The fireworks are over, the parade is past, the beer is drunk and the potato salad is in the refrigerator. We’re tired, we’re sunburned and a few of us are nursing a hangover. However, it’s a three-day weekend so we can continue boating on the lake, hiking in the mountains or relaxing at the beach with the kids. Independence Day is a truly an American holiday, with something for everyone.
But why? What is it that we celebrate on Independence Day?
On July 4, 1776, the 13 colonies did not receive independence from Great Britain, which wouldn’t occur until the signing of the Treaty of Paris, a year after the British defeat at Yorktown. It wasn’t the beginning of the Revolutionary War either, as that happened a year earlier with the battles of Lexington and Concord. It wasn’t even when the Second Continental Congress voted to approve a resolution for independence from Britain. That was July 2.
On July 4, 1776, the Second Continental Congress adopted the Declaration of Independence and with it the great principles, applicable to all people for all time, which became the American Idea. Those principles are what we celebrate; those principles are what we hold dear.
The Declaration of Independence is the foundation of the American order. It boldly and unapologetically proclaims the Founders’ fundamental understanding of humanity — we are all created equal, and that our God endows us with certain rights that are inherent in our very being, those of life, of liberty and of the pursuit of happiness.
The promise of universal political equality was something new in the world. Although debated by political philosophers, no nation had ever dared to believe this. America was the exception.
The principle of political equality means that in Thomas Jefferson’s words, “the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately, by the grace of God.” No one whether by virtue heredity (a king), ideology (a communist Politburo), religion (a caliphate), technocratic competence (an administrative state) or wealth and connections (cronyism) has a natural right to rule over others.
As a result, political legitimacy rests with the people and the “consent of the governed,” and that the just powers of government flow from the people to the government and not the other way around. The declaration argues that government exists to secure and defend rights, rather than to grant them. This was, and is, an exceptional argument that has animated the struggle for liberty around the world.
America’s founding rejected the old ideas of blood, soil and permanent cultural traditions as the basis of a nation. Instead, we are founded on the ideas contained in the Declaration, ideas that all can understand and that all can swear allegiance to. As a nation founded on an idea, America is again exceptional.
No one can turn Han, German, Pashtun or Fang if they are not already. Yet all of these peoples can and do become Americans through an acceptance of the founding ideas and a rejection of the old notions of immutable social hierarchy. It happens every day, as immigrants from around the world are sworn in as citizens. Just like that they are every bit as American as those born here — who themselves must be taught our founding ideas and principles.
As proclaimed in the Declaration of Independence, Americans (and all people everywhere) answer to a higher law and truths that are “self-evident.” That is, the American Idea is grounded both in reason — “self-evident” — and in revelation, as the declaration’s four references to God as Creator, Lawgiver, Judge and Providence attest.
These foundational principles, while proclaimed in the declaration and finding their political expression in the Constitution through a representative republic, separation of powers and federalism, have been opposed by some including those who precipitated the Civil War.
The outcome of that war settled, as Abraham Lincoln made clear in the Gettysburg Address, the understanding that, “our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”
Today, as you recover from your sunburn and excessive celebration, take time to think about what it is that you’ve celebrated and why we celebrate on Independence Day. The Declaration of Independence and the liberties it proclaims are America’s gift to the world. Don’t let that gift go unopened and unused.
For more information on the Declaration of Independence and its meaning for our lives visit http://www.heritage.org/research/reports/2001/06/the-225th-anniversary-of-the-4th-of-july.
John McDowell is a longtime county resident having first moved to San Carlos in 1963. In the intervening years, he has worked as a political volunteer and staff member in local, state and federal government, including time spent as a press secretary on Capitol Hill and in the George W. Bush administration.