The Fourth of July is a day on which many Americans take time away from work to enjoy a holiday celebration with their family and friends. Things like barbecue, parades, fireworks, and flag-waving have all become part of the traditional July 4th celebration. Although holiday celebrations with family and friends are certainly valuable in and of themselves, it appears that tragically, fewer and fewer Americans understand the historical significance of the day and the ideas it represents. (If you’re not convinced, feel free to click here before reading more.)
In short, the Fourth of July is a celebration of liberty. After being plundered by the tyranny of King George III and his British Empire, in mid-1776, the American colonists acted to free themselves from oppression. On July 2nd, the Continental Congress voted to declare America’s independence from the British Empire and on July 4th, representatives from the 13 colonies ratified The Declaration of Independence, which was drafted by Thomas Jefferson.
In addition to defending their liberties on paper in 1776, the colonists also had to defend their liberties on the battlefield, where they ultimately won their independence in 1783. While the American War of Independence had to be won on both fronts, the importance of The Declaration of Independence cannot be denied because it highlights the core principles of liberty, many of which were ingrained in American philosophy at the time and served as the foundation upon which the United States was constructed.
Natural Rights and Limited Government
Unfortunately, in modern political conversations, the word “rights” is often thrown around indiscriminately by those who advocate big-government policies and have little regard for the ideals of liberty. For instance, many Americans now believe they have a right to healthcare, a right to free education, or a right to affordable housing and it is the role of their unrestrained government to provide such things.
Those responsible for liberating America—who witnessed first-hand the tyranny of unrestrained government—had other ideas about the proper role of government. As The Declaration of Independence reads:
“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…”
Essentially, The Declaration of Independence recognizes that rights are natural and precede government because they come from the Creator—whether it be a divine entity or a force of nature. It was their view that since natural rights precede government, they cannot be taken away by majority vote, legislation, or the demand of a tyrant; they can only be surrendered voluntarily by the individual.
Those who drafted and signed the Declaration believed the only legitimate role of government was to “secure” individuals’ natural rights and that if government were not limited to such a role, it would become a vehicle by which the powerful and politically connected could impose their will on less powerful and politically connected groups without their consent. In other words, an unlimited government could only result in tyranny, oppression, and imperialism—much like the colonists experienced under the rule of the British Empire.
Self-Government and Voluntary Political Unions
Also endorsed in The Declaration of Independence is the principle of self-government. Those responsible for ratifying the Declaration rejected the notion that the British Empire could rightfully govern them from thousands of miles away without their consent. On the contrary, they believed it was their right to legislate, tax, and govern themselves. As The Declaration of Independence states:
Nor have We been wanting in attentions to our British brethren. We have warned them from time to time of attempts by their legislature to extend an unwarrantable jurisdiction over us. We have reminded them of the circumstances of our emigration and settlement here.
Those responsible for declaring America’s independence held the view that individuals have a natural right to associate voluntarily, construct their own government, and elect their own representatives. They also recognized that it is the responsibility of a free people to withdraw from any involuntary political establishments imposed by outsiders, just as they declared on The Fourth of July in 1776:
“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…”
Once again, those who believed in American independence understood that they were entitled to self-government and that this right came from none other than their creator. Not only did America’s founders believe it was their right to govern themselves, they also understood the indispensable relationship between self-government and secession—that self-government is not possible if a people cannot exercise their right to “dissolve” any involuntary political unions which threaten their natural rights:
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.
In the excerpt above, the founders made it very clear that when the government damages individuals’ natural rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, it is the right—and some might even say the duty—of the people to “alter or abolish it.”
The Declaration Today
Surprisingly, the Declaration of Independence remains on the books in the United States Code of law. Given that America’s current welfare/warfare state appears to be spiraling out of control, it is difficult to think of a law which has been more frequently violated and ignored than The Declaration of Independence.
The Declaration of Independence was intended to restrain government by “securing” individuals’ natural rights, to allow liberty to flourish by recognizing individuals’ rights to form voluntary political unions and cut ties with those which threaten their natural rights, and to prevent imperialism by recognizing that all men are created equal and thus, have the natural right to govern themselves.
Unfortunately, these unique ideals have been ignored for far too long, even in the very nation which fought a revolution against one of the world’s superior imperial powers to preserve them. Yes, it is true that many Americans would rather vote for a living than earn one, silence the free speech of others rather than use theirs to promote justice, and vilify American historical figures rather than celebrate the individuals responsible for constructing the world’s freest society. Were they perfect? No, but they certainly did far more good than they did harm.
Although the perpetual attacks against liberty are always present, it is our right and duty as defenders of liberty not to resort to the violent tactics of other groups. Instead, we must share our ideas, remember our history, educate others, and point out the virtues of a free society—the greatest of which is that liberty and character are two fundamentally inseparable principles.
So, while you enjoy your family, friends, barbeque, and fireworks, please be conscious of the reasons why we celebrate the Fourth of July.