Our national days vary in the ways they honor and memorialize features of our civic life. They range from the most individual, Martin Luther King, to the most symbolic, Flag Day. Yet, they center on an origin fundamental to the rest, the 4th of July. The 4th is our most peculiar celebration.
It is peculiar because we celebrate it with fireworks, firepower, parades, martial music and pyrotechnic speeches. It’s been this way since the beginning, even before the beginning when on July 3, 1776, John Adams imagined how future celebrations would be.
It is peculiar because what the 4th of July commemorates is a document, and the resolution that document supports. We don’t even celebrate the ratification of our constitution, as some other nations do, in the way we herald the Declaration of Independence. That declaration, its particular content, and the actions that share in turning its principles into reality are more than memorable. They are the organic foundation of our way of life and the key to every other national holiday.
We may know a little of the chain of events that drove the thirteen colonies to come together in the Continental Congress, beginning September 1774, and to work out common actions. As John Adams wrote home to Abigail, “Yesterday the greatest Question was decided, which ever was debated in America, and a greater perhaps, never was or will be decided among men. A resolution was passed without one dissenting colony 'that these united Colonies, are, and of right ought to be free and independent states.' You will see in a few days a Declaration setting forth the causes, which have impelled us to this mighty Revolution, and the Reasons which will justify it.”
The Continental Congress accepted the one path to which the spiraling conflict with the British had driven it: independence. After amendments of its own, the Congress passed the declaration that its committee reported to them. In time all delegates signed it, including those not present at its hearing and one other seated weeks after the others had signed. What they endorsed and published, upon threat of execution for treason, was a statement of political principles or truths, so widely held as to be self-evident.
Twenty-seven statements, offered as facts, substantiate how the King of Great Britain, George III, referred to only as “he,” acted in a tyrannical fashion contrary to the implied ideals of civil government and a free people. Two consequent paragraphs round up the situation: this same king has failed to hear cause for redress. The colonies have no choice but to sever their ties of allegiance and pledge their lives, fortunes and sacred honor in defense of their independent status among the nations of the world.
All are created equal and endowed with certain unalienable rights, among them life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. To secure these rights the governed institue governments, but when governments abuse their authority and exercise undue tyranny over rights, it becomes the right and duty of the governed to throw off the oppression.
One could say that the rest is history, except that ours is neither an automatic history nor a finished one. Though Jefferson and his compatriots had become imbued by natural law (Newton and those who made him popular) and natural rights (chiefly Locke), how these ideas are to work out in political and practical ways has taken the following decades of discussion, trial and refinement.
Are we not still on the way to equality while securing the blessings of life, liberty and happiness? And how have we been persistent to attend to the responsibilities of informed consent in our governance? How have we ever settled questions of rights and justice in representative government when minorities and shifting majorities continue to clash?
To most suitably and profitably address the promise of the 4th of July and thereby rightly celebrate it, first dive into the Declaration of Independence itself. Copies are abundant. Savor its meaning and act upon its living impact. May we be more enlightened from our borning document than from any rocket’s red glare.
© 2006, 2009 by Roger Sween.
First published as “A peculiar Fourth warrants some investigation: commentary,” Republican Eagle (June 28, 2006) 4, and here revised.
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