Life, Liberty, Pursuit of Happiness

Member Group : Lincoln Institute

There are perhaps a handful of documents whose importance will stand the test of time – the dead sea scrolls, the bible, or magna carta, for example. One of those documents, pulled from the shared human wisdom and yearning for freedom from across ages, was drafted over several hot weeks in Philadelphia some 235 years ago. I am speaking, of course, about the Declaration of Independence.

The declaration is a remarkable document in so many ways. It marked the beginning of the end of the British Empire. It challenged Monarchy itself as a viable governing institution. And it let the world know that "these united colonies are, and of right ought to be free and independent states."

Unlike what many at the time would have expected, the Declaration of Independence is not a Declaration of War. To the Continental Congress, war was only one of many ways to achieve what they sought – that is, the ability to exercise their god given right to self-government. Consequently the document that announced the aim of the already engaged battle makes it clear that this is a complete political separation, and that we hold the British "as we hold the rest of mankind, enemies in war, in peace friends."

But even more remarkable than this is how the preamble – in its eloquence and simplicity – has grown to transcend the country it helped create. After all, the preamble is perhaps best understood as the creed of human liberty, regardless of nationality. Consider the text:

"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."

Those 36 words echo across time. They will be remembered, as they express in perfect clarity mankind’s birthright. And even though the very author of those words owned slaves he too understood that someday we could – we must – live up to its charge.

The 4th of July recognizes that unique moment in American – and human – history. There is no battle that day to celebrate, nor does it mark the end of the war for independence. The 4th of July celebrates the ideals expressed in the Preamble.

Which is why the words and the holiday serve as an inspiration to many the world over. The impact of the words is obvious, but the holiday matters too, because the WAY we celebrate and what we celebrate tells part of the story. Author Erma Bombeck said it well: "You have to love a nation that celebrates its independence every July 4, not with a parade of guns, tanks, and soldiers who file by the White House in a show of strength and muscle, but with family picnics where kids throw Frisbees, the potato salad gets iffy, and the flies die from happiness."

There truly is a message in how we celebrate on July 4th. We honor victory, but not a military victory over a hated foe that allowed us to claim ground; we celebrate our nation – the People – claiming their Liberty.

That is not a uniquely American concept; Liberty is the right of all humanity – a fact the Founders clearly understood.

Consider the next part of the preamble:

"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."

Lincoln would echo this idea in the Gettysburg address, and Reagan would use a formulation of it 120 years after that. The power of that concept – that government is beholden to US, and not us to it – is hard to ignore.

But it is also hard to defend from the tyranny of the bureaucracy. Jefferson intended his words to serve as a reminder to posterity that it is very easy to lose that Liberty — and to remind us we must hold our government accountable if we want to keep that liberty.

It is a thought well worth remembering. I say this because, over the past 18 months, we have seen Government agencies seeking to impose policies that were defeated at the congressional level – ideas like card check and cap and trade. We have witnessed aggressive attempts to take over whole segments of the economy like healthcare. And we have watched it happen utilizing – and abusing – the very power we lent to our Government.

Reagan said "Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction. We didn’t pass it to our children in the bloodstream. It must be fought for, protected, and handed on for them to do the same, or one day we will spend our sunset years telling our children and our children’s children what it was once like in the United States where men were free."

Unlikely? Maybe. But only if we demand that our government be responsive to us, not the other way around.

That is, after all, what we celebrate on the 4th of July – our liberty and right to self-government.

So this 4th of July, think about that, and then raise a glass and give the only toast John Adams would offer days before his death on July 4th, 1826:

"Independence forever."