It’s been 244 years since the course of human events directed a group of American statesmen to declare their independence, based upon self-evident truths and individuals’ God-given natural rights. The Declaration of Independence, signed July 4, 1776, marked a shift in the political history of humankind. Until that point, nation states came into being through accident of geography and unbridled right of conquest.
The Thirteen Colonies, however made a conscious decision to unite under enlightenment ideals, filtered through the Christian preachers and pulpits of the day. This was a critical difference between the enlightenment in America, which ended in liberty, and the enlightenment in France, which ended in the guillotine. In the process, the Founding Fathers laid the foundations of liberal governments throughout the world. In the American Enlightenment, intellectual speculation for learned scholars became instead a revolution embraced by people of all backgrounds, stations, and faiths. Never had a government acknowledged the natural rights of all individuals.
It was a treasonous idea. The principles of liberty enshrined in the Declaration of Independence were not only a betrayal of allegiance to King George III, they betrayed the social conventions of the time, which did not recognize the freedoms Americans enjoy as natural rights that applied to all.
The result is our long-running experiment in freedom, embodied in this American Republic.
To be sure, the Spirit of ’76 wasn’t perfectly applied to our laws or institutions at the founding. The Founders accepted the establishment of the principle, which applied to all, as the key. They understood that the practice and enjoyment of the principle by all would come in time. Our nation has made great strides, from the abolition of the international slave trade to emancipation to women’s suffrage to the Civil Rights movement. Nevertheless, over the past few weeks, Americans have been keenly reminded that the promises made in the Declaration of Independence haven’t always been kept. Despite the inconsistent application of these principles, the spirit of the founding has never faltered. The belief in individual freedom secured by rule of law has remained strong enough to overcome wars, pandemics, and economic crises.
With considerable foresight, our Founders allowed for more freedoms and rights than acknowledged in the colonial era. In writing the Declaration, Thomas Jefferson declared that “among our unalienable Rights are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness,” but he made no attempt to compile a universal list of those other rights or put a limit on them.
Similarly, James Madison orchestrated the necessary compromises in the Constitutional Convention to ensure that our Constitution could adapt and survive over time with the Amendment Process in Article V. The Bill of Rights, in the Ninth Amendment, notes that the rights mentioned in the Constitution are not the only rights that exist. Those unenumerated rights still belong to the people. Over the course of our country’s history, we have continued to secure more freedoms for more people. In each of these victories for freedom, the Spirit of ’76 lives and grows.
While we have come a long way since 56 brave patriots signed their name to rebuke the King of England, we should always honor our founding and marvel at the courage and vision contained in the Declaration.
This year, Fourth of July celebrations may be affected and altered due to concerns about the coronavirus. Others may grapple with the very idea of Independence Day, citing injustices throughout our history as a reason to disregard the celebration. It is my hope that we use this day to reflect on the promise of our founding and our continued effort to achieve a more perfect union.
The United States is the first country to enjoy such a deliberate founding, and it remains the oldest democratic republic in the world and a model for others to follow. As Abraham Lincoln remarked, this is not an accident. We can attribute this to the brilliance of our founders and also to the grace of God that such an experiment has resulted in this great country.
I wish you a happy and blessed Fourth of July. And may God continue to bless America.
This opinion piece appeared in Miami Valley Today.