archives in Washington, D.C.  Here, America’s most treasured historical documents, including original copies of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, are on display. 

Each is in a high-tech case where everything from humidity to temperature is closely controlled, but despite the preservation efforts, I was struck by how time has deteriorated these documents – particularly the Declaration of Independence.  The parchment is yellowed and the once jet-black ink is so faded that it becomes difficult to read our Founding Fathers’ declaration that we’re all entitled to “certain unalienable rights.”

When looking at the Declaration of Independence in this condition, it’s hard not feel a bit of loss.  After all, this national treasure is disappearing before our eyes and there’s little that can be done about it.  But while the ink may fade, the values of liberty and independence captured in that document are as alive and evident today as they were on July 4, 1776, the day the Declaration of Independence was signed.

Today, we are free to have public debates about the role of government, how much it collects and how much it spends.  People still speak passionately about how much or how little the government says about the way we work, the way we live, the way we pursue happiness.  And despite all the problems and disagreements and political divisions, we’re proud to stand and say that we are Americans and we truly believe there is no other country where we’d want to make a living, raise a family, or call home.

I believe President Ronald Reagan said it best on July 4, 1986:  “[T]he things that unite us – America’s past of which we’re so proud, our hopes and aspirations for the future of the world and this much-loved country – these things far outweigh what little divides us.”

The little divisions are what make the evening news, but it’s our unity that will be written in the history books.

Even our Founding Fathers found divisions among themselves. Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, for instance, saw the role of government very differently.  Adams, a Federalist, believed in a larger federal government while Jefferson, a Democratic-Republican, believed in a minimalist federal government.  They were political rivals – even running against each other in the 1800 presidential election.  But despite their differences, they were united on the idea of an independent America – and that’s where their debate started.  To this day, you can read both their names in faded ink at the bottom of the Declaration of Independence.

If we are going to overcome political division today, we must also start from a place of unity.  We can all agree that we want our kids to have more opportunities than we had.  We can agree that we want our economy and the Middle Class to grow.  We can agree that higher-paying jobs and a better working health care system would be good for America.  Of course, there will be many debates about how we accomplish these goals – and the freedom to have these debates is what makes our Republic strong.  But if we don’t start the conversation at a point of unity, the discussion will go nowhere.  This Independence Day, I hope we can all be reminded of what united our Founding Fathers, what binds us together still today and what makes us uniquely American.

Thank you to all of the men and women in uniform who have fought for this freedom to debate, for our independence, and for the aspirations of this much-loved country.  It was the Declaration of Independence that declared our liberty, but it was you who secured it.  For that, we owe you our deepest gratitude.

And to all South Dakotans, have a safe and happy Independence Day.

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