The 4th of July is no ordinary holiday. As we travel and spend time with our families this weekend, we must take a few moments to reflect on the meaning of our Declaration of Independence, and its ongoing significance in light of our nation’s current struggles.
The resolution to declare independence from Great Britain was actually passed by the Second Continental Congress on July 2, and John Adams believed that the 2nd would be the date on which Americans would celebrate their independence for years to come.
So, why do we commemorate July 4? We celebrate the 4th because it was on this day that our founders set forth a statement of ideas which justified the separation “to a candid world” and established the principles that would serve as the foundation for the new nation.
These principles are grounded in a higher law which is derived from both reason and revelation – “the laws of nature and nature’s God.” It begins with the principle that “all men are created equal,” meaning that they are equally “endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights” which are grounded in natural law, not bestowed on us by government. Among these rights is the right to liberty, and to self-government; therefore the Declaration also states that governments “derive their just powers from the consent of the governed.”
These principles contributed mightily to America’s growth from a modest, undeveloped country into the freest and most prosperous nation in the history of the world. Celebrating the 150th anniversary of the Declaration, Calvin Coolidge (who, incidentally, was born July 4, 1872), defended the principles of the Declaration from assault by progressives who challenged the wisdom of the framers:
“It is often asserted that the world has made a great deal of progress since 1776, that we have had new thoughts and new experiences which have given us a great advance over the people of that day, and that we may therefore very well discard their conclusions for something more modern. But that reasoning cannot be applied to this great charter. If all men are created equal, that is final. If they are endowed with inalienable rights, that is final. If governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed, that is final. No advance, no progress can be made beyond these propositions. If anyone wishes to deny their truth or their soundness, the only direction in which he can proceed historically is not forward, but backward toward the time when there was no equality, no rights of the individual, no rule of the people.”
The signers of the Declaration closed by invoking the aid of Divine Providence, and devoting to the cause of liberty their “lives, fortunes, and sacred honor.” This was no idle statement. While many progressives claimed (and continue to allege) that the signers of the Declaration merely sought to protect their own property, the facts demonstrate that these great patriots gave great sacrifices for the sake of liberty. Many of the signers were captured by the British, imprisoned, displaced, or lost their sons during the Revolutionary War.
They understood the seriousness of the sacrifice they would be forced by subsequent events to make. The image of the gallows hung ominously over their resolution to declare independence. In the event that the conflict did not go well for the colonies, a portly Benjamin Harrison is alleged to have remarked to a slender Elbridge Gerry that “I shall have all the advantage over you. It will be all over in a minute for me, but you will be kicking in the air half an hour after I am gone.”
The need to reflect on our founding principles is striking in light of the widespread ignorance of our country’s history among the public today.
But there is hope. Although “most eighth-graders who took the National Assessment of Educational Progress Civics Test in 2006 couldn’t explain the purpose of the Declaration of Independence,” there is still a widespread desire among Americans for a stronger understanding of their history and principles.
The Heritage Foundation stands proudly alongside dozens of civic and academic organizations across America, which are devoted to rekindling among the general public an understanding of our founding principles and a willingness to defend them.