“It is . . . from the perspective of the bloody millennia of mankind's history . . . that I want you to look at the birth of a miracle: the United States of America. If it is ever proper for men to kneel, we should kneel when we read the Declaration of Independence."—Ayn Rand
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, inalienable 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 that marked the starting point of the United States of America as a sovereign nation. 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 to his own life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness. 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—not be permission of some King, cleric, lord, or tribal chief, but by moral right. Rights don’t come from government, the founders held. Rights precede government; then “to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed”—“just powers” being understood to be only those powers required to carry out the job of protecting individual rights, not the power to violate rights by redistributing private wealth, regulating our lives, and the like.
The signers of the Declaration of Independence, America’s Founding Fathers, were not conservative in any rational sense. They were radicals in the complete and honorable sense: They represented a concept entirely new to mankind. 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 radicalism of the ideas to which they pledged their lives, fortunes, and sacred honor turned to actual 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 from American soil for some 7 decades after the ratification of the Constitution being the most obvious and most egregious. The anti-slavery forces simply did not have the strength to defeat that vampire at the outset, 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 the slave states. 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. Indeed, those ideals underpinned freedom’s progress in regards to women’s suffrage, the defeat of Jim Crow segregation laws, the mid-20th Century Civil Rights movement and the end of black voter suppression laws.
America’s Founding was the most monumental political achievement in world history. America is currently backsliding from its Founding ideals, heading in the direction of collectivism and statism. But we have the means to reverse that trend, in the words of Thomas Jefferson, which serve as the philosophic blueprint for our Constitution. As Harvey Milk, one of the early leaders in the “Gay Pride” fight for equal rights for gays, said at a 1978 speech,
In the Declaration of Independence it is written 'All men are created equal and they are endowed with certain inalienable rights . . . .' That’s what America is. No matter how hard you try, you cannot erase those words from the Declaration of Independence.
Indeed, the words of July 4, 1776 have been written. Ratified on July 4, signed on August 2, the Declaration of Independence will never be erased. But its ideals can be forgotten, twisted, evaded, or ignored. We can not let that happen. The Fourth of July reminds us that the fight for freedom is a philosophical fight—fought not on foreign military battlefields but right here at home, on the intellectual battleground of ideas. Freedom can not be won and secured by the sword. It can only be won by the pen. It’s not enough to merely uphold the U.S. Constitution, either in its original form or in its current “living” form. We must remember and reassert “The Conscience of the Constitution,” as one scholar called the Declaration of Independence. It is indispensable intellectual ammunition for those of us fighting to establish the fully free society that the Founders envisioned and came close to achieving.
Proof of the moral and practical power and viability of individual liberty is written across the brief span of the past 241 years. The ideas of reason, individualism, and capitalism have been unleashed. The philosophical foundation for an American rebirth has been laid by a Twentieth Century philosopher/novelist whom I call America's Last Founding Father, and the final rout of statism is tantalizingly close—yet still so far.
“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 closing out the Declaration with that pledge, those great men of 1776 declared that they would accept no substitute for the ideals in which they believed. As the world watched, they laid it all on the line—their property, their families, their lives—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.
The Conscience of the Constitution: The Declaration of Independence and the Right to Liberty – Timothy Sandefur