As we in the United States prepare to celebrate the 4th of July, also known as Independence Day, I want to remind my readers to think about the real reason behind the holiday. This has a bit of the character of a devout Christian enjoining everyone to remember “the reason for the season,” at Christmastime, and I’m far from embarrassed by the comparison (though we have more immediate reasons to connect the 4th day of July with this celebration than Christians do with December 25th).
The celebration of the 4th in modern America—and for some time longer, as far as I know—tends to center on the launching of fireworks, nominally in recollection of the battle commemorated in “The Star-Spangled Banner,” and on the celebration of the flag itself. While I have no deep problem with enjoying those symbols, I am impatient with the fact that the flag has become the center of that celebration, and the focus of American patriotism, as well as with the blind and thoughtless idea of American exceptionalism, especially in the era of “Make America Great Again,” and other such vacuous statements. We have become a people that, on the surface, seem to think of America as exceptional for reasons of fate, or Divine Providence, or some other mere happenstance. But if America is great, it is not great in any set of its current circumstances, but in the ideas upon which it was founded.
I encourage everyone to reread, on the occasion of the celebration of the birth of the United States of America, The Declaration of Independence, and preferably also the United States Constitution, especially the Bill of Rights. These are the ideas at the heart of what America really means, and if America is ever to achieve the greatness made possible by those ideas, in any durable and important way, it will need to do so by commitment to the principles there described.
The key sentence of the Declaration of Independence is the second one:
“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.”
These were revolutionary concepts, though they had their roots in the Enlightenment principle that the purpose of government is to serve the people governed. In this they are very different from traditional “Judeo-Christian values” (despite those frequently being claimed as our government’s basis), for those ideas are inherently authoritarian and dogmatic, while those of America have more the character of the scientific method. Governments are a means of solving problems, and must always, in principle, be open to revision and improvement. This is perhaps the most important, the most crucial aspect of the Constitution: not the famous division of powers, with its various checks and balances, excellent though those things are, but the idea that the Constitution is amenable to continual and constant revision and amendment, as new, hopefully better, ideas come to the fore.
The first ten such amendments are the Constitutional framers’ attempt to codify more fully the notion of “unalienable Rights,” as described by Jefferson in the Declaration, and are sensibly called The Bill of Rights. They are the explicit statements that, no matter what expediency might seem to justify it, and even if a majority desire it, a government has no business infringing the rights of the citizens, even be it one individual whose rights would be infringed.
The very nature of American government, as it was founded, contradicts any notion of blind patriotism. The nation, the law, the government, these are not ends in themselves, but are means to an end, and they serve the rights and well-being of the citizenry. Government derives its just powers from the consent of the governed, and when it fails to protect those governed, it is the right—many would say the duty—of the citizenry to make changes, for an infringement of the rights of any individual is a threat to the rights of every individual.
The United States is only great to the degree that it strives to live up to these ideals, which are still probably best expressed in its founding document. This is what we should remember and celebrate on this anniversary of the birth of the nation: not a flag, though the flag is nice; not a song, though the song is stirring; not fireworks, though they are fun, and the battle they recreate was no doubt impressive. The United States of America is not a place, but an idea—the idea that government exists for the sake of the individual citizens of the country, not the other way around. It is the duty of the government to protect and nurture the rights, the liberty, the pursuit of happiness of the people it serves, and dissent should not merely be allowed but is a fundamental duty.
Read the Declaration on this Independence Day. Read the Bill of Rights. Participate fully in your local, state, and federal government. Vote.
And by all means, if you disagree with me (or with your government) feel free to say so and to do something about it.