Today we celebrate the birth of our nation, as conceived by a group of men in a Pennsylvania hall who many considered at the time as traitors.
They dared to imagine a nation whose leaders would not be derived from notions of royalty nor from the power of arms, but chosen by free people as leaders accountable to the populace.
They took the ethereal notions that sprang from the Enlightenment and dared to make them a reality — hoping that this radical experiment would take root in the North American continent, but having no clue that it would become a shining beacon for the entire world over the next two centuries.
It wasn’t a model of perfection, and indeed, our birth has resembled our journey ever since. Dissent over the nature of a representative democracy appeared from the very start. The first structure of the government would have to be scrapped and re-imagined from scratch just a few years later.
It would take decades more before the nation finally dealt with the inherent contradiction in the Declaration of Independence and its assertion that “all men are created equal,” and the detestable institution of slavery — and another century after that before the government finally took action to ensure that those words prevailed.
Arguments about the division of power between the states and the federal government have continued from the first moments until this moment.
We have been far from perfect, but we have recognized our failures and prevailed over them in the fullness of time. Winston Churchill once said that democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others — and we have been the model for that, for better and worse. America has been a beacon of hope for the world for centuries, not just because of the words in our Declaration and Constitution, but because we as a people try our best to live up to them.
Conservatives and liberals, Republicans and Democrats, independents and centrists, and those who cringe when they hear any of those labels — they want America to live up to its best ideals, our best selves, each in their own way.
Happy Independence Day to all of us, and may we continue in our efforts as our ancestors have to continue to keep America as the shining city on the hill.
In 1981, three months after surviving an assassin’s bullet, Ronald Reagan talked about our nation’s birth in his Independence Day speech:
Thomas Jefferson wrote that on that day of America’s birth, in the little hall in Philadelphia, debate raged for hours, but the issue remained in doubt. These were honorable men; still, to sign a Declaration of Independence seemed such an irretrievable act that the walls resounded with cries of “treason’’ and “the headsman’s axe.”
Then, it is said, one unknown man rose to speak. He was neither young, nor strong in voice; yet, he spoke with such conviction that he mesmerized the hall. He cited the grievances that had brought them to this moment. Then, his voice failing, he said: “They may turn every tree into a gallows, every hole into a grave, and yet the words of that parchment can never die. To the mechanic in the workshop, they will speak hope, to the slave in the mines, freedom. Sign that parchment. Sign if the next moment the noose is around your neck, for that parchment will be the textbook of freedom, the bible of the rights of man forever.” And sign they did.
What makes our revolution unique and so exciting, then, is that it changed the very concept of government. Here was a new nation telling the world that it was conceived in liberty; that all men are created equal with God-given rights, and that power ultimately resides in “We the people.”
We sometimes forget this great truth, and we never should, because putting people first has always been America’s secret weapon. It’s the way we’ve kept the spirit of our revolution alive — a spirit that drives us to dream and dare, and take great risks for a greater good. It’s the spirit of Fulton and Ford, the Wright brothers and Lindbergh, and of all our astronauts. It’s the spirit of Joe Louis, Babe Ruth, and a million others who may have been born poor, but who would not be denied their day in the Sun.
The men without the words would have been little more than mutineers. The words without the men would have been long forgotten, if ever remembered at all. On the Fourth of July, we honor them all, and all those who came after to preserve and promote the Union.
“Captain” Ed Morrissey is a father and grandfather living in the Twin Cities area of Minnesota, a native Californian who moved to the North Star State because of the weather. He lives with his wife Marcia, also known as the First Mate, their two dogs. This Independence Day column originally appeared on his blog, Captain’s Quarters, and is reprinted here with permission.