The Fourth of July is a national holiday that, to me, stands far above all of the others. It represents the greatest political achievement in world history. More than that, the birth of the United States of America represents a towering and unprecedented philosophical achievement. America, born of the Enlightenment, is the first nation founded on the principle that man the individual has a fundamental, natural right to his own life, and that government’s responsibility is to protect that right…that the people act by right, while the government acts by permission.
“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.
“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. That whenever any form of government becomes destructive to 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.”
So opened the document signed by a small band of revolutionary intellectual activists leading a fledgling nation fighting against the most powerful Empire in world history. Above are the most radical words ever written as the foundation for a nation. For the first time in human history, a government was to be the servant of the people, by conscious design and on principle. “The people” were understood to be, not a collective, but a collection of sovereign individuals recognized as possessing unalienable individual rights. America was the triumph of reason, which was understood to be a faculty of the individual. The government would now be charged with the task of protecting every individual’s freedom to act on his own sovereign, reasoning mind … as a matter of unalienable right.
The birth of America was the culmination of Mankind’s long tortuous philosophical journey that began with Aristotle, and continued through his rebirth via Aquinas, the Renaissance, the Age of Reason, and the Enlightenment. Tribalism was to be swept into the dustbin of history, along with “The Divine Right of Kings” and all manner of omnipotent ruler. Men would be set free from the forcible domination of other men.
The signers of the Declaration of Independence, America’s Founding Fathers, were almost violent in their radicalism. Standing up against the tide of history, with only the winds of the ideas of John Locke and the Enlightenment thinkers at their backs, this unique group of intellectuals took action. Indeed, the ideological violence of the ideas to which they pledged their lives, fortunes, and sacred honor turned to armed rebellion. The rest, as is said, is history.
America’s Founding was flawed in many respects - the failure to eradicate the ancient evil of slavery being the most obvious and most egregious. The anti-slavery forces simply did not have the strength to defeat that vampire, and so slavery had to be accepted into the young nation. But the moral groundwork had been laid – that all men are created equal – and the fate of the slave states was sealed. 89 years after the signing of the Declaration, America’s Founding ideals caught up with them. Some have pointed to America’s early acceptance of slavery as proof of its basic depravity. In fact, the defeat of slavery represented one of America’s finest hours, and a testament to the formidable power of its ideals. America’s Founding was the most monumental political achievement in world history.
America is currently backsliding from its Founding ideals. As America goes, so will go the world. But, the words of July 4, 1776, have been written, and will never be erased. Proof of the power and viability of individual liberty is written across the brief span of the past 237 years. The ideas of reason, egoism, and capitalism have been unleashed. The philosophical foundation for a second Renaissance and American rebirth has been laid, and the final rout of statism is tantalizingly close.
“And for the support of this declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor.”
By making that pledge, those great men of 1776 declared that they would accept no substitute for the ideals in which they believed. Against widespread skepticism in the New World, and ridicule and scorn across England, they laid it all on the line for those ideals. They would succeed or perish. That utterly uncompromising stand gave us the United States of America. The least we could do is pledge to uphold those principles, to roll back the compromises that are undermining them, and to accept no substitute.
Happy Birthday America.