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The Meaning of Independence Day - June 30, 2005


The Meaning of Independence Day



July 4, 1826:  the Fourth of July – the fiftieth Fourth of July.  In Quincy, Massachusetts a 92-year-old man, John Adams – the second President of the United States, the first Vice President of the United States, and a signer of the Declaration of Independence – is on his deathbed.  550 miles away, in Charlottesville, Virginia, an 83-year-old man, Thomas Jefferson – the third President of the United States, the first Secretary of State and the second Vice President, and a signer and the principal author of the Declaration of Independence – also is on his deathbed.  Both men, after public careers spanning 50 years which had almost destroyed their friendship when they headed rival national political parties, had reconciled in their later years, exchanging a series of fascinating letters commenting on their diverse interests in farming, law, history, politics, religion, and the classics.   

Among these subjects, Adams and Jefferson also exchanged their remembrances about the American Revolution, the most important event in their lives – indeed, the event that defined their lives and the nation to which they were devoted.  They compared notes on the steps leading to independence, on the evolution of public opinion – the change in “the hearts and minds of the people,” as Adams put it, that transformed Americans from loyal subjects of British King George III to a people prepared to fight – prepared to risk their “lives, fortunes, and sacred honor,” in a bloody, eight-year war – for their independence.  They compared notes on their fellow signers of the Declaration, America’s founding document that proclaimed to “a candid world” the justification for American independence.  Of the 55 men who signed the document in the summer of 1776 (not on July 4th – that was the date the Continental Congress adopted the Declaration – but in the weeks that followed), few were still alive.  There were Adams, Jefferson, and Charles Carroll of Carrollton, Maryland – the longest-lived of the signers, who would die in 1832 at the age of 95. 

As they were dying, both Adams and Jefferson had in their last thoughts the American Revolution and the Declaration they had signed.  Both men had a chance to more formally express their thoughts on the significance of the 50th anniversary of American independence:  Adams, asked to suggest a toast for a celebratory dinner he was too ill to attend, had stated, simply, “Independence Forever!”  Jefferson, asked to attend the 50th anniversary celebration in Washington, D.C., also declined due to poor health; instead, he wrote a letter – the last letter from Jefferson’s pen – eloquently stating his views of the importance of the occasion: 

“May it be to the world, what I believe it will be (to some parts sooner, to others later, but finally to all), the signal of arousing men to burst the chains under which monkish ignorance and superstition had persuaded them to bind themselves, and to assume the blessings and security of self-government.  That form which we have substituted, restores the free right to the unbounded exercise of reason and freedom of opinion.  All eyes are opened, or opening, to the rights of man.  The general spread of the light of science has already laid open to every view the palpable truth, that the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately, by the grace of God.  These are grounds of hope for others.  For ourselves, let the annual return of this day forever refresh our recollections of these rights, and an undiminished devotion to them.”


(Thomas Jefferson to Roger C. Weightman, June 24, 1826.) 

On that fateful day marking the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, some of the last words the two men uttered concerned that Declaration and its signers.  Jefferson, awakening during the evening of July 3, said to his doctor and others attending him, “This is the fourth of July.” Told that it would be soon, he slept again, awakening briefly later that night to refuse some medication and awakening again early the morning of July 4.  He quietly expired hours later, at about 1:00 p.m.  Adams also had inquired of the date.  Told that it was the Fourth, he responded clearly, “It is a great day.  It is a good day.”  Late in the afternoon, not knowing that his old friend had predeceased him, Adams uttered the words “Thomas Jefferson still survives”; he died at about 6:30 p.m. 

            As David McCullough notes in his biography of Adams, “That John Adams and Thomas Jefferson had died on the same day, and that it was, of all days, the Fourth of July, could not be seen as mere coincidence: it was a `visible and palpable’ manifestation of `Divine favor,’ wrote John Quincy [Adams] in his diary that night, expressing what was felt and would be said again and again everywhere the news spread. . . . In the weeks and months that followed, eulogies to Adams and Jefferson were delivered in all parts of the country, and largely in the spirit that their departure should not be seen as a mournful event.”  Their death, on the nation’s 50th birthday, said Daniel Webster in a two-hour eulogy in Boston, “was `proof’ from on high `that our country, and its benefactors, are objects of His care.’”  Notwithstanding such sentiments, one needn’t resort to divine intervention to explain the coincidence of Adams’ and Jefferson’s deaths both on that significant day:  it is fairly clear that the two men willed that their lives be concluded on the day they both so revered. 

