What is the Fourth of July? It’s a wonderful time. We’re outdoors. We’re with family and friends. We’re playing golf or fishing. There are barbecues and baseball and fireworks and all that good stuff.
And beneath it all, supporting it all, there is freedom. Freedom. The Fourth of July is about freedom, if nothing else. America’s freedom, of course. But a freedom that extends to all people. One that leads to greatness and prosperity. A freedom that has become the backbone of the world.
I would like to take a moment this holiday to revisit the sources of that freedom. They were outlined so eloquently in perhaps the greatest document ever written, the Declaration of Independence. And they’re as crucial now as they were 241 years ago.
It’s a well-known story. Back in 1776, the Continental Congress sought freedom from tyranny. They said, “We’re revolting against a British monarchy and parliament that doesn’t represent us. We’re rebelling against laws we don’t control and are capricious to say the least.”
To formalize this revolt, the congress formed a committee of five. Chosen were Thomas Jefferson, Robert Livingstone (New Jersey), John Adams, Ben Franklin, and Roger Sherman (Connecticut). A pretty spiffy group of thinkers and writers.
Their task was to draft a statement of independence — although what they came up with was so much more.
Their document, “The Unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America,” was adopted on July 4, 1776, after days of debate and revision. The document begins:
“When in the Course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.”
I’d like to underscore the civility of that opening. This document is an example of civility. The great American revolt was a defense of the right of discussion. Civil discourse. Respectful disagreement.
Then there are “The Laws of Nature and Nature’s God.” We derive our freedoms not from governments, but from God. It was a revolutionary thought at a time when dictatorial monarchs across Europe believed they were gods.
Then we have perhaps the most famous sentence in the English language:
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.
That truly was revolutionary stuff. And it was beyond just the colonies.
The authors were saying, “We’re speaking about the people here, but also about oppressed peoples everywhere, those burdened with dictatorial, who-cares-about-the-little-people governments.”
And they spoke of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
Life. Our very existence.
Liberty. You can’t take my freedom away.
The pursuit of happiness. To live the way we want to live, to do the work we want to do, to marry whom we want to marry; to have kids, accumulate property, and be prosperous.
I’ve said this often: The most populist desire of the people of the United States and other free nations is long-lasting, deep-seated prosperity. Speaking of which, the long list of complaints against George III’s Britain included: “cutting off our Trade with all parts of the world” (protectionism), “imposing Taxes on us without our Consent” (remedied with supply-side tax cuts), and (hat tip Seth Lipsky, New York Sun) a hint of stable money: “the amount and payment of [judges’] salaries.”
But the Declaration, critically, goes on:
That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — 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.
Taking these statements together, we see a pecking order. There is God, a higher power or Nature’s God, who grants us the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. And whatever government is formed around this works for the people. And if the government lacks the consent of the people, there must be great change.
From the Lord, to us, and then to government.
And when government breaks down, does poorly, or becomes corrupt, it needs to be replaced one way or another.
There’s a little bit of that going on today, is there not?
It’s the Fourth of July. It’s freedom day. The government works for us, not the other way around.
If it doesn’t, the government gets kicked out on its keister.