The American colonies’ Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776, marked one of the greatest turning points in the history of mankind. This is no exaggeration.
The Declaration set in motion the launching of the greatest democratic Republic and the most politically, economically and militarily powerful nation on earth. There is not a close second.
It created personal freedoms on an extraordinary scale. Just consider what is encompassed within the First Amendment — freedom of speech for everyone, freedom of religion for everyone, freedom to gather together with who we want to and freedom to gripe directly to government about government without fear of reprisal.
Absolutely groundbreaking. We way too easily take these ideas for granted, but this was revolutionary in thinking and in action. It just hadn’t been done. Maybe even barely contemplated. There was nothing like this by the Greeks, the Persians, the Romans, even the British.
The Declaration set the stage for free-market capitalism that has enriched the lives of literally hundreds of millions of people around the world, generated an endless fountain of innovation and creativity and built a culture that influences virtually every culture on earth.
The Declaration and following birth of a nation created the opportunity, for the first time in history, for a nation to liberate other nations under the boot of conquerors and then give them self-determined freedom and walk away. Again, we have to understand how unique this is in all of human history. It never happened. And America has done it repeatedly and continues to do it.
This miracle came with a price
None of this happened because men chose comfort and security over liberty and danger — quite the opposite of today, when Americans too often seek comfort and security through the government. The leaders of the American Revolution — which may have been a minority of colonists, at least those willing to risk all and to fight — chose to throw in their lot for the highest ideals, for themselves and for future generations.
As the last line of the Declaration solemnly declares:
“And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor.”
These were all faulty men, but with a vision and a commitment to the cause of freedom for the individual — more than a nation or a people. Even with the stain of slavery — a compromise to form a union of colonies large enough to beat the British Empire, and which was abolished a few generations later in the bloody Civil War — these ideals were recognizable to others. It’s what the French saw when they gave us the Statue of Liberty. We say the name so quickly, we can almost forget the whole point: Liberty.
It’s why Patrick Henry could swing the Virginia delegation to the side of fighting the British with the ringing words, “Give me liberty, or give me death!”
Remember, the declarers of independence weren’t really fighting for a nation. They were fighting for a universal cause of ideals — ideals spelled out in the Declaration of Independence and later the Constitution, which would all be encompassed within the new United States of America.
Fifty-six brave men — most of them with wealth and families — signed their names to that Declaration, knowing they were risking everything they owned and loved, including their lives. Their signature meant treason to the Crown. There was only one punishment for that. And it was final.
What was so unique in the colonies to cause this?
Given all the mighty nations and empires throughout history that had conquered and grown, from the ancient Assyrian Empire through the more benevolent British Empire, and that shared virtually none of the enlightened ideas composed in the American colonies, what set us apart?
The American experiment was so successful because of its foundation, which drew Europeans to the new lands.
It required the classical liberal thinking of John Locke and Adam Smith, emphasizing free markets, free trade, capitalism, minimal government regulation and taxes and freedom for the individual and groups of individuals to act. Some of the early colonists longed for the freedom to act in a new territory with new opportunities.
America coupled this classical liberal thinking with the Christian concept of the value of the individual and the strains within newly minted Protestantism that desired freedom from centralized control — whether by the church or the state. Consider how the Pilgrims, Puritans and others came here specifically to get away from powerful central governments under a King and powerful central churches under a Pope or Bishop. They sought freedom of religion and speech. Sound familiar?
These streams were all in place, flowing together to form the culture of the American colonies. That culture set the foundations for the success of the great American experiment. And it explains why the resulting Constitution cannot be laid over top of cultures where there is no such foundation.
It was, and still remains, a unique culture — but one people from around the world continue to be drawn to.
The foundational principles remain the only way
Those principles encapsulated in the Constitution worked then and through our history, and will work now and into the future. It would end up being one of the great tragedies in world history if we were to walk away from those guiding lights to follow the fleeting culture fancies of the moment.
Within the above historic context, we can read these words anew, and realize the power in them, and the import of not turning our backs on this solid foundation.
“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 abolish it, and to institute a new Government, laying its Foundations on such Principles and organizing its Powers in such Form, as to Them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”
That revolutionary thinking is how America became the shining city on a hill, and how it can remain so.
It’s a good time of year to remind ourselves of these Truths. Take 3 minutes to read the Declaration of Independence. It will be time well spent.
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