Mr. Bearce is a free-lance writer In Houston, Texas.
On July 3, 1776, the events of the previous day were fresh on John Adams’ mind when he wrote to his wife Abigail: “The second day of July, 1776, will be the most memorable epocha in the history of America. I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival. It ought to be commemorated as the day of deliverance, by solemn acts of devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations, from one end of this continent to the other, from this time forward forevermore.”
John Adams was enthusiastic about the historic action taken by the Continental Congress on July 2. A resolution favoring independence from Great Britain had been carried by the affirmative vote of twelve Colonies. Not until the 4th of July, though, was the actual Declaration of Independence formally adopted. Although Adams missed foretelling the exact day of future celebrations, he accurately described the manner in which America’s Independence Day would be remembered by later generations.
Each Fourth of July, Americans commemorate the adoption of the Declaration of Independence. “Old Glory” comes out of the closet and appears on front porches across the nation. Bands play “The Stars and Stripes Forever.” Thoughtful citizens give thanks for the blessings of liberty.
Such patriotic enthusiasm appears as a yearly ritual across the United States. The outward display of loyalty is there, but does this allegiance reflect an in-depth understanding of the Declaration of Independence—a real commitment to personal freedom?
Although John Adams wrote triumphantly to Abigail about the vote for independence, he added a critical observation: “You will think me transported with enthusiasm, but I am not. I am well aware of the toil and blood and treasure that it will cost us to maintain this Declaration and support and defend these states.”
The Critical Challenge
We are now facing that same critical challenge. The Declaration of Independence may be extolled, but just praising it as a relevant, thoughtful document of freedom will not preserve it. Enshrining it will not strengthen freedom. Instead, we must re-examine and reassert the principles outlined in the Declaration of Independence.
Consider the second inspiring sentence of the document: “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 . . .”
The colonists had enjoyed these God-given rights and others since the first settling of America. With varying degrees of freedom, they could own property, bear firearms, and worship as they pleased. They had the right of trial by jury, and they practiced representative government. Most important, they had been free to live their own lives as they—not the government—best saw fit.
When these freedoms were threatened by Parliament and King George III, the colonists became indignant. Receiving no just response to their grievances, they chose to separate themselves from the mother country. The Declaration of Independence was the formal statement of their decision to be totally independent and self-governing.
The real importance of the Declaration, however, is its fundamental assertion of individual freedom. Even if the demand for political independence had not been made, the document would still be a profound statement in defense of human dignity. When the Thirteen Colonies proclaimed their independence as the United States, they were reaffirming personal freedom and rejecting authoritarian rule by government over the individual.
Several years after the United States had won independence from Great Britain, a veteran of the Lexington-Concord fight in 1775 was asked why he had fought against the British. “We had always governed ourselves,” replied the rugged old minuteman, “and we always meant to. They didn’t mean we should.”
His forthright answer reveals the main issue of the American War of Independence—FREEDOM. The minuteman understood that if he was to have freedom, he would have to enjoy the right of self-government. He reasoned that he could govern himself only to the extent that he exercised personal judgment and choice over his own affairs. For almost one hundred fifty years, the colonists had done just that—accepted individual freedom, responsibility, and accountability for their own lives. Government regulations and controls threatened that freedom.
The Declaration of Independence clearly states the objection to oppressive governmental authority. The central portion of the document shows that the colonists were protesting abuse of power, usurpation of their rights, obstruction of justice, and governmental interference. Speaking of the King of England, they pointed to this abuse of government authority: “He has erected a multitude of new offices, and sent hither swarms of officers to harass our people and eat out their substance.”
Although he was eventually characterized as such, King George III was not a tyrant. He and Parliament had shown a rather benevolent, paternalistic attitude toward the Thirteen Colonies—an attitude similar to the “compassion” and “concern for the disadvantaged” supposedly shown by our modern-day politicians. Like young, immature children, the Colonies were to benefit from the fatherly hand of the British Crown. But they were not very impressed by this paternal hand of regulation, decrees, taxes, and other bureaucratic interventions.
