LOST IN THE CHEERY GREETING, “Happy 4th of July,” is the solemnity of Independence Day and the magnificence of our Declaration of Independence.
That came home to me yesterday at the grocery check-out. The young man at the register handed me my change with a mechanical, “Have a good one.” (There is a phrase to set the teeth on edge.) I responded with, “Happy Independence Day.” He looked startled for a second before muttering, “Oh . . . yeah.” So, please, for his sake and that of all his brethren, let us mark the day. It is not narrow nationalism that we celebrate this weekend. It is liberty, a freedom grounded in an historically unique insight into the origins of government:
. . . Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.
Constitutional scholar and historian Matthew Spalding, writing in June, 2001, explained the genius of our founding document:
The true significance of the Declaration lies in its trans-historical meaning. Its appeal was not to any conventional law or political contract but to the equal rights possessed by all men and “the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and nature’s God” entitled them. What is revolutionary about the Declaration of Independence is not that a particular group of Americans declared their independence under particular circumstances but that they did so by appealing to–and promising to base their particular government on–a universal standard of justice. It is in this sense that Abraham Lincoln praised “the man who, in the concrete pressure of a struggle for national independence by a single people, had the coolness, forecast, and capacity to introduce into a merely revolutionary document, an abstract truth, applicable to all men and all times.”
In other words, the Declaration was something far more significant than a statement of grievances against, and of separation from, England. It was revolutionary in stating the conditions of legitimate political authority; it proclaimed the ground of political rule not in the power of rulers but in the sovereignty of a people. The great Samuel Eliot Morrison phrased it this way:
“If the American Revolution had produced nothing but the Declaration of Independence,” wrote the great historian Samuel Eliot Morrison, “it would have been worthwhile.”
Contemporary amnesiacs do not think much about Calvin Coolidge. Yet a president more like him—an educated, small-government advocate, and defender of the classics—would be a grace today. In 1926, Coolidge celebrated the 150th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence with these words:
We live in an age of science and of abounding accumulation of material things. These did not create our Declaration. Our Declaration created them. The things of the spirit come first. Unless we cling to that, all our material prosperity, overwhelming though it may appear, will turn to a barren sceptre in our grasp. If we are to maintain the great heritage which has been bequeathed to us, we must be like-minded as the fathers who created it. We must not sink into a pagan materialism. We must cultivate the reverence which they had for the things that are holy. We must follow the spiritual and moral leadership which they showed. We must keep replenished, that they may glow with a more compelling flame, the altar fires before which they worshiped.
Please, let us raise a glass to the committee—especially to Jefferson—who drafted the Declaration. God bless America in these fragile, fractured and dangerous times.
© 2011 Maureen Mullarkey