The Glorious Fourth of July

Every year I promise myself I will write about about the Fourth of July holiday, and what it means to me, and to the world. Most years, I don’t remember to do it until it’s too late. This year, not so.

We celebrate the Fourth of July because it is the day in 1776 when 50-odd men representing thirteen British colonies signed a document declaring their independence from Britain. This is interesting in several ways.

First, it was four days late. Like most committees, they got behind schedule. ¬†ūüėČ

Second, people rebelling against their rulers usually don’t bother to write out a list of why. They just rebel.

Most importantly, though, was the idea – the unshakeable idea:

“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, and that among these rights are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

The idea was not altogether new. Other Enlightenment thinkers had come to recognize that, as God’s creation, we are equal before our creator, and are therefore equal before the law. Furthermore, we, not the discredited Divine Right of Kings, are the holders of sovereign, ultimate civil power on this earth. Not some king. Not some religious leader. Not even some elected government – such a body is the servant of the sovereign, not the master.

In 1776, this was a VERY radical idea. It still is; in many places in the world, ‘democracy’ means merely an election to pick a new dictator.

Critics point out that the signers of that document conveniently forgot that many of them owned other human beings. They omitted any mention of women. ¬†Equality before the law would be a long time coming. But that misses a key point. Why don’t we celebrate October 19, 1781? Or September 3, 1783?

It’s because of the power of declaration. The transcendent, over-arching power of a solemn declaration of the way things WILL be. Max Weber said:

“Somewhere [a man] reaches a¬†point where he says,¬†‘Here I stand; I can do no other.’¬†This is something genuinely human, and genuinely moving. ”

Declaration alone does not bring things to pass, of course. But it is the necessary first step. And THAT is why we celebrate July 4 – the date of DECLARATION. Those other dates?¬†October 19, 1781 is when Lord Cornwallis surrounded, and we ‘won’ our revolution. ¬†September 3, 1783 is when we and the British signed the agreement recognizing the facts. Those dates are forgotten; but the Glorious Fourth lives on.

In the years since, we have made enormous progress toward the goal of equality before the law for all men and women in America, but there’s still some distance to travel. I fear we may be backsliding, however, because equality before the law does not mean equality in life, or in outcome. It is plainly obvious that our creator did not create us equal in either body or mind. We remain, however, equal in our souls, before our creator, and hopefully before our own laws.

It isn’t easy. The word ‘democracy’ comes from the Greeks, but democracy in ancient Greece was a series of tragedies and train wrecks. It rather looks like democracy in modern Greece is not working out very well, but time will tell.

The men who founded America, who crafted the Constitution, knew this, and were concerned that America would follow the Greek pattern and turn into a dictatorship. So far, we’ve avoided it, but we remain at risk. Every election is the risk that we will vote unwisely, that we will vote for “me first” instead of what’s best for the nation. Voting cannot make you rich, or happy. It can, if used with great wisdom, help to keep you free.

How does this affect the rest of the world? That’s an easy question to answer, but a far more difficult one to bring to pass. Our Declaration said ALL men (and meant women, etc) – not just Americans, but every person on Earth. However, the idea that humans are not sovereign, that somehow the government or one’s faith is supreme here on earth is common. When you hear someone say the people have to change so the government will work better, they have it backwards. We are not here to try to fit ourselves into some government official’s idea of what we should be. It’s quite the opposite.

This is also true for religion. No church, synagogue, or mosque rules you here on Earth. No pope, no rabbinical council, no imam, gets to decide what you do or do not do. In the next life we will surely find out what we should have done, but in this life we are each sovereign, able to make our decisions, and if we are truly mature, happy to accept whatever consequences may result.

So on this Glorious Fourth, please remember what we celebrate. The power of declaration in general, and the ongoing power of that declaration 239 years ago:

“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, and that among these rights are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

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