“Tyranny!” shouted the colonists. They saw unlimited government power for what it was—the seed of repression and subjugation. Patriots like Thomas Jefferson fought for the principles of limited government and individual freedom. They knew that the main role of government was twofold: (1) apprehending and punishing domestic evildoers—those people who would violate other people’s right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” (2) organizing the defense of law-abiding citizens against foreign aggression. Government was not to be the source of a people’s material welfare.
The Declaration of Independence speaks eloquently of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” for the individual. These rights could be secured only when government itself was held within strict boundaries of power and authority. The colonists realized they could improve their own personal lives if they were free of government interference. They did not want the government trying to do for them what they could and should do for themselves. They asked only for the freedom to enjoy the just fruits of their daily labors.
Even as the Crown continued to infringe upon their “unalienable rights,” the colonists followed legal channels of protest, expressing loyalty to the King. There was the firm intention of retaining the traditional political relationship with England. The preservation of free-dom-not revolution—was on the colonists’ minds.
Eventually, patience ran out, prompting Patrick Henry to declare: “We have done everything that could be done to avert the storm which is now coming on. We have petitioned, we have remonstrated, we have supplicated, we have prostrated ourselves before the throne, and have implored its interposition to arrest the tyrannical hands of the ministry and Parliament. Our petitions have been slighted; our remonstrances have produced additional violence and insult; our supplications have been disregarded; and we have been spurned with contempt from the foot of the throne.”
The American War of Independence was fought to preserve a truly “revolutionary” truth—each of us is a unique individual, able to accept self-responsibility and thus to enjoy personal dignity. For the most part, the governments, systems, revolutions, societies, and ideologies of the world have tried to suppress that truth. People have been enslaved, tortured, and killed by those who reject man’s God-given right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
The American colonists had seen the approach of slavery. In the Declaration of Independence, they accused King George III of seeking the “establishment of an absolute tyranny over these States.” Similar language was used by the revolutionary Jacobins during the French Revolution when they assailed the monarchy under Louis XVI. The French radicals shouted lofty slogans about liberty, but their bloody revolution against the monarchy hardly parallels the spirit of the American Revolution—the true spirit of freedom.
“Liberty! Equality! Fraternity!” clamored the revolutionaries of France. Louis XVI lost his head on the guillotine. So did thousands of other Frenchmen.
The leaders of the French Revolution of 1789 had read the Declaration of Independence. They admired America’s document of freedom. Unfortunately, they lauded it but rejected its principles. They failed to comprehend what Jefferson and Adams meant when they said “all men are created equal.” Equality as it is outlined in the Declaration says that individuals are equal in their right to be free and independent—to be free and independent as long as they respect the rights of others to be free and independent, with everyone respecting property and other individual rights.
Each person should have the right to rise to the height of self-realization consistent with that person’s individual talents, ambition, and willingness to accept personal accountability. In seeking this self-fulfillment, each person must respect the equal rights of other individuals.
When a government respects true equality—the equal right to enjoy personal freedom—the result will be that many differences will exist among the citizenry. This natural condition of inequality is consistent with freedom, justice, and human nature. Individuals are unique. Each person has varying talents, aspirations, and weaknesses. If individuals are free to arrange their own lives, they create a diverse society where men and women attain different social, intellectual, and economic status.
Equal Treatment Results in Many Differences
Individuals are equal in their right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”—so long as they accept responsibility for their own lives and recognize their personal accountability for their failures, shortcomings, and misdeeds. Regrettably for mankind, modern-day politicians and “social architects” like the French revolutionaries reject this truth.
Robespierre, Danton, and other leaders of the French Revolution believed they could bring about the regeneration of humanity through the power of the State (government power and authority). Although they spoke much about freedom, they actually denied self-determination and the free will of the individual. They insisted that man was the product of his environment. Crime, poverty, greed—these were supposedly inflicted upon humanity by corrupt political, social, and economic conditions/institutions. By the use of government authority and power, the revolutionaries believed they could erect a near-perfect if not perfect society.
