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Friday, July 5, 2024

The Real Fourth of July: What Made America’s Independence Day Truly Revolutionary

The Declaration, according to Jefferson, was not “aiming at originality of principle or sentiment,” but was written to be “an expression of the American mind.”

John Trumbull’s 1818 painting of the Committee of Five presenting their draft of the Declaration of Independence to the Second Continental Congress in Philadelphia. Source: Wikipedia.

What’s so special about the Fourth of July? Why was the 1776 signing of the Declaration of Independence such a momentous occasion that is so worth celebrating?

For the typical barbecue-savoring celebrant, the date mainly marks the birthday of the U.S. of A. as a separate nation. History buffs may remember it more as the moment when the Founding Fathers mutually pledged their “lives, fortunes, and sacred honors” to each other and to the Revolutionary War that began the previous year with the Battles of Lexington and Concord.

But according to Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, two of the Founders most intimately involved with both the Declaration and the Revolution, what was most epochal about those events was not what they started, but what they finished and fulfilled.

In an 1815 letter to Jefferson, Adams asked:

What do We mean by the Revolution? The War? That was no part of the Revolution. It was only an Effect and Consequence of it. The Revolution was in the Minds of the People, and this was effected, from 1760 to 1775, in the course of fifteen Years before a drop of blood was drawn at Lexington.

In a later letter to a younger friend, Adams elaborated that “the real American Revolution” consisted of a “radical Change in the Principles, Opinions Sentiments and Affection of the People.”

That radical change was then captured in words by the Declaration of Independence, as written primarily by Jefferson, who was handpicked by Adams to be the document’s lead author. Jefferson insisted that, in writing the Declaration, he was aiming not for originality (indeed much of it was derived from John Locke’s work), but rather to communicate clearly the convictions that were predominant among Americans at the time. In an 1825 letter to Revolutionary War veteran Henry “Light-Horse Harry” Lee, Jefferson wrote:

This was the object of the Declaration of Independence. Not to find out new principles, or new arguments, never before thought of, not merely to say things which had never been said before; but to place before mankind the common sense of the subject, in terms so plain and firm as to command their assent, and to justify ourselves in the independent stand we are compelled to take.

The Declaration, Jefferson continued, was not “aiming at originality of principle or sentiment,” but was written to be “an expression of the American mind.”

“These are the most important words ever written about the Declaration,” according to C. Bradley Thompson, who was inspired by these and other Colonial- and Revolutionary-era letters to write the 2019 book America’s Revolutionary Mind: A Moral History of the American Revolution and the Declaration That Defined It. Thompson, who is Professor of Political Science at Clemson University and Executive Director of the Clemson Institute for the Study of Capitalism, added that Jefferson’s words about the Declaration “provide an important key to unlocking its deepest meaning.”

Through this felicitous phrase, the Declaration can now be seen as the fulfillment and symbol of Adams’s “real” revolution, the revolution that occurred in the minds of the American people. The Declaration brought together ideas and assumptions that had hitherto been incomplete, unclear, or discordant during the years of the [British] imperial crisis. Understanding how and why Jefferson and his fellow revolutionaries discovered, developed, and understood the Declaration’s self-evident truths opens a new pathway to understanding the American Revolution itself.

As Thompson elaborated:

The American mind was forged when events precipitated first a political crisis and then a crisis of conscience among American colonists, which in turn forced them to reevaluate their deepest moral, political, and constitutional principles. The passage of the Sugar, Stamp, and Declaratory Acts in 1764, 1765, and 1766 challenged these New World provincials not only to rethink the extent of Parliament’s authority in America and the nature of the British constitution but also to launch a searching investigation into the nature, source, and meaning of certain basic moral principles (e.g., equality, liberty, rights, virtue, happiness, justice, consent, and sovereignty).

This revolutionized not only what might be called (to paraphrase Dwayne Johnson) “the hierarchy of power” on the American continent, but what has ever since been regarded as humanly possible and worth aspiring toward.

Our present-day beliefs in equality, freedom, rights, justice, the rule of law, and constitutionalism were born during the Revolutionary era and expressed in its noblest symbol, the Declaration of Independence. In countless ways, the world in which we live was shaped by the ideas and actions of 1776.

As the 2015 Broadway play Hamilton musically expressed, “The Revolution” represented “the world turned upside down.” But what really upended civilization as humanity then knew it was no mere factional struggle, but a philosophical revolution, which Thompson described as:

…the fundamental shift in ideas and values that occurred during the Revolutionary era that culminated in the development of and fealty to a common philosophy that was expressed in the Declaration and launched with the words, “We hold these truths to be self-evident.”

This paradigm shift was in:

…the modes of reasoning, the habits of thinking, the patterns of thought, and the new moral and political principles that served American revolutionaries, first in their intellectual battle with Great Britain before 1776, and then in their attempt to create new revolutionary societies after 1776.

As Thompson reflected on his studies of the period:

I was struck by the fact that American patriots constantly reduced the political-constitutional debate with British imperial officials to moral principles and categories. The American response to the Sugar, Stamp, Declaratory, Townshend, Tea, Coercive, and Prohibitory Acts was always couched in highly moralistic language. And it became clear to me that the revolutionaries’ moral language was no mere window dressing or rationalization. As I reread virtually all of the major and minor pamphlets, newspaper essays, letters, and official documents from the era, I became convinced that these were not just flowery words for the colonists but instead principles for which they were willing to risk everything.

When the founding generation developed, discovered, and dedicated themselves to the principles of liberty, that constituted what Adams called “the real American Revolution,” which was then distilled into words by Jefferson’s Declaration as “an expression of the American mind.”

As Leonard E. Read, founder of the Foundation for Economic Education, expressed in his pamphlet and speech titled “The Essence of Americanism”:

I do not think of the real American Revolution as the armed conflict we had with King George III. That was a reasonably minor fracas as such fracases go! The real American Revolution was a novel concept or idea which broke with the whole political history of the world.

Up until 1776 men had been contesting with each other, killing each other by the millions, over the age-old question of which of the numerous forms of authoritarianism—that is, man-made authority—should preside as sovereign over man. And then, in 1776, in the fraction of one sentence written into the Declaration of Independence was stated the real American Revolution, the new idea, and it was this: “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 was it. This is the essence of Americanism. This is the rock upon which the whole “American miracle” was founded.

The real American Revolution was not a physical fight, but a spiritual struggle. And what we should most commemorate on the Fourth of July is not merely the shaking off of one tyrant, but the still-dawning realization that, as individual humans with inalienable rights, we are all justified in so deposing anyone who violates those rights.

Now that is something worth celebrating.

This article originally appeared on Dan’s Substack, Developing Devotion.


  • Dan Sanchez is an essayist, editor, and educator. His primary topics are liberty, economics, and educational philosophy. He is a Distinguished Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE). He created the Hazlitt Project at FEE, launched the Mises Academy at the Mises Institute, and taught writing for Praxis. He has written hundreds of essays for venues including FEE.org (see his author archive), Mises.org, Antiwar.com, and The Objective Standard. Follow him on Twitter and Substack.