“Since well before 1787, liberty has been understood as freedom from government action, not entitlement to government benefits.” — Justice Clarence Thomas, dissenting opinion Obergefell v. Hodges 2015
On July 4, 1776, the final language of the formal Declaration of Independence was approved by the Continental Congress. The official vote for independence from Great Britain had taken place two days earlier, so it is somewhat confusing that the 4th has become known as Independence Day. To my mind, July 2nd should be Independence Day, but July 4th would be better understood as Liberty Day, a celebration of the most concise and complete explanation of liberty published before or since, anywhere on the globe.
Both the document and the actions produced by the Continental Congress in the summer of ’76 were turning points in the history of mankind that had taken thousands of years to reach. It is a common suggestion at this time of year to sit down and read the Declaration of Independence, individually or as a family, to remember the day beyond the standard family BBQ. But reading without understanding it is to miss the point, and treating the Declaration as something that fell out of the air — or Thomas Jefferson’s head — is to miss the thousands of years of thought, failed experiments, hopes, bloody struggles, and of progress measured in inches and human lives that preceded it.
Read “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights” and understand how putting those ideals to paper and practice changed what had been the human condition until that time. This was a document for the future as well as the present. The phrase “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” had been “life, liberty, and property” in Jefferson’s original draft. This would have been exactly in line with the Lockean view that most of the Founders shared. But in the Committee of Five, Franklin suggested the change, lest the document be later used to argue for the preservation of slavery. Even the majority of those slave holders present felt the contradiction and saw the need for ending the institution even if they were perplexed as to how to do it. They didn’t have the answer at the present and were faced with the already seemingly impossible task of creating a nation. They knew this would have to happen to fulfill the vision of the document.
Read the long list of complaints against the British government, and then re-read them again in light of our own modern government and its intrusions.
We should also remember that, at that time, almost every person in the world would have envied the life of an American colonist. The average colonist was better fed, freer, and more prosperous than the average Englishman and they lived under the protection of a great and ascending military power.
Despite the Howard Zinn-type history that has soaked into our society today, this was not about the dollars and cents of a bigger share for the merchant class. All of those men very much had a lot to lose. In fact, most saw a sharp turn in their fortunes after signing the document. It was not safety that they sought.
It is altogether proper that we remember the nation on Independence Day, but I it is altogether more important to remember Liberty and its culture. It was that culture of liberty that had become a distinct part of the American character, making our soil fertile for the world’s first government sown with liberty as its purpose.
Patriotism and nationalism can be fine qualities, but only if their object is worthy; if not, the nation is just a place on a map. The patriots of the 1770s all loved their own homes, the swamps of South Carolina, the hollows and ridges of the “over mountain” country, the lush sea board and valley of Virginia, the wooded, fertile soil of the Ohio, and the stone clan farms of New England. Many of us today claim homes far from these places, and our souls feel at rest among towering granite mountains of the Rockies, or on plains that stretch beyond the reach of the eye, or in deserts of the Southwest, or in rainy, cold coast lines of the Northwest.
What makes us a nation worth fighting for, worth living in, are those words in the Declaration and the government that formed out of them in the Constitution. The culture of liberty is our sacred trust.
This culture and its trust can be a burden because, with it, comes the duty to protect and expand it. It was not intended for us alone: We are the example to the rest of the world of how it can work.
To guard and grow this culture, we must protect it. To become American, one must become assimilated into that culture. That is the reason for immigration control, the protection and growth of the culture of liberty. When that culture is lost, our nation purpose is lost.
We have done a poor a job of assimilating even our own people to the liberty culture. That assimilation begins with the understanding of the Declaration of Independence, its history, its values, its ideals, and its clear statement of our national purpose.
Liberty is a risky, messy, unsure thing. It requires bravery. Risk is built into it because we are human and therefore fallible. It often requires failure and new beginnings. That is why a determined people must stand behind it. In 1776, the Crown offered low-risk, clear paths for the future and a share in a worldwide economic system (to be determined an ocean away) and protection by a great military power. The 56 men who — one by one, state by state — signed the document before them chose liberty and self-determination over those assurances.
If a free people are to survive, they must value liberty and self-determination more than assurances of safety and subsidies from government. That is why today day (if none other), one should read the Declaration of Independence and recall that it was much more than an act of patriotism. It was about Liberty, the defining element of the American culture and character, without which neither are worthy of celebration. It is our sacred duty to protect and grow that liberty by first understanding and teaching it, and then living it to the fullest.