The lasting relevance of the declaration
Happy Fourth of July! America’s 238th birthday party is being celebrated in the usual way all weekend with fireworks, cookouts, parades and patriotic songs. Words from the Declaration of Independence are recited at some events to remind us of the founding ideals of our nation. While the world has changed dramatically since 1776, those ideals remain as relevant today as they were when Thomas Jefferson first committed them to paper.
Sadly, as we celebrate in 2014, many Americans wonder if our nation has passed its peak. Pessimism seems to be the official national mood, and voters are disgusted with the incompetence, petty partisanship and childish behavior of our elected politicians. The political elite has done a good job earning that reputation.
The root problem is that official Washington would like to ignore the ideals we celebrate on July 4.
In “The Conscience of the Constitution: The Declaration of Independence and the Right to Liber- ty,” Timothy Sandefur reminds us, “American constitutional history has always hovered in the mutual resistance of two principles: the right of each individual to be free and the power of the majority to make rules.”
The notion that freedom comes first — and that we have certain inalienable rights that not even government can take away — is what made the Declaration a truly revolutionary document. It’s also what made America a great nation.
That commitment to freedom is still embraced by Americans today, and it is the core of what Jefferson long ago called the “Spirit of ‘76”: the deeply held belief that each of us has the right to make our own decisions about our own life so long as we don’t interfere with the rights of others to do the same.
But it’s more than just a cry for freedom. There’s an aspirational quality to the founding spirit of our nation. We want to not only carry our own weight but contribute to society. We want to use our freedom to work together and create communities. We want to better ourselves, do all we can to make sure our children will be better off than we are, and create a better world. We believe that everybody should have the opportunity to make better lives for themselves.
In short, we want everybody to have a chance to succeed, and we want to leave our country in better shape than we found it.
That’s America at our best.
Unfortunately, in official Washington today, we see America at its worst. In their quest for power, political elites in both parties want to turn the nation’s core beliefs upside down. They believe the pow- er of government should be more important than individual rights. Policy discussions quickly degenerate into discussions of government-selected winners and losers. The end result is an overregulated and over-politicized nation.
The remedy is to recognize that in a diverse nation, there is no permanent majority. We all benefit when our rights are protected. Lasting political unity can come only from respecting freedom first. Abraham Lincoln, the president who preserved the Union and issued the Emancipation Proclamation, declared, “I have never had a feeling politically that did not spring from the sentiments embodied in the Declaration of Independence.”
That’s a feeling we should all cultivate to celebrate our nation’s birthday.