The visionaries of Revolutionary France had a distorted view of human nature—a distorted view still held by many people today in the media, in politics, in our universities, and even in our religious institutions. The theory-minded leaders of the French Revolution believed that the individual was inherently virtuous. If a person committed murder, he should not be harshly condemned for a criminal act. Rather, he should be regarded as the victim of adverse social or economic conditions which drove him to the act of taking another individual’s life.
Thus, the French revolutionaries focused their efforts to build the virtuous society by removing what they mistakenly thought caused people to act in “antisocial” ways. By reconstructing society through the power of the State, they were convinced that people would return to their basic goodness, virtue, and righteousness.
The government leaders of the French Revolution said that they loved humanity. They said that they were for the “poor and homeless,” “the helpless and abused,” and “the needy,” but in reality, they rejected the true meaning of human dignity contained in the Declaration of In dependence. They placed Society and the State above the individual and individual freedom, whereas the fifty-six signers of the Declaration of Independence in America placed the individual above the State.
The patriots of the American Revolution had faith in individual freedom. Freedom—not government power—was the foundation for true progress, self-improvement, and happiness. Absolute equality and perfection brought about by government authority were illusions. Only free individuals in a truly free nation could achieve material welfare, human dignity, and personal fulfillment. Only when the individual has both the freedom to make choices and the corresponding obligation to abide by the just consequences of those choices, can he achieve self-respect.
By adhering to the principles of the Declaration of Independence, Americans have attained material abundance and personal dignity. The blessings of liberty have been enjoyed because free individuals have been allowed in the past to labor freely in a free society. Yet, we have also been abandoning the basic truths upon which America was founded.
From the halls of Congress to the academic forum, we hear that government has the answer to all of our society’s ills. We are assured that government can and should solve every problem from hunger to faulty automobile bumpers. Commissions . . . regulations . . . controls . . . rules . . . coercion . . . Congressional committees . . . subcommittees . . . regimentation . . . and more regimentation—all should remind us of the grievances listed in the Declaration of Independence.
Coercion, paternalism, restrictive legislation, and unconstitutional government intervention will gain ground to the extent that we are indifferent to the cause of true freedom. When we remain silent, we will be responsible for our own destruction—moral degeneracy, material/economic stagnation, and eventual physical slavery.
The principles of freedom will continue to be eroded as long as free individuals relax in their complacency. “Is this the part of wise men,” asked Patrick Henry in March, 1775, “engaged in a great and arduous struggle for liberty? Are we disposed to be of the number of those who, having eyes, see not, and having ears, hear not, the things which so nearly concern their temporal salvation?”
Freedom is threatened today just as it was threatened at the time of the Declaration of Independence. The colonists wanted less government—not more of it in their daily lives. They wanted to be free to release their own creativity and energies. The “pursuit of happiness” was their own responsibility. They stated in the Declaration “that, to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” The early patriots of America believed that government should protect their “unalienable rights.” It had no right to interfere with “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” other than that of prosecuting law-breakers and maintaining self-defense from foreign aggression. The colonists were free people struggling to remain free.
Living in freedom had strengthened the character of the colonists. They recognized the existence of moral absolutes. Right was right. Wrong was wrong. They were individuals who valued honesty, hard work, thrift, and an equal respect for the rights of others. They knew what they believed and why they believed it. They said what they meant and meant what they said.
Humble Before God
Although the colonists were self-reliant and independent, they were humble before God. True liberty was found in a genuine reverence for Almighty God and obedience to His commandments—not worship of government authority. Their spiritual faith gave them a clear understanding of their personal roles in life. They accepted the rugged challenges of life, knowing that in worldly affairs, the Lord, indeed, helped those who helped themselves.
The farmers and shopkeepers who took up arms against the Redcoats heeded Ben Franklin’s admonition: “They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.”
