The Fourth of July is often seen as the most libertarian of all holidays. After all, it celebrates the founding of a nation based, at least in principle, on natural rights and limited government. The Declaration of Independence is a radical libertarian document. I will let it speak for itself:
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…
Of course it is a bit hypocritical for these people to speak about all men being created equal when many owned other human beings like we would own livestock. These were largely wealthy white men and, like most other white men of that time, they saw women and people of color as inferior to them. That being said, these are some pretty strong words. I suspect a lot of people, if presented with the above paragraph, would think it the work of dangerous radicals and would disavow it completely.
The most notable thing about the Declaration and this day on which we commemorate it is that it celebrates nothing but words. The United States of America was still many years of bloody fighting and good fortune away from being anything that resembled an independent nation. Brave words (likely emboldened with whiskey) scribbled in backrooms and proclaimed on the streets of Philadelphia do not make a country. But they did establish the justification for what was to come. Nowadays, when the holiday is associated with yet another paid federal holiday and warnings not to shoot off any illegal fireworks, it might be worth mentioning a few rather controversial elements of the words we celebrate.
The first is the notion that our rights do not come from government nor from any human action. They are “endowed by their Creator” and, whether you are inclined to see that as referring to God or simply the universe personified, it is rather striking. By that logic, no person can just invent “human rights” of any kind. Men are born with their lives, their liberty and the opportunity to pursue happiness. Those are rights. Sadly, we are not born with free food, clothing, housing and healthcare. Those are not rights. Trying to provide as many people as possible with their basic human needs is a worthwhile pursuit. Suggesting anyone possesses those things as a “right” is actually saying they have a right to take them from someone else without their consent. Good luck with that.
Secondly, the document explicitly accepts a right to secession. The very first paragraph speaks of it quite clearly:
…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,
Again, pretty strong words. The authors are endorsing the idea that there may come a time when a group of people decide to dissolve “the political bands which have connected them.” As a result of the American Civil War, we like to think of secession as un-American. Nothing could be further from the truth. Slavery is and was evil. Sadly, it was all too American for many centuries. The aftermath still drives our political discussion today. But the right to secede from a political jurisdiction that you see as oppressive is as American as apple pie. It is how this nation came to be.
Finally, the Declaration endorses outright rebellion against an unjust State, in this case Great Britain. It does at least have the good sense to state that it is not prudent to have an all out revolution if there is a good alternative. But, lacking that, the people have a right to “alter or abolish” their form of government. I’m not sure even I would have gone that far, at least not if it meant fighting against the most powerful nation on Earth. But they did. Our Founding Fathers had some balls. That’s for damned sure. A number of them paid a dear price for their actions.
So when you grill up a hot dog or wave your tiny sparkler defiantly through the air, remember those very flawed but very brave men. They were tax evaders and rioters. They were, by the standards of their day and ours, treasonous rebels who deserved to be captured and executed. They disrupted business, destroyed property and undoubtedly violated the gun laws of the time. They needed every bit of skill and good luck (and help from France) to win the independence we celebrate tomorrow.
It wasn’t destined to turn out that way. America isn’t magical. We aren’t, by some act of God, “the greatest country on Earth.” Countries aren’t great. People are. America is only as good as we individual people choose to make it. I hope we all take a few moments this week to reflect on that. We can be better.
As always, thanks for reading. I appreciate every single one of you who takes a few minutes of your day to listen to my ideas. I hope you enjoy it. Have a Happy Fourth of July and a great week!