The Fourth of July is, to use Walt Whitman’s phrase, “a brave delight fit for freedom’s athletes.”

The phrase is drawn from a prose passage the 19th-century poet wrote about political democracy in the United States.

The passage is still worth considering:

“Political democracy, as it exists and practically works in America, with all its evils, supplies a training school for making first-class men. It is life’s gymnasium, not of good only, but of all. We try often, though we fall back often. A brave delight, fit for freedom’s athletes … ”

First, let me try to get this out of the way: Whitman, well aware of his choice of words, was writing in the idiom of his time. From his writing you will get a sense that the greatness America achieved was in bountiful measure due to the over-arching character of its women.

It seems entirely likely that Whitman would have heartily approved the trajectory of American women taking increasingly larger public roles in political as well as societal affairs. 

Though, and this can be exasperating in good poets, he may also have revealed how the progress has been accompanied by dilemmas and occasional heartbreaks. 

But the phrase to key on is “freedom’s athletes.” The poet (and this poet was never timid in his word selection) might have said “freedom’s hedonists” or “freedom’s libertines.” But he didn’t.

The poet (and this poet was not afraid to be dull, if it suited his purpose) might have said “freedom’s supporters” or “freedom’s advocates.”  But he didn’t. 

He chose “freedom’s athletes.”

An athlete has dexterity, ability, and endurance. Once acquired, athleticism provides the means for freedom of movement and performance. The acquiring requires discipline and training – and entails a lot of failures along the way.

It is one of those paradoxes you encounter so often in life. Athletic freedom comes only after athletic discipline.

(Christians confront a similar paradox. Freedom results from obedience to God. It is not something you figure out beforehand. You either accept it or you don’t.)

So political democracy, if it is to have purpose, is not something passive. It is something to be continually exercised.

And there is a lot that can go wrong.

More of Whitman’s passage:

“Whatever we do not attain, we at any rate attain the experiences of the fight, the hardening of the strong campaign, and throb with currents of attempt at least. Time is ample. Let the victors come after us.”

Never give up. There is a right side of history. 

“Not for nothing does evil play its part among us … justice is always in jeopardy, peace walks amid hourly pitfalls … Yet there is an immortal courage and prophecy in every sane soul that cannot, must not, under any circumstances capitulate.”

So, what does this mean for a 21st-century American?

It means, at the very least, to be a conscientious voter in general elections.

It may mean putting a shoulder to the wheel in the activity, perhaps even in the preservation, of local government.

It should mean an “up in arms” refusal to accept Congress continuing to neglect its constitutional responsibility to authorize when and where the lethality of our military is to be used to accomplish the deliberated aims of the Executive Branch.

It should mean a tearing down of the current two-party system which is constricting political expression into two polarized streams, resulting in an ineffectual Congress and poor candidates for presidential election.

It should mean a return to the recognition that our federal Constitution is, in the words of Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, “made for people of fundamentally differing views,” and not the venue for no more than five justices on the Supreme Court to conflate their personal view of what is best for society with constitutional law.

And it means taking encouragement from what is an increasing public awareness, and refusal to accept, the political fraud, divisiveness, and toxicity brought about by gerrymandering as practiced by the major political parties in state legislatures.

In my opinion, the main moral issue confronting us is the significance of an individual life. This issue, in one form or another, will always confront us.

In my opinion, these are the political issues that matter: Who sends our military to war, what makes our money worth anything, the significance of an individual vote, economic sustainability against throwaway consumerism, the cost of health care, and, perhaps most existentially of all, climate change.

I doubt Walt Whitman would let anyone divert his vision from issues that matter. We should not either. And we should be willing to exercise our rights as citizens in our democracy.


Michael Hartley writes from Wayne Township. 

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