Today, Americans celebrate America.
But the Fourth of July has come to mean something far deeper than a celebration of the birth of a “nation” to me.
In fact, the Declaration of Independence did not birth a nation at all. It was 13 sovereign political societies that declared independence from the English crown. They did so in unity, but not as a single entity. And while it made inevitable the war we remember as the American Revolution, July 4th, 1776, publicly declared an even more significant revolution – a revolution in thought.
In 1776, a people asserted that they had the right to determine their own form of government – to self-direct outside the will of established authority. The American colonists insisted that they were not forever bound to a single political system, but “That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”
Americans didn’t ask permission to self-govern.
They just did it.
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
Not subject to the whims of politicians or bureaucrats. Not dependent on the interpretation of judges. Not altered by a majority vote.
And therefore, government derives its just power from the consent of the governed. Not from some ruler’s edict. Not from judicial pronouncement. Not from legislative action.
From the people.
That holds true today, but I’m not sure how many Americans really realize it. We have turned a revolutionary idea into “one nation, indivisible.”
So, I don’t really view Independence Day so much as the birth of a nation, or as a day to revel in American exceptionalism. I view it as a day to celebrate a revolution of ideas – ideas we would do well to remember.
I leave you with the poignant words of former slave Frederick Douglass spoken on July 5, 1852.
But your fathers, who had not adopted the fashionable idea of this day, of the infallibility of government, and the absolute character of its acts, presumed to differ from the home government in respect to the wisdom and the justice of some of those burdens and restraints. They went so far in their excitement as to pronounce the measures of government unjust, unreasonable, and oppressive, and altogether such as ought not to be quietly submitted to. I scarcely need say, fellow-citizens, that my opinion of those measures fully accords with that of your fathers. Such a declaration of agreement on my part would not be worth much to anybody. It would certainly prove nothing as to what part I might have taken had I lived during the great controversy of 1776. To say now that America was right, and England wrong, is exceedingly easy. Everybody can say it; the dastard, not less than the noble brave, can flippantly descant on the tyranny of England towards the American Colonies. It is fashionable to do so; but there was a time when, to pronounce against England, and in favor of the cause of the colonies, tried men’s souls. They who did so were accounted in their day plotters of mischief, agitators and rebels, dangerous men. To side with the right against the wrong, with the weak against the strong, and with the oppressed against the oppressor! here lies the merit, and the one which, of all others, seems unfashionable in our day. The cause of liberty may be stabbed by the men who glory in the deeds of your fathers.