Agitators created America, and it’s their feisty spirit and outright rebelliousness that we celebrate on our national holiday. I don’t merely refer to the Founders, either. Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, James Madison, Ben Franklin and the rest certainly were derring-do agitators when they wrote the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, creating the framework for a democratic republic. But they didn’t actually create much democracy. In the first presidential election, only 4 percent of the people were even eligible to vote. No women allowed, no African Americans, no American Indians and no one who was landless.
So, on the Fourth, it’s neither the documents of democracy that we celebrate nor the authors of the documents. Rather, it’s the intervening two-plus centuries of ordinary American agitators who have struggled mightily against formidable odds to democratize those documents. America’s great rebellion didn’t end with the British surrender at Yorktown. It was only getting started—and the rebellion has moved through such great forces of agitation as the abolitionists and suffragists, Sojourner Truth and Frederick Douglass, the Populists and the Wobblies, Fighting Bob La Follette and Huey Long, the Square Deal and New Deal, Mother Jones and Woodie Guthrie, Rachel Carson and Ralph Nader, Martin Luther King Jr. and Cesar Chavez—and on into today’s continuing fight for economic fairness, social justice and equal opportunity for all.