As a child, Independence Day was my favorite holiday – because of the fireworks, of course, and because it meant that, the following day, I’d get to blow out candles, eat cake and open presents for my birthday.
Now that I’m an adult, it’s still one of my favorites. I don’t get as many presents these days, fireworks won’t light up the sky in many places because of the fire danger caused by the drought, and I shouldn’t eat cake because of my diabetes. (Shhhhh. Don’t tell anyone, but I’m going to do that anyway. I’ve given myself permission to indulge once in a blue moon.)
These days, the reason I like the holiday is what it stands for: not just the birth of my nation but even more than that, as the name indicates, independence.
It marks the date of publication for the Declaration of Independence, a document that begins memorably by naming three “unalienable” rights: Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
Independence meant, according to those who penned this document and the 56 men who signed it, the ability to exercise these “self-evident” rights.
Almost half the Declaration is a laundry list of grievances against the British Empire, the authors’ justification for declaring their freedom from what they described as “an absolute Tyranny over these states.” Each of those grievances, these men felt, denied them one or more of those three basic rights they spelled out in their introduction.
They made their case to the world in this document, published on July 4, 1776.
This happened before the adoption of the Constitution, which wouldn’t even be drafted until more than a decade later. It happened long before two major parties came to dominate the nation’s politics. It was before the Civil War and the Civil Rights Movement, before greenbacks and the Red Scare, before the “liberal media” and “conservative talk radio.”
The Declaration’s authors were writing on a clean slate, and the first three principles they highlighted were Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. Philosophically, everything else the nation, and we as citizens of that nation, stand for rests on that – even the Constitution. Whereas the list of grievances in the Declaration set forth the founders’ ideas of what freedom wasn’t, the Bill of Rights laid out what they thought it was: specific rights to such things as a public trial, free assembly and expression, freedom from the establishment of religion by law, and so on. But again, all were based on those three self-evident, founding principles set forth in the Declaration.
If we interpret the Constitution in such a way that infringes upon Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness, we may not be breaking the letter of the law, but we’re violating its spirit. Its inspiration.
As an author, I can tell you that, without inspiration, there would be no story, let alone a happy ending.
Independence was meant to be not only the beginning for these United States, but the mechanism by which we endured from one happy ending to the next. Not just independence as a nation, but independence as people.
The grievances in the Declaration might be summed up in the simple, defiant statement, “No one’s going to tell us (or U.S.) what to do.”
That’s why the Fourth of July is more than a celebration of our nation’s independence. It’s an affirmation of our independence as individuals, of our freedom to assert those three unalienable rights.
We can’t do that without independence of thought, without the willingness to stay off the bandwagon. The willingness to question the dogmatism of our politicians, religious leaders, buzzwords, sound bites and ad campaigns – those professed “truths” that seek to pass themselves off as self-evident when they may not even be true at all.
We can argue until we’re red, white and blue in the face - wrapping ourselves in the language of patriotism as much as we want - over how to interpret the Constitution.
But unless our interpretation upholds those three unalienable rights that undergird the Declaration, we do ourselves and our country a grave disservice.
That may not be a matter of law, but it’s essential to spirit.
The spirit of 1776.