Adams’ and Jefferson’s reverence for Independence Day suggests, moreover, that they were moved by more than mere patriotism.  The significance of American independence was not merely that it occasioned American nationhood – that it gave birth to the United States of America (in theory at least, for it several more years of bloody war before Great Britain would official recognize American independence in the Treaty of Paris of 1783) – but, rather, its true significance lay in what the new nation stood for, the principles for which the American Revolution was fought. 

Those principles were stated succinctly in the second paragraph of the Declaration – a part of the document drafted by Jefferson that was left largely unchanged by Congress, for it expressed so well the consensus of the delegates:  the “harmonizing sentiments of the day,” as Jefferson put it, that all American “whigs,” or Patriots, believed.  “We hold these truths to be self-evident:  that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable 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 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.” 

The words are familiar to most Americans – indeed, to most of the people of the world – but their meaning may be less familiar, notwithstanding Jefferson’s genius in stating the American founding principles so directly and explicitly.  Although some modern scholars have tried to twist the words’ meanings into something foreign to the Founders’ intent, to promote modern political agendas, the words truly mean exactly what they say.   By their nature as human beings, individuals have certain rights, which they hold equally with all other individuals.  The purpose of government is to “secure” these rights, and the only powers government legitimately may exercise in order to achieve this purpose are those powers which the people have consented to grant it.  (By “people,” we mean all the individuals composing a given society.)  The people retain the ultimate political power in society; they may exercise it, by altering or even abolishing the existing government, in order to better safeguard their rights.  (A corollary principle in the Declaration, also found in the second paragraph, states that “prudence” dictates that “governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes”; but when “a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same object, evinces a design to reduce them under absolute despotism,” it is their right – indeed, “it is their duty” – to throw off such government and institute a new one.  The long list of complaints against British King George III that comprises the main body of the Declaration’s text was intended to show such a “long train of abuses and usurpations” to justify American independence from his government.) 

The United States of America is unique among the nations of the world in celebrating, as the date of its founding, a philosophical event:  the Congress’s adoption of this Declaration that not only justified the American war for independence against Britain but also identified the unique principles on which the new nation would be founded.  And the principles of the Declaration – the philosophy of government so well stated in its second paragraph – are truly unique, truly radical, truly revolutionary, in the broadest senses of those terms.  Never before in human history had any political society been so explicitly founded on the propositions that the rights of the individual come first, and that not only was it the purpose of government to protect those rights but also that the very legitimacy of government itself depended on how well it truly did safeguard the rights of the individual.  Every other society on earth, before and after 1776, has been founded on some collectivist premise:  the rights of the individual, to whatever extent a given society recognizes them, always have been subordinated to the perceived “good” of the collective (whether it was a nationality, an ethnicity or a race, a religious group, or some other group).  But the United States of America have put the rights of the individual first. 

Those rights, moreover, exist prior to and logically independent of all human laws.  They derive, as the Declaration puts it, from “the laws of nature and of nature’s God”; in other words, they inhere in each individual human being because of his or nature as a human being.  To say that all persons are “endowed by their Creator” with certain rights is to say that these rights are derived from persons’ nature as human beings.  (Persons of religious belief may view these rights as “God-given,” while atheists may view them as simply “natural”; either way, such rights are based, not on social conventions, but on the objective reality of human existence.)   

The three fundamental rights stated in the Declaration – life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness – all pertain to the individual, specifically to an individual’s freedom of action, in the social context.  They mean, essentially, that every person owns his or her own life.  The right to life means more than merely the right to survive, biologically; it means the right to live as a human being properly should live – the right to “flourish” (as we might roughly translate Aristotle’s term for this) – as an autonomous, self-directed, rational and volitional being.  The right to liberty means more than merely being free from physical restraint (freedom to move about); it means being free to live one’s life as one chooses and to enter into contracts (voluntary agreements for mutual benefit) with other persons.  And the right to pursuit of happiness means that persons have the freedom to pursue whatever projects they believe are conducive to their happiness.  (It does not mean the right to be happy, only to pursue it:  it does not guarantee any results, but only the freedom to exercise the means to whatever might help bring happiness into one’s life.)   

