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We are Americans first and should endeavor to respect and embrace our individual differences - regardless of what they may be.

PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP - Portland Tribune Managing Editor Vance TongIndependence Day.

Today, most people simply say "the Fourth of July," unwittingly unlinking the holiday from the immortal words of Thomas Jefferson:

"When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the Powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation."

In a time when 140-character political pronouncements are being made instantly, it seems absurd that the adoption of the Declaration of Independence came more than a year after the first shots of the American Revolution had been fired at Lexington and Concord.

But the American Continental Congress feared that the revolution would fail unless they could identify its goal.

So, on July 2, 1776, 12 of the 13 colonies voted for independence. Two days later, after several edits, a mere 200 copies of the document were printed. John Hancock and the rest of the now well-known signatories would not begin adding their signatures until Friday, Aug. 2, with the last signature being affixed in November of that year.

The founding fathers grappled with issues such as free speech, taxation, freedom to worship, equality and the right to bear arms. But even after the ratification of the Constitution in 1789, those same issues remain at the forefront of the American consciousness.

In the course of recent events, it seems that some have forgotten what was at the head of that declaration to King George III and the rest of the world. That we are an independent country composed of independent people. And that we are better together — regardless of our independent personal views. We are a better country and better people when we remember that we are Americans first and should endeavor to respect and embrace our individual differences — regardless of what they may be.

It's a challenge we will face in perpetuity, but it is a challenge worthy of our efforts.

But after we have done all this we have not yet reached the whole. There is something else connected with it. We have besides these men — descended by blood from our ancestors — among us perhaps half our people who are not descendants at all of these men, they are men who have come from Europe — German, Irish, French and Scandinavian — men who have come from Europe themselves, or whose ancestors have come hither and settled here, finding themselves our equals in all things.

These words were spoken in Chicago in 1858 by a lanky 49-year-old U.S. Senate candidate, Abraham Lincoln, who soon would be embroiled in this country's bloodiest conflict that had individual rights at its core.

One-hundred and five years later, the same sentiment was echoed by a 34-year-old African-American preacher, Martin Luther King, Jr.:

"When we allow freedom to ring — when we let it ring from every city and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God's children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, 'Free at last, Free at last, Great God a-mighty, we are free at last!'"

In a week in which we are restricting access to our borders, it's worth remembering that equality for all people is what our celebration of independence should be about — the right to live as we see fit and to be accepting of those who live differently.

Our personal life, liberty and pursuit of happiness should not come at the expense of others and that of our actions. It is our diversity of background, thought and expression that allows Americans to rise to the greatest challenges and come together for a common good. We will continue to be challenged as a country for as long as we exist, but it is within our power to meet those challenges.

We do not need to agree with one another, but we do need to work with one another.

We, therefore, should remember to celebrate not only our individual independence, but also celebrate the independence of every other American. We too often take our rights and liberties for granted, and if we are to preserve them for ourselves, we must preserve them for all.

"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."

Jefferson's words still stir my blood. So, on this Independence Day, I encourage you to celebrate your independence by not only pursuing your own happiness, but that of others as well.

Vance W. Tong is the managing editor of the Portland Tribune.

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