Independence Day weekend is a good time not only for hot dogs and fireworks, but to reflect for a moment on what makes this country unique, the qualities that enabled it to become in some ways the most successful country in history, and to contemplate the extent to which those qualities still animate Americans.
It has been said the United States is the only country founded on an idea, or a set of ideas, rather than on ethnic or racial similarities, kinship, conquest or the simple fact of a relatively homogeneous group of people living in the same geographic region for centuries. Those ideas are summed up in the Declaration of Independence, the document whose signing and promulgation we celebrate. In some ways it can lay claim to being the most revolutionary public document in human history.
Aspects of the idea that people are not just vassals of the powers that be, interchangeable cogs in the great machinery of society presided over by leaders who had by and large established themselves through conquest and pillage, had been growing for centuries before 1776. But the circumstances surrounding the decision of the Colonists to separate from Great Britain offered the opportunity to summarize emerging principles in a uniquely eloquent manner.
“We hold these truths to be self-evident,” the Declaration proclaims, “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.”
By “created equal,” of course, the founders were not so naïve as to believe we were all equally tall, intelligent, beautiful or worthy, but that we have equal value in the sight of God or Natural Law and should receive equal treatment rather than preferences or punishment based on our status from government. Every human being has a certain inherent dignity, and decent people respect that.
It has become fashionable to talk of certain privileges or amenities bestowed by government as “rights,” but the Declaration is clear that people are “endowed by their Creator,” with certain rights, and that these rights exist prior to and take precedence over any claims by government.
This was and still is truly revolutionary. The rights discussed — life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness — are genuine rights in that they can be exercised without impinging on the equal rights of other human beings.
So what is government’s job in a system that recognizes unalienable rights? Simply “to secure these rights.” This implies a government of limited powers, for a government of unlimited powers will surely become a threat to rather than a securer of personal rights.
Our government has grown in scope, power and ambition far beyond the imaginings of those who put their lives on the line (and in some cases lost them) by signing the Declaration of Independence. Yet the spirit of independence, the healthy distrust of overweening government power, as shown in polls taken this year, remains a stubborn American characteristic. Long may it thrive.