All these rights, as natural rights, are subject to one fundamental limitation, found in the law of nature (which was based on reason, as noted by English philosopher John Locke, whose Treatise on Government was read and followed by Jefferson and his fellow delegates).  That natural law teaches that, all persons being equal and independent in their “state of nature,” no one ought to harm another, in his life, person, or property.  In other words, everyone ought to respect everyone else’s equal right to these fundamental rights of life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness – which means that in exercising his own freedom, every person ought not to interfere with others’ equal right to exercise theirs.  That’s the sense in which “all men are created equal,” as the Declaration states.  (Indeed, the influence of John Locke’s ideas about the “state of nature” can be seen in Jefferson’s original rough draft of the second paragraph, where he wrote:  “All men are created equal and independent” – the same words found in the relevant passage from Locke’s Second Treatise – “and from that equal creation, they derive” certain inherent rights. 

When the Declaration states that the purpose of government is to “secure” these rights of the individual, it is expressing a philosophy of government that is truly radical, or revolutionary, for it disregards virtually everything that Old World classical or medieval political thought taught about the role of government and its relation to society.   The traditional view was that government was organic, something that itself was based either on human nature or on God’s law (as certain people believed it):  for example, the theory that kings ruled by “divine right.”  Whatever rights individuals had in society derived largely from their status, or social class (indeed, under the traditional view, it could be argued that individuals had no rights, as individual human beings, but only as members of particular groups, or classes); that those rights in turn were whatever government permitted them to do.  A paternalistic government, in which a king (or some body like Parliament) “looked after” its subjects, as a dictatorial father might “look after” his children – giving them freedom to do only what they were permitted to do – was the norm, from the ancient world all the way up to the “constitutional” monarchies (like Great Britain) in the early modern period of European history. 

In adopting the Declaration of Independence, America’s founders declared that government was not natural or God-given:  only the rights of individuals were.  Government, in contrast, was an artificial contrivance, a machine, created by “the people” (again, the mass of individuals in a given society) for the limited purpose of securing their natural rights.  (The reasons why government is necessary – the “inconveniences” that occur in “the state of nature,” or a society without government – also were discussed in Locke’s Second Treatise and understood by the delegates to the Second Continental Congress.  They also understood, as Thomas Paine so eloquently put it in his pamphlet Common Sense (printed earlier in 1776), that although government was necessary, it also was “evil,” because by its very nature – its unique character as the only entity in society that legitimately may use force – it’s inherently dangerous to individual rights.  What results is what I call the “Lockean paradox” – that government, the very institution created to protect individual rights, poses the greatest danger to them – the solution to which leads to written constitutions, with all the various safeguards the American founders devised during the period of constitution-making in the 1770s and 1780s.) 

America’s founders thus, essentially, turned on its head the traditional theory of politics:  instead of the powers of government being derived from nature, with individuals left whatever freedoms government allowed them, the Founders understood individual rights as derived from nature, with government being created for the sole legitimate purpose of safeguarding those rights.  Rather than a paternalistic government that would dictate how people ought to live their lives, in the name of “securing” them or making them “good” subjects,” their ideal was a limited government – a government limited to those few functions necessary truly to safeguard individuals’ rights (which is to say, a government limited to enforcing the natural law that persons ought not harm one another) – but which otherwise left individuals free to govern themselves, free to control or “own” their own lives.  And since freedom also entails responsibility – for freedom to act, and responsibility for one’s own actions, go hand in hand – the Founders’ ideal means a society in which individuals, as far as possible (consistent with the equal rights of others) are both free to live as they choose and responsible for the choices they make.  (That is what Jefferson meant in his 1826 letter by the “blessings and security” of “self-government.”)  Government would be left with just a few basic functions:  making laws to define with precision individuals’ rights (particularly property rights), enforcing those laws through courts that also were empowered to adjudicate disputes between individuals over their rights, and safeguarding the society as a whole, and individuals within it, from violent attack, from foreign invaders or domestic criminals.  Everything else would be left to “society,” that is, to the contracts entered into by individuals, voluntarily, for their mutual benefit.  Another term for this is the free market, for it is the market that provides order in society by coordinating the cooperative actions of free individuals. 

