WASHINGTON — Here is the sentence in the Declaration of Independence we always remember: “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.”
And here is the sentence we often forget: “And for the support of this declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine providence, we mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor.”
This, the very last sentence of the document, is what makes the better-remembered sentence possible. One speaks of our rights. The other addresses our obligations. The freedoms we cherish are self-evident but not self-executing. The Founders pledge something “to each other,” the commonly overlooked clause in the Declaration’s final pronouncement.
We find ourselves, 237 years after the Founders declared us a new nation, in a season of discontent, even surliness, about the experiment they launched. We are sharply divided over the very meaning of our founding documents, and we are more likely to invoke the word “we” in the context of “us” versus “them” than in the more capacious sense that includes every single American.
There are no quick fixes to our sense of disconnection, but there may be a way to restore our sense of what we owe each other across the lines of class, race, background — and, yes, politics and ideology.
Last week, the Aspen Institute gathered a politically diverse group of Americans under the banner of the “Franklin Project,” named after Ben, to declare a commitment to offering every American between the ages of 18 and 28 a chance to give a year of service to the country. The opportunities would include service in our armed forces but also time spent in educating our fellow citizens, bringing them health care and preventive services, working with the least advantaged among us, and conserving our environment.
Service would not be compulsory, but it would be an expectation. And it just might become part of who we are.