Our planet has taken 241 trips around the sun since a group of colonists gathered in Philadelphia to express their grievances against King George. On July 4, two days after the members of the young Congress declared that the United States no longer considered itself subject to the English king, they voted to adopt a document that delivered the message more formally — the Declaration of Independence.

For those men in Philadelphia it was an act of extraordinary bravery to sign their names to the declaration. In 1776, England was the most powerful nation on earth. The colonists knew the English king would not meekly accept a rebellion. They knew a terribly costly and bloody war would follow, and that it would be fought in the land where their families lived. But the colonists were resolved: They would risk their lives to rid themselves of the heavy yoke of England and govern themselves instead.

It was a time of conflict and tension. But the men and women of the new United States worked together to drive the British from the new country. Then they went on to draft a Constitution that has preserved hard-won freedoms.

After 241 years, the nation that was born in that distant July is still clanking along, governing itself and influencing all the nations of the world by its decisions and actions. The United States is a rarity among nations, surviving deep disagreements between regions, between races and between genders to prosper still, well into a third century of liberty. The country has survived contentious elections, riots, world wars and its own devastating civil war, which removed the terrible curse of slavery.

It hasn’t been a smooth ride. The 241st year was coarser, angrier and more erratic than most. As we begin Year 242, public trust in elected officials is low. Leading institutions, from the presidency, to Congress, to the news media, are widely distrusted. With a president venting his wrath about TV celebrities in tweets, many are expressing concern about what they see happening in America. Some zealots have sought to replace reasoned debate with riots and violence, undermining our society.

But this experiment in independence and self-governance is still working, if imperfectly. A system of checks and balances is helping to restrain power and permit the people’s will to be expressed through elections.

One thing we’ve learned on this bumpy ride from the 18th century is that Americans strive to do better. We continue the long, imperfect struggle to make sure that each of us is treated equally under the law and that opportunity is expanded. We argue among ourselves like the most dysfunctional family you can imagine, full of opinionated uncles, mischievous kids, scheming adults and not-all-there cousins. Amid this chaotic behavior, how do we manage to keep going? Could anybody have foreseen this strange and wild civic journey?

That’s why July 4, 1776, still feels like a miracle. From a fractious time, in a precarious place, our forefathers and foremothers breathed life into a new nation that still survives — even flourishes.

The United States could have gone off the rails many times along the way, but somehow, men and women of character and courage have emerged to guide us back on course.

We are blessed such people keep arising from among us. We are glad of their bravery, in speaking out against injustice and cruelty, and firmly defending the right of others to express their own views.

Bravery in 1776; bravery today. Somehow, the circle remains unbroken.

— The Providence Journal, Providence, Rhode Island