Following the Declaration of Independence, America’s founders created new, republican governments (governments based on the consent of the people of the 13 new American states, not on the dictate of the British king or his government).  More importantly, as noted above, they also created written constitutions – largely by a process of trial and error – during the decades of the 1770s and 1780s, in which the powers of these new republican governments were defined and limited, through various structural devices such as separation of powers and the inclusion of bills of rights explicitly protecting certain individual rights (typically those, like trial by jury or freedom of religion, which English history demonstrated were apt to be abridged by government abusing its powers).  The Founders sought to transform American law, to make it consistent with the new philosophy of government expressed in the Declaration.  In this, they were only partially successful:  many parts of English law (both its substance and its procedures or institutions) were retained in America, even though they were philosophically inconsistent with the revolutionary individualist principles of the American Revolution.  Indeed, throughout the founding period and into the early national period – that is, through the entire decade of the 1790s – the two national political parties that emerged, the Federalist party and the Jeffersonian Republican party, contested over fundamental questions about public policy and interpreting the Constitution, in which both sides thought they were “securing” the Revolution.  Significantly, when Jefferson won election as president and his Republican party gained a majority of seats in Congress in 1801, he saw that electoral change – the “Revolution of 1800” – in terms of securing the principles of 1776, as he understood them.  And in stating the policies of his administration, Jefferson emphasized limited government and individual freedom.  For example, in a letter written during his first term as president, Jefferson wrote of "the interesting experiment of self-government" in which the United States would show the rest of the world "the degree of freedom and self-government in which a society may venture to leave its individual members."   

Some thirty years later, when the young French aristocrat Alexis de Tocqueville visited America, he was so struck by the freedom enjoyed by Americans – and the relative equality in exercising that freedom that individuals in America experienced – that he coined the term individualism to describe it.  Discussing this phenomenon as he observed it, Tocqueville observed that Americans “owe nothing to any man, they expect nothing from any man; they acquire the habit of always considering themselves as standing alone, and they are apt to imagine that their whole destiny is in their own hands.” 

Thankfully, individualism remains an essential, defining characteristic in American society today.  That’s especially important because, in many respects, the United States has betrayed the revolutionary principles of its founding.  Instead of having an even smaller government, with just a few laws clearly protecting individuals’ rights – the progress that the Founders imagined (for they believed that as society became more complex – that is, as the free market provided more and more of the order in society that previously had been imposed by government, the need to use force to govern men would diminish) – we have, especially over the course of the past hundred years, erected a huge government, at all levels (especially the national government), that imposes itself more and more into the daily lives of Americans.  The principal reason for this is that rather than following the truly revolutionary (and truly “progressive”) principles of 1776, our policy makers (and the people who foolishly continue electing them) have revived the paternalistic policies of the Old World classical-medieval theory of government.  With the growth of the 20th-century regulatory “welfare state,” we have abandoned the revolutionary ideals of our Founders, for we (many of us, at least) seem to value “security” more than freedom and thus would rather have government dictate how we should live rather than accept responsibility for our own choices.  We have failed to heed the wisdom of Benjamin Franklin, who in 1759 observed, “They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.” 

Individuals in America today are far less free – far less in charge of their own lives, with the freedom to act and the responsibility for their actions that self-ownership entails – than they were at the time of the nation’s founding.  To take just a few basic examples, persons cannot enter freely the occupation of their choice (entry into many occupations, not just “professions,” is limited by licensing laws), nor can they work at any job for which they find a willing employee (the freedom of employees and employers to bargain over wages and other working conditions is limited by minimum-wage laws and other labor legislation).   Business owners cannot run their businesses as they please (everything from their employment policies, their advertising, and even their sales contracts are subject to government regulations); they no longer have the common-law right to refuse to deal with someone, as either employee or customer (that right has been severely abridged by state and federal laws prohibiting various types of discrimination), and their freedom to grow their business is subject to the limitations of state and federal antitrust laws.  Certain types of speech – not just sexually-explicit speech deemed “obscene” by the courts but also so-called “commercial speech” and even pure political speech, in the context of political campaigns – are subject to various government restrictions, carrying criminal penalties.  People no longer have the freedom to eat whatever foods they wish or to ingest into their bodies whatever drugs they wish to use; federal regulation of foods and drugs and the government’s “war” on narcotic drugs have taken away the free-market in foods and drugs that existed prior to the 20th century.  And everyone today lacks the basic freedom to take responsibility for their retirement years (the compulsory Social Security program has undermined that), just as everyone today who pays state and federal taxes is deprived, on the average, of half of his or her earnings, by the tax laws that forceably take the wealth they have created and distribute it to other people, deemed “entitled” to that wealth by politicians who benefit from their votes. 

