Sometimes the word is the deed.
To say I promise is to promise.
To say I am free is to stand up for yourself, to take the first step to freedom.
Americas independent stance began in earnest and in union with a few simple words:
Resolved, That these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent states, that they are absolved from all allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the state of Great Britain is, and ought to be, totally dissolved.
The resolution, written by Virginia representative Richard Henry Lee and accepted by a vote of colonial representatives, made history. As John Adams put it, [o]n July 2, 1776 the Association known as United Colonies of America officially became the United States of America.
But the words we remember better were written by another Virginian, Thomas Jefferson, and revised by Benjamin Franklin, Adams, and the Second Continental Congress. Indeed, this Declaration of Independence is the most inspiring statement for individual freedom in all of history. I reread it with pleasure and awe every July 4th — the 4th rather than the 2nd because it was the on the 4th that twelve of the 13 colonies voted to accept the Declaration. (New Yorks delegates had some credentials and voting issues on the fateful date.)ÊIts still possible to learn something new about the document: The Library of Congress has just determined that a famous unreadable smudge on an early draft was Jefferson changing subject to citizen. Talk about a word change serving as deed itself!
But often deeds mean something far more than words.
Achieving freedom depended on acts of bravery and daring. It took the daring Boston Tea Party to catalyze the revolutionary fervor; the shots at Lexington and Concord brought the question of independence to an imperative. And it took courage and blood and sacrifice of thousands of soldiers on the battlefield — and the leadership of General George Washington — to secure the new nation.
Its worth remembering those men, today. Their deeds served as more than mere exclamation points to the words of the Resolution and the Declaration.
Had George Washington been born a Napoleon or a Castro, our secession from empire would likely have been diverted to just another in a long line of violent power grabs. Just another new boss. Thank goodness General Washington was a principled patriot and not a power-lusting politician.
Twice he took critical steps to place the Republic above any personal ambition. After the war, many Americans would have gladly anointed him king. He rejected that. After achieving the presidency, he could have remained President-for-Life. He stepped down after two terms.
In grade school, we learn that George Washington was The Father of Our Country. But it wasnt until I was a father myself that it dawned on me to what extent he truly behaved as a father does, by setting an example and by putting the greater good above his own immediate interests and desires. America has prospered, in no small part, because we had a great Father.
Still, it is worth noting that greatness does not imply infallibility. Washington wasnt perfect, and America isnt, either.
Looking back now, 234 years later, its obvious that the Founding Fathers didnt get everything right — a fact they would be the first to stipulate. Their goal in drafting the Constitution was not to create a document that would never be changed, but one that could grow and adapt. Thomas Jefferson spoke of the absurdity of blocking change, noting how silly it would be for a man to wear the same small coat he wore as a boy.
And yet, its a pity Jefferson was away in France when the Constitution was being written, revised, and adopted. For Article V, the section on revising the Constitution, is a mess. Again and again, the great roadblock to rationally amending the Constitution is certainly Congress. And yet not only has every amendment come from Congress, but it would be Congress writing all the rules were a Constitutional Convention to be called by the states tomorrow. The foxes have the henhouse.
Thats why the Constitution has only been amended in pieces, and some big, important changes have never been made.
What conservatives and libertarians rightly object to is not changes to the Constitution, but government acting outside and against the very clear parameters of our fundamental law, without bothering to amend it. It seems today that many of the changes we citizens would like to make — term limits, anyone? — are ruled to require a constitutional change, while a massive expansion of government commences without any constitutional basis whatsoever.
This is why July 4th still receives celebration, and the anniversary of the Constitutions adoption does not. The Declaration of Independence has ideals and hope in it. The Constitution is a somewhat more workaday affair. And it doesnt work as well as we want.
So, in thinking about the future, and future transformations of the United States of America, the good intentions of our beginning still provide a great service: To remind us all why we declared freedom in the first place.
We hold a few truths beyond question: We have rights that government must respect and defend. Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Liberty is the key. And only the limited activity of pursuing happiness can be guaranteed.
Our actual achievements? They slip away. There can be no real guarantees about outcomes, and we mustnt pretend there can be. Thats why liberty is the supreme political goal, and consent of the governed the practical test of legitimacy. Other goals, like social justice and equality and fairness all around are dangerous, allowing clever folk to worm their way between the governed and their hope of controlling government, enabling them to set up standards that restrain nothing.
And, without restraint, government can only grow, and grow more wicked. Its been 234 years. A long time. And it shows. Government has grown, and has grown in daring and effrontery, now prepared to act unrestrained by both citizens and the Constitution.
Its time, again, to resolve to live independent from the old, corrupt ways of oligarchy and empire. July 4 serves as the perfect day not only to celebrate our glorious past but also prepare for our future successes in self-government.