When the father of one of my longest-serving aides passed away, the pastor offered some moving words about his life:
“Orville was a farmer, and a good one at that. But farming wasn’t his passion. He was one of those special people who had a passion for bookkeeping. He was very precise and exact in organizing and analyzing data. After he graduated high school with honors, he attended business school in Omaha to become an accountant.”
“But then, duty called. His brother, Elmer, was drafted into the military during World War II. That left his parents short-handed back on the farm, so Orville felt duty-bound to return home. And that’s how he became a farmer, and that’s how he and Olga, working side-by-side, provided for their family. Years later, a pastor remarked to him, ‘You did a good job at something you didn’t like.’”
The pastor added, “There is a lesson there for all of us. We don’t always get our way, and we don’t always get our first choice. What matters is how we respond to the challenge in front of us.”
On July 4th, we are reminded of the challenges that animated the founding of our nation.
We celebrate the signing of the Declaration of Independence with pageantry and fireworks, and we dress up in patriotic garb and attend parades. However, the celebration flows from something binding, something permanent: the duty we owe to each other and our country. The kind of duty that Orville Feyerherm embraced.
Often forgotten amid the rightful fanfare of Independence Day is that those who signed the Declaration risked their lives for our right to celebrate it nearly 250 years later.
At a Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, these brave men declared that, due to a series of grave, unresolved injustices, together they would rebel. Had they failed in this historic, transformational resistance, together they would have hung. But they followed their duty to their conscience — and to one another.
This Fourth of July comes at a moment of deepening cultural division and political discord in our nation, amidst another “resistance.” The signers anticipated such a moment when they declared, “Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes.”
Many Americans rightfully demand a more democratic participation in governing and economic systems that can be marginalizing. Yet, prudence is too often lacking in today’s debates about how to restore the ability for all persons to author their lives together.
As a result, our nation’s fragile social fabric is more strained than ever. Many Americans no longer understand or respect one another. Camaraderie, tolerance, and compassion have given way to isolation, intimidation, and harassment. A recent survey found that 31% of likely voters think that America will experience a second civil war sometime in the next five years.
For much of our history, America was endowed with a unifying commitment to our Declaration’s ideals. A combination of blistering technological change, social media echo chambers, and divisive identity politics has undermined our unity, fostering the violent bitterness and resentment that we see today. If we want to champion our unique American proposition within these new dynamics, we must regain comparable levels of unity. And a necessary precondition of unity is duty — to the binding ideals that give us our character as a people.
For a model of cohesion on this Independence Day, we need look no further than Nebraska, where our perennial American values of hard work, honesty, frugality, and communal engagement are still being carried forward daily by the many, with respect, with civility, and with duty.
Maybe that’s why Seward is called America’s Fourth of July City.
Jeff Fortenberry represents Nebraska’s first congressional district in the U.S. House of Representatives. The first district is the eastern third of Nebraska outside the immediate Omaha area.