The American Revolution did not end in 1776; nor did it end in any other year marking the great milestones in American political or constitutional history:  not in 1783 (with the end of the Revolutionary War and Britain’s recognition of American independence in the Treaty of Paris), not in 1787 (with the drafting of the U.S. Constitution), not in 1789 or 1791 (with the Constitution’s final ratification and the addition of the Bill of Rights amendments), not in 1801 (with the inauguration of Thomas Jefferson, the first transfer of power from one political party to another), not in 1861 (with the Southern states of the Confederacy’s attempted secession from the United States) nor in 1865 (with the Union’s military victory over the Confederacy and the vindication on the battlefield it gave to Abraham Lincoln’s notion of the United States as an “indivisible union” of states).  Neither did the American Revolution end at any time in the 20th century, notwithstanding the political movements of those decades – the so-called “Progressive” movement and the “New Deal,” the civil rights movement, the feminist movement and other social/political movements of the Sixties, as well as the so-called “Reagan Revolution” of the 1980s – movements that actually, in many respects, set back the progress achieved with the American Revolution and its evolution in the 19th century.  

No – the American Revolution is not yet complete; it is unfinished, which is to say, it’s an ongoing revolution, which requires an ongoing effort by those of us who share the principles of 1776, to make America’s legal, political, and constitutional system truly consistent with the ideals on which it was founded – to fulfill the radical promises of 1776.  As long as the rights of individuals are still not fully protected; as long as our legal and constitutional system fails to safeguard all aspects of liberty (not just certain kinds of “personal freedom” preferred by certain political groups – such as religious freedom by conservatives, or “privacy” rights by liberals – but all kinds of individual freedom, including economic freedom and property rights); as long as our political system continues to permit one group of persons (whether or not they’re in the majority) to deprive other persons of their true rights, in the name of “democracy” or “the public good” or “security” or “social justice” or some other ideal foreign to the American Revolution – as long as these things hold true, the Revolution remains incomplete.   

Moreover, to really complete the political revolution of 1776 Americans need to undergo a more profound revolution in thought and in culture:  we must continue to work for a full intellectual revolution – one that transforms not just our legal and political systems but our entire culture, replacing Old World altruistic/collectivist/paternalistic ideals (and the moral code that preaches them) with New World, or Enlightenment, individualist ideals (and a new moral code based on them).  The work that men like Adams and Jefferson started in 1776 remains for their intellectual descendants to strive to finish. 

The great 20th-century philosopher and novelist Ayn Rand put it nicely in her 1961 essay For the New Intellectual"The world crisis of today is a moral crisis--and nothing less than a moral revolution can resolve it: a moral revolution to sanction and complete the political achievement of the American Revolution."  


John Adams foresaw that Americans would continue celebrating Independence Day as their great national anniversary, although he was wrong about the date – he assumed that it would be July 2nd, the date the Congress adopted the resolution of independence, rather than July 4th, the date Congress adopted the Declaration – and he even anticipated how Independence Day would be celebrated.  In a letter to his wife, Abigail, written July 3, 1776, the day after Congress voted for independence, Adams predicted:  “The Second Day of July 1776 will be the most memorable Epocha in the History of America.  I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated, by succeeding Generations, as the great anniversary Festival.  It ought to be commemorated, as the Day of Deliverance by solemn Acts of Devotion to God Almighty.  It ought to be solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires, and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more.” 

What Adams failed to anticipate, except perhaps in his greatest fears about the future of his country, was that in celebrating Independence Day, modern-day Americans would tend to celebrate only the superficial consequences of their nation’s independence – treating it merely as a celebration of patriotism – rather than the true significance of the American Revolution, the principles of 1776.  It’s ironic – and more than a little bit sad – that this summer Congress will consider, among other inadvisable pieces of legislation, a proposed constitutional amendment that will allow it to make burning (or other desecration) of the U.S. flag a criminal offense.  In the name of patriotism, many of our political leaders – supported by a large (and vocal) portion of their constituents – are prepared to sacrifice a fundamental American principle (the individual’s natural, inherent right to freedom of expression) for the sake of a mere symbol (the flag) – in other words, to sacrifice part of the substance of what makes America great to the material object that at most merely represents it.   

To really celebrate Independence Day, Americans must rededicate themselves to the principles of 1776, and particularly to the absolute importance of individual rights – not the pseudo-rights imagined by proponents of the welfare state, but the genuine rights (properly understood) of individuals to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.  We must also rededicate ourselves to the Declaration’s standard for the legitimacy of government – a government that is limited to the safeguarding of these rights, not to their destruction – and, with this, an acceptance of the principle that outside this sphere of legitimacy, individuals have the freedom (and the responsibility) of governing themselves.  As Thomas Jefferson put it in his 1826 letter, “let the annual return of this day forever refresh our recollections of these rights, and an undiminished devotion to them.”


      | Link to this Entry | Posted Thursday, June 30, 2005 | Copyright David N. Mayer