Friday, July 4, 2014 | 2:01 a.m.
A version of this editorial first appeared on July 4, 2010.
Today, as we celebrate Independence Day, our attention naturally turns to this nation’s successful Revolutionary War to throw off the chains of a tyrannical regime. It is a day fittingly marked by patriotic parades and, in the evening, punctuated by fireworks. It is a day also marked by a celebration of one of the world’s most remarkable documents — the Declaration of Independence.
The declaration, issued 238 years ago today, describes why the British colonists possessed the right to break free from the king. Arguably the most memorable part of the declaration — and most revolutionary, in terms of political thought — is the passage that was a clarion call for universal freedom: “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 …”
The battle against the British Empire would continue for years, not ending until 1783, when the colonists finally won their independence. But the story hardly ends there. In fact, a case could be made that even after the Constitution was drafted in 1787 and ratified two years later — establishing the framework for our federal government and the Bill of Rights, which protects the individual from government abuse and tyranny — the United States of America still really hadn’t defined itself as a nation.
Indeed, once they set themselves to the task of actually governing, the Founding Fathers didn’t have a unified vision of what powers the new federal government should have. George Washington and Alexander Hamilton, for the most part, argued for a strong national government while Thomas Jefferson and James Madison thought more power should be reserved for the states. This wasn’t just an ideological struggle over states’ rights versus the power of the national government, however.
Lurking ever constant in the first decades of our country’s existence was the presence of slavery and how it directly contradicted the Declaration of Independence’s guarantee of liberty promised to all. The contradiction was made even more ironic by the fact that Jefferson, who penned the Declaration of Independence, owned slaves. And although Northerners increasingly called for slavery’s abolition, Southerners claimed states’ rights trumped any effort by the federal government to eradicate this stain on the nation.
Presidents and members of Congress put off deciding this question of freedom at the heart of the Declaration of Independence in hopes that delaying a resolution could keep the country intact. But that was folly. It took the Civil War, and Abraham Lincoln’s resolve, to see that justice was ultimately carried out. Not only was slavery extinguished, but also it was firmly established that the United States of America wasn’t simply a collection of states — it was a nation deriving its consent from the people.
And although it might seem out of place on the Fourth of July to mention the “Gettysburg Address,” it not only is fitting, but in a way it also is difficult to imagine reflecting on the Declaration of Independence without also remembering the powerful, timeless remarks Lincoln made at the height of the Civil War, on Nov. 19, 1863, after a bloody battle in Pennsylvania.
“Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal,” Lincoln reminded his audience. “Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battlefield of that war. … The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract.
“The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. … It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us … that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the Earth.”
It’s important that, from time to time, we remind ourselves that the struggle to secure freedom didn’t just end with the signing of the Declaration of Independence, the end of the Revolutionary War, the adoption of the U.S. Constitution or, for that matter, the conclusion of the Civil War. Women, for instance, didn’t secure the right to vote until the early part of the 20th century and blacks were effectively treated as second-class citizens until landmark civil rights legislation in the 1960s. The struggle for liberty continues here at home and around the globe as well, as our men and women in the military have secured liberty for others and continue to do so — freedom that too many of us take for granted.
On this hallowed day, let us be thankful for the genius of the Founding Fathers in laying out an irrefutable case for freedom, and let us rededicate ourselves to making sure that liberty’s light continues to burn bright.