The patriots of 1776 chose both liberty and the responsibility of defending that freedom. The Continental soldier fought at Trenton and Germantown . . . suffered at Valley Forge . . . and finally won independence. The “spirit of ‘76" is the faith and spirit of freedom. If Patrick Henry and other patriots were willing to die for freedom, certainly we should live for freedom. We face the continued struggle for liberty. Battles lie ahead. We are in continual warfare. These are facts that we must accept honestly as we consider Patrick Henry’s words back in 1775:
“The battle, sir, is not to the strong alone; it is to the vigilant, the active, the brave. Besides, sir, we have no election. If we were base enough to desire it, it is not too late to retire from the contest. There is no retreat but in submission and slavery!”
A State of War
Today, free people are in a state of warfare—a continued battle prompted by those who oppose freedom. We need to acknowledge our current challenge to keep alive the spirit of freedom and to strengthen freedom.
First, we need an honest, sincere, and broad understanding of the basics of freedom. We cannot very well defend that which we cannot adequately explain and present to other people. We should ask ourselves how well we truly understand such principles of freedom as the free- market exchange of goods and services . . . persona] freedom/accountability . . . no coercion against law-abiding citizens . . . voluntary cooperation . . . limited, strictly defined government power.
Do we understand these principles? Are we doing what we can to understand them better?
Second, in order to rejuvenate the spirit of freedom, we must practice the freedom faith continually, consistently, and earnestly in our own personal lives. Some warriors for the cause of freedom know the ABCs on the subject, and they are on the battle fronts, such as actively campaigning for pro-freedom candidates for Congress.
Such “activism” is to be cheered and encouraged, but woe! Some of those hard-charging freedom warriors will (1) on Monday, demand the total elimination of the federally funded Legal Services Corporation, but (2) on Tuesday lobby the federal government for an increase in federal subsidies and low interest loans for farmers. The wayward, backslidden freedom troopers in this case are an association of farmers who are more interested in their “special interest” than in individual freedom and responsibility.
No, we cannot have that type of inconsistency if the spirit of freedom is to be enhanced and strengthened.
Third, we must diligently protect freedom. Patrick Henry advised that those who would defend liberty must be strong, active, brave, and vigilant. “Vigilance is the price of liberty,” and today we should be vigilant—seeing where and how freedom is being undermined.
For example, we ought to see that many reporters, commentators, editors, publishers, and anchor persons are not the fair, objective, accurate, and honest news people they would like us to believe. Instead, they are prejudiced against freedom. They show a clear bias in favor of more government—a support for more government intervention that daily translates into a corruption of the truth.
A good portion of the major news media people have a personal belief that the government should be spending more—not less—for education, the arts, welfare, health, and the like. They personally believe that government regulations and programs—not free people working freely in a free society—are the best way to make sure individuals are sufficiently housed, clothed, fed, and given proper medical care.
Even though we may have a very sound grasp of the basics of freedom, we must be vigilant to the distortions, half-truths, and slanted reporting we receive from media sources around us.
Fourth, we should be earnest spokesmen for freedom, actively taking a part in the current battles affecting our daily lives. It isn’t enough to appreciate the writings of Bastiat, Jefferson, Burke, Tocqueville, and Ludwig von Mises. Nor do we accomplish much by railing at the supper table about Congress’s latest repudiation of the oath of office to defend the Constitution of the United States. Rather, we should practice what we preach by becoming intelligently, firmly, and consistently involved defending freedom, explaining it, and strengthening it.
Words of Wisdom
Two men who signed the Declaration of Independence back in 1776 still speak to us as we seek to learn more about freedom. “A wise and frugal government,” advises Thomas Jefferson, “which shall restrain men from injuring one another, shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned. This is the sum of good government . . .”
Dr. John Witherspoon, the only active clergyman to sign the Declaration, gives us a final insight into the spirit of freedom:
“A good form of government may hold the rotten materials together for some time, but beyond a certain pitch even the best constitution will be ineffectual, and slavery will ensue. On the other hand, when the manners of a nation are pure, when true religion and internal principles maintain their vigor, the attempts of the most powerful enemies to oppress them are commonly baffled and disappointed.”