Today, I will honor the memory of Washington, Jefferson, and the other brave men who waged the War of Independence. But I will not insult the Founders by claiming that the form of government they established is the same one that exists at the present day.
My understanding of Independence Day has changed a lot over the years.
As a very small child, it was the day when I would go with my family to a vantage point in the Arizona desert to watch the fireworks appear. I did not yet know that fireworks were man-made, it seemed to me that they were just a natural atmospheric phenomenon that occurred each year on the Fourth of July.
As a slightly older boy, I got to have the experience of celebrating the holiday in Indiana, where it’s impossible to overlook the fact that fireworks are artificial, because everybody – even the children – has the pleasure of setting them off themselves.
And besides the fireworks, my childhood Independence Days were celebrated in the usual way with parades, barbecues, and family gatherings, of which I have many fond memories. As a teenager I became aware that public readings of the Declaration of Independence had at one point in history been part of the retinue, but my attempts to reintroduce the practice at our barbecues inspired little more than quaint amusement.
Most Americans see the Fourth of July as a celebration of their flag, their military, their government, and some vague concept of national unity. But to me, Independence Day is now a celebration of one thing: the Declaration of Independence.
Not the flag. Not the troops. Not even the constitution. Only the document that says that when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce us under absolute Despotism, it is our right, it is our duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for our future security.
And, of course, Independence Day is also a day for celebrating the heroes like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin and John Adams, Paul Revere and Joseph Warren and Daniel Morgan and all the other brave men who fought in the War of Independence to make those words a reality.
The first Fourth of July wasn’t about flags – the colonists had just done away with the Union Jack, and weren’t even agreed on what their new flag would look like. It wasn’t about the troops, some of whom were fighting on their side of the war, and some of whom weren’t. It wasn’t about a certain form of government, so much as their right to break down and reestablish governments when they felt the need to do so. And the spirit of that first July Fourth was flatly opposed to any ideal of national unity.
Rather, that Fourth of July was about freedom and independence and local self-rule, and the right of the elected colonial legislatures to break away from an oppressive central government that wouldn’t recognize their rights.
Some people, when they give their speeches today, will laud the Founding Fathers for setting up a written constitution that has endured for 231 years and is protecting the rights of Americans even today. I will not be doing so.
I am not going to pretend that the Founders gave Congress the power to regulate every aspect of American life, or that they intended to set up a welfare state in which a quarter of the country’s collective income is redirected to somebody other than the one who earned it. I will not claim that the country with the highest incarceration rate in the world has somehow managed that feat while adhering to constitutional protections of defendants’ rights. I will not claim that the Founders gave the president the power to unilaterally start wars anywhere in the world, or that they gave five judges on the Supreme Court the power to rewrite the constitution at will, and to veto all state laws of which they disapprove.
I will not insult the Founders by claiming that the government we have now is the same one that they created. Rather, I will give them credit for what they actually did – waging a successful war of independence, and setting up a good constitution that lasted as long as the people were willing to fight to defend it.
But the Founders did not set up a constitution capable of protecting our liberties for all time without any further need for rebellions or wars of independence. They did not even try to do such a thing. They were wiser than that. They knew that revolutions are necessary from time to time.
And they knew that, while the Constitution may dabble in checks and balances, the Declaration of Independence is the Check of Checks, for no mere words on a page can constrain the ambitions of aspiring despots when the common people are unwilling to bear arms against a government that acknowledges no limits on its power.
Today, I am celebrating a time in my country’s history when men were braver than they are today. I am honouring the 6,824 patriots who fell in battle during the Revolutionary War, and the nearly 20,000 more who died of disease and starvation on rotting British prison ships in New York Harbour.
And I will do what I can to keep a memory of that time alive, in the hopes that somewhere, someday, our country’s founding principle – that loyalty to one’s government is never more important than the human rights which that government was meant to defend – will once again find widespread acceptance.