LEWISTON — On the day after a deeply divisive election, it is important to remember that the real work begins now. Whoever our newly elected officials are, we and they must now debate the best way forward.

At the center of the campaign debate this year has been the idea of American “greatness.” When has America been great? Are we great now? In studying the American Revolution this fall at Bates College, we have been asking similar questions. In the process, we have found that some of our answers about 1776 have important lessons for 2016.

The Spirit of 1776 has immense power to inspire. Although the American Revolution began with disputes around taxation and representation, questions of pocketbook politics led to something greater. In 1774, Thomas Jefferson complained about “parliamentary usurpation” and blamed a power-hungry British Parliament for unfair taxes and restrictions on free trade. Two years later, those same injustices troubled him, but they justified a new set of ideas that were framed by the powerful principle that “all men are created equal.”

This idea transformed disputes over taxes and trade into a war for independence based on a call for human rights. Great ideas, however, would be meaningless without the sacrifices of the war that followed and without the work of engaged citizens. Jefferson and many of his compatriots believed deeply in a concept they called “civic virtue.” What it meant was that a republic, if it was going to avoid tyranny, needed educated citizens to keep an eye on those in power. The work of a war but also of virtuous citizens made the Declaration’s words real. This is indeed a greatness worth celebrating.

But let’s not mythologize what was also an incomplete idealism. When Abigail Adams, wife of the Declaration’s co-author John Adams, reminded him to “remember the Ladies … and do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the husbands,” her husband replied that he “could not but laugh” at such outlandish ideas. When enslaved Africans from New Hampshire (including one owned by a signer of the Declaration) requested their freedom from the state legislature because “the God of Nature made us free,” they were met not with laughter, but with silence. Some people, regardless of their virtue, were not perceived as being entitled to citizenship or equality.

The greatness of the Declaration lies in the ways it has inspired some of our most virtuous citizens to make its ideals more real. Some of those struggles, even among the Founders, were uglier than the ones we have suffered this election season.

When former friends John Adams and Thomas Jefferson ran against each other for the presidency in 1800, they believed the fate of the republic was at stake, and they pulled no punches. The friends of Jefferson called Adams “one of the most egregious fools upon the continent” and a “hideous hermaphroditical character.” Supporters of Adams spread rumors that the atheistic Jefferson slept with his enslaved women and would confiscate family Bibles.

The bitter campaign did not end with the civil war that some feared, however. Both sides recognized that they had more to gain from debating the ideals of the Declaration than destroying their opponents.

Later champions of the Declaration’s calls to equality would do the same. When men and women gathered in Seneca Falls, New York, in 1848 and called for women’s right to vote, they did so because they believed “all men and women are created equal.” When Abraham Lincoln spoke of “a new birth of freedom” in his Gettysburg Address of 1863, he recalled the Declaration and called for a freedom that included the emancipation of slaves. These efforts, and many others before and since, required tremendous work.

As in 1776, 1848 and 1863, we all seek to make America great. This greatness lies not in reclaiming a mythic past, but in collectively working toward a more perfect union. The ideals of 1776 point to a greatness built by virtuous and educated citizens working through the political process together.

Working together can be difficult. Recent efforts of voter suppression at Bates College make clear that some wish to silence others. More troublingly, many millions remain outside of the political process, marginalized by their lack of money, their lack of education and simply who they are.

Our work to ensure that all can enjoy “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” requires continued debate. To recall the greatness of 1776 and, more importantly, to build the greatness of 2016 depends on debates that recognize that all citizens make their voices heard.

— Special to the Press Herald