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Saturday, July 4, 2020

Yes, America’s Birthday Deserves to Be Celebrated

America is defined, not by slavery, but by the ideals that ultimately abolished it.

Writing the Declaration of Independence

Dear Lucky:

That’s right. If you are an American, this letter is addressed to you, personally. You are an incredibly lucky person and it’s time you cheer up about it.

I understand if you’re feeling a little beat up right now. Five months of coronavirus lockdowns have exacted a toll on us all. Bad as it’s been, it’s not the terrible yellow fever epidemic of 1793 or the hideous Black Death of the 14th Century. Humanity survived those and countless other health disasters and then moved on to accomplish unprecedented progress.

If you need your virus-assaulted spirits lifted, visit the new Life is 4 Living Project website. Read some of the stories there from your fellow Americans about how they’re moving on. Consider adding one of your own. I did so just yesterday.

More than any other holiday of the year, today is one that should put us all on the same page—reveling in our common identity as the luckiest people in history and on the planet.

And where does our luck lie? In liberty.

Liberty is our most precious possession, because it is the blessing that begets all other blessings: human dignity, decency, prosperity, and more.

And we have truly “lucked into” liberty, because we owe it to the struggles of many who came before us: to those who struggled against Jim Crow, to the abolitionists who struggled against slavery, and to those who founded America 244 years ago today by issuing the Declaration of Independence, which proclaimed:

“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.”

From its birth, America was philosophically rooted in the ideal of liberty. Above all, this is a day to celebrate that fact.

Yet, raucous voices from the streets, the halls of Congress, and the ivory towers of academia are telling us otherwise. America, they say, is not something to celebrate, but to be ashamed of, and the American tradition is fundamentally rooted, not in liberty, but in slavery.

That is quite simply wrong.

Slavery is always and everywhere a monstrous outrage, a mortal sin, and an unconscionable stain. It is a stain on the honor of any individual who participated in it (including many founders) and of any institution that installed it. And slavery excused by racism is especially vile.

But to say that America is defined by slavery is an egregiously unjust falsehood.

Tragically, slavery has been one of human history’s most commonplace but deplorable institutions. Most people who have ever lived were serfs, slaves, or subjects. They lived in fear that someone more powerful than they could snuff them out with impunity.

Slavery has afflicted the Americas, Europe, Asia, and Africa. Indeed, as any careful and unbiased survey of world history will yield, only one continent has never suffered the scourge of slavery: Antarctica. Because nobody lives there.

The fact that slavery has been so commonplace throughout the world and throughout human history in no way excuses the slavery that was perpetrated by any Americans. But it does mean that slavery is not what makes America characteristically exceptional.

To the contrary, what makes America exceptional is that it was the first country to be expressly founded upon the ideal of liberty. The founders did not fully live up to that ideal, even to the extent of some of them owning slaves. And the founding did not fully implement it, even to the extent of instituting slavery in many of its laws.

But enshrining the ideal of human liberty was a heroic, epochal step forward. It set in motion the revolution that would lead eventually to the liberation of all. The Declaration and its principles were cited by abolitionists in the 19th century and civil rights activists in the 20th.

We still have work to do to make that revolution complete, but that’s a task we share with every corner of the world. And there are all too many places where it’s not even a priority.

If you’re an American, you are lucky to be among the freest people the Earth has ever known. You are lucky to be in the vanguard of a centuries-old struggle to unshackle the human race. If we haven’t yet achieved perfection, all should know that the great majority of us are still working on it, still keeping our eyes on the ultimate prize and doing our best to make it reality. If that’s not yet good enough, at least think about this fact: A century from now, people will look back on you and likely find that you weren’t perfect either.

So today, don’t wallow in shame or in the shaming of others. Cheer up, lift your chin up, and let this be a day to celebrate the American tradition of liberty for all. Not only will that be a lot more pleasant, it will boost our resolve to get ever closer to realizing its ideals.

For additional information, see:

  • Lawrence W. Reed is FEE's President Emeritus, having previously served for nearly 11 years as FEE’s president (2008-2019). He is also FEE's Humphreys Family Senior Fellow and Ron Manners Global Ambassador for Liberty. His Facebook page is here and his personal website is