Perhaps the most remarkable thing about the Declaration of Independence, which was approved on July 4, 1776, by the Continental Congress, is the mere fact that it exists.
A FIRST OF ITS KIND
Nowhere, ever, had a people offered to the world an open moral defense of their revolutionary, law-breaking intentions, at a moment when their actions on the battlefield appeared more suicidal than hopeful.
And nowhere, ever, before or after, has the cause of freedom been presented more perfectly, poetically or beautifully.
AND SACRED HONOR
All the men who signed the Declaration knew they were possibly signing away their lives and everything else dear to them. What was “revolution” for them was treason from the English Crown’s point of view, and the punishment if they were caught would