It's true, of course, that our nation was far from perfect in pursuit of this ideal. The continuation of slavery in a land proclaiming that all men are created equal is a lasting stain on our history.
However, in the world of 1776, the claim that we all had rights no government could take away was a radical concept. Far from being "self-evident truths" as Jefferson claimed, the rest of the world's rulers believed that governments had rights and people had duties.
To call the Declaration of Independence a game changer is a gross understatement.
Not only did it guarantee individual rights (freedom), but it also said that governments derive their only authority from the consent of the governed (democracy). This laid a tremendous foundation for a stable and successful nation -- so successful, in fact, that 21st-century Americans tend to think that freedom and democracy fit together like the proverbial hand in glove.
The truth, though, is that freedom and democracy are often in conflict. The freedom of any individual places limits on what a democratic majority may do to them.
Elected politicians are often frustrated by this and prefer to claim democracy trumps freedom. A classic example of this tendency came when Eugene Debs gave a speech opposing the military draft in World War I. President Woodrow Wilson had him arrested and called Debs a traitor. Debs was an avowed socialist and an easy target for the president. But that did not justify denying him his freedom.
Teddy Roosevelt was even worse. He wanted to stop talking about the rights of people and focus instead on their duties to government.
Despite Wilson, Roosevelt and many other presidents who have overstepped the bounds of legitimate governmental authority, America's enduring commitment to individual freedom sets it apart from other nations.
Shortly after the American Revolution, the vital importance of freedom was highlighted by its absence in the French Revolution. The French tried democracy with no tradition of freedom or commitment to individual rights, and the results were horrific. Tens of thousands were beheaded by guillotine in a Reign of Terror, and democracy ended with a coup by Napoleon Bonaparte.
Unfortunately, that's what always happens when individual rights are not respected. In the 2007 book "The Future of Freedom," Fareed Zakaria showed that throughout history "liberty led to democracy and not the other way around."
Democracy is without a doubt the best and only legitimate form of government on the planet. But without a commitment to freedom and respect for the rights of individuals, democracy quickly becomes little more than the tyranny of the majority.
In many ways, the tyranny of the majority is worse than the absolute rule of a king. If a majority opposes the rules of a king, there is plenty of support for those working to get around the rules. However, if the majority consistently rules in ways that demean and offend the minority, there aren't many to stand up for the minority. The result is likely to be a witch hunt.
So, on the Fourth of July, let's be sure to celebrate Freedom First! Without it, there can be no lasting democracy.