Originally posted July 4, 2008. Edited for repost July 2, 2016.
This weekend we celebrate “Independence Day” in The United States; more commonly known as the Fourth of July. The Declaration of Independence is the key document that expressed and continues to express the American desire for freedom. Most Americans view the day as the birthday of our nation. However, the day really holds greater significance than that for the entire world.
Perhaps the event would not be so well-known or remembered if the Continental Congress had simply passed a resolution declaring Independence in the middle of what looked like a hopeless war against the 18th century’s global superpower. They did pass such a resolution on July 2, 1776.
At the time, John Adams believed that date would be the one remembered in history. He proclaimed,
“The second day of July, 1776, will be the most memorable epocha in the history of America. I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival. It ought to be commemorated as the day of deliverance, by solemn acts of devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations, from one end of this continent to the other, from this time forward forevermore.”
However, it was the accompanying Declaration of Independence that explained to the world the justifications for the colonies’ break from the Great Britain that became world famous. It is the date (July 4) – when the final wording of that declaration was approved by Congress – that the nation celebrates.
Why do Americans and others around the world so remember and revere this document 240 years after its writing? It certainly contains the flaws in understanding and ethics of its drafters and their time and place. It does not declare all people equal – just white landed men. Despite the efforts of some members of the Continental Congress, it left slavery intact. It refers to the Native Americans as “Indian Savages.”
It is remembered because Thomas Jefferson‘s rousing words became not only a cry for independence in the American colonies but a ringing endorsement of the right of people everywhere to be free. The Declaration stands as a light and a hope and a reason to push forward for people asserting their selfhood and liberty throughout the world.
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 to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed…
In 2016, it is almost impossible to recognize how ground-breaking this claim was in the 18th Century. No colony had ever broken from its parent state in the history of the world. The entire known world lived under divinely ordained monarchs who believed that all law flowed from them. The concept – that ordinary human beings had rights or were equal to their noble masters – had been written about by philosophers such as John Locke, but no one had tried to apply it to the world.
The United States was the first nation whose founding document declared these audacious principles and set them as the foundation for a country. It has been a slow journey to fully realize these ideals even in The United States. Women, racial minorities, ethnic minorities, religious minorities, and even just common people have not always fully realized the promise of these words. While not excusable, it is not surprising that it has taken centuries for such a radical paradigm shift to occur.
There are some in elite power circles who would like to undo these words. They don’t view all people as equal to them. The rushing river of history has pushed these forces back in many places, but they remain present in every society – even the “free societies”.
Outright calls for a new feudalism run by a noble class would be rejected. So these people – longing for “the good old days” – often clothe themselves in the rhetoric of freedom and patriotism. They use fear to convince people to willingly relinquish their freedom the way their predecessors used the sword to take those freedoms.
The common person seeking life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness must be ever-vigilant if he or she is to remain free. We should view this day as a reminder and a reason to take these ideas on to the next level. For it is not merely political freedom we seek. It is the freedom to be, to explore, to understand existence and our relationship to it that we and our children are entitled to.
So maybe today we state a new declaration or affirmation.
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that every human being born on this planet has a right to freely explore his or her true potential. To create a world where every person is ensured this opportunity, we declare that there ARE certain unalienable rights that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. These rights are non-negotiable and not subject to the whims of any institution or situation. The ONLY and just limits to these rights are when they deny others these same rights.
At this moment, such an idea is as much a pipe dream as Jefferson’s words were in 1776. His words began something and so can we today.
For today, remember and enjoy the freedom that is ours. Revere the ideas and the men who “pledged their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor” to make it so. For tomorrow, remember that we are yet capable of so much more!