It was a steamy July in Philadelphia.
A hundred miles away, a British fleet anchored off of Sandy Hook, full of menace.
In a hot building on Chestnut Street, Benjamin Franklin rose to survey a quarrelsome band of would-be rebels.
“Gentlemen,” he said, “We must hang together, else, we shall most assuredly hang separately.”
Thus bolstered, the men in the room soon signed their names to a document that ended with these words:
“We mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor.”
These are the words, and more important, the values that gave birth to our nation, not 500 yards from where I’m sitting right now.
We. Our. Each other. Mutually.
In the midst of an overheated, shallow presidential campaign, we are told we must choose between two visions for America.
One is over the moon about the ideas of individualism, liberty, freedom to do whatever the heck you want.
We’re told these are the ideas that make America America. To question, even to season that worship of individualism with other values – such as one about community, about equity – why that’s un-American. Or so we are told.
Explain that to Ben Franklin. Explain that to the men who made our republic by mutually pledging their lives, fortunes and sacred honor.
Is individualism a native thread in the American fabric? Sure it is. Whether it’s Huck Finn lighting out for the territory, Gary Cooper standing on that dusty street, or Steve Jobs inventing in his garage, we Americans are stirred by the stubbornly independent spirit.
But we’re also the nation of barn-raisings, marches for the cure, hack-a-thons. We’re stirred as well by the idea of community coming together to attack a problem, of all the nameless nerds in white shirts at Mission Control working together through the night to make sure that, by God, failure was not an option.
It’s not an either/or choice. America is a both/and place, individualism and community standing side by side. Though not always arm in arm. There have been tension, struggle, angry words. Jefferson and Adams did great deeds together, then feuded miserably. The same with Madison and Hamilton.
This tension was built in from the start. It’s in our DNA.
Any candidate, any party that warns us we have to choose either individualism or community, that it’s one or the other, really doesn’t understand America.