“And why, I ask myself, why have I put up with you? I can't imagine, but now I know. Fear. Yellow freakin' fear. I've been too chicken shit afraid to live my life so I sold it to you for three hundred freakin' dollars a week!”
—Tom Hanks as Joe Banks in Joe Versus The Volcano
This morning my youngest was working on a word search puzzle titled “4th of July Word Find.” And as I looked at that and pondered it it occurred to me that there was something significantly wrong with that title. So I took it from her, borrowed her pencil, and I replaced “4th of July” with “Independence Day.” She looked at me with a quizzical face and said, “Daddy, those are the same thing.”
No, they’re not. And the distinction is huge.
“4th of July” is a date on the calendar, like any other date except that it is a federal holiday and the banks and post office are closed. We mark it with fireworks and beer, but it could just as easily be the 2nd of July, the 15th of March, or the 28th of February. It’s an arbitrary point in time as we reckon and count it.
“Independence Day” is an idea, and it is that idea that we honor and celebrate on that fourth day in the month of July. And unfortunately as time passes that idea is becoming an ever fainter image of its former self.
We place Independence Day on July 4 because that is the day our Declaration of Independence was formally adopted by the Continental Congress. But although the document was adopted and signed on the 4th, the actual separation from Britain was accomplished by the adoption of a resolution of independence two days earlier. The Declaration itself formalized and explained the reasoning behind what the Continental Congress had in fact already done.
So what is this idea we celebrate with Independence Day? Jefferson very eloquently laid it out in his opening of the Declaration (which everyone should read periodically—it’s not long, and it’s not a difficult read):
“When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.
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. 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 of 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. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.”
We rightly tend to focus on Jefferson’s statement of our “self-evident” freedoms of Life, Liberty, and pursuit of Happiness. But in so doing we lose sight of the fundamental point of the document, which is that government exists solely by virtue of what power the governed willingly give it, and when that government goes beyond its proper authority the governed have the right to terminate that government and start over:
“[W]henever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government[.]”
In other words, when government gets too big for its britches, the people always have the right to kick it out. That is what the Founders were doing with the Declaration: terminating their relationship with and subordination to a government that had gone too far out of control.
If you read the Declaration it is clear that the Founders intended an extremely limited role for government. Its sole function was to secure our fundamental rights to live, have our private property (i.e. the fruit of our labor) protected, and to be able to pursue our interests without interference from government or others. That is, Government was to preserve an orderly society in which people would be free to go about their business and live their lives without having to worry about someone else killing them, taking their stuff, or getting in the way. Nothing more. That’s what liberty and freedom were.
Part of the price of that liberty and freedom is responsibility. You are free to live your life, but you have to take care of yourself and your family. You have to provide for your own needs, make your own provisions for medical care, save for your own old age, etc. Freedom includes the ability to go as far as your talent, labor, and interest will take you, but with that necessarily includes the possibility of failure. The Founders never intended for government to give you your life, only to protect your ability to do with it what you will.
The problem is over the last hundred years or so, politicians discovered that people like it when government gives them stuff, so they’ve increasingly introduced programs and policies that, under the guise of helping you, have institutionalized themselves as a permanent ruling class. We’re so afraid of failure that instead of living our lives ourselves, we’ve become dependent on government to do things for us. But it can only do that by taking what it gives away from someone else, and/or by in the process acquiring a little more power by taking a little more of your freedom to live your life on your own. Liberty is thus incrementally lost to government creep until one day we find there is none left and the Beast has slowly but ever so surely swallowed us whole.
Today we celebrate our Independence Day, when our Fathers exercised their God-given natural right to throw off the shackles of a government that had gone too far out of its proper bounds. It was a bold and even dangerous action, defying a sovereign backed by the most powerful military on the planet. A quotation often attributed to Benjamin Franklin at the signing of the Declaration goes, “We must, indeed, all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately.” He may or may not have said that, but the Founders were undoubtedly aware that they were literally risking everything they had for the cause of being rid of tyranny.
If we do not learn from their example, if we do not stand up and resist a government that no longer confines itself to its appropriate role, we soon may find that Independence Day has become nothing more than the 4th of July.