The Declaration of Independence was signed 236 years ago. That is a very long time measured in terms of human life spans, and it is a respectable record even as ages of nations go.
Perhaps this sense of lengthy tradition is why it is so easy to think of Independence Day as merely commemorating an event that happened once a long time ago - just another fact of history, just another date.
We tend to forget that July 4, 1776, was more than one self-contained day in history. It was the watershed from which has streamed a great, ever-broadening river of freedom that continues into our own time.
We are wrong if we think of this date as marking the date when freedom was brought forth by decree and handed to posterity. Independence is not a completed event. It is a continuing process, an evolution, a growth.
Freedom in America is still an unfinished business.
This involves much more that the fact that in the years since Yorktown marked a successful conclusion militarily to what was proclaimed politically in Philadelphia in 1776, Americans have been called repeatedly to defend freedom anew - many with their very lives.
Until the second half of the 20th century when Vietnam became such a painful part of the American experience, war was perhaps the easiest form of patriotism. Until then, in war the enemy was obvious, and the course of duty clear.
It is more difficult today to recognize and defend against enemies of freedom.
Sometimes the enemy is not a person, but rather ideas, entrenched interests, prejudices hallowed by tradition.
At one time, freedom in America was for ''respectable'' people, those who owned enough property to qualify for the right to vote and whose skin was of the right pigmentation. Throughout our history, too often freedom has been abridged or denied to certain classes and minority groups.
Yet eventually these groups attained full acceptance and citizenship - not by revolution but by steady evolution within the framework of the Constitution. That is the glory of the United States, that we have been able to grow in freedom toward an ever-broadening freedom.
As every generation does, we see today's world and our place in it as more complicated than ever before, and we see challenges to freedom on all sides.
Let freedom in America, then, never be considered finished business and let us pledge today to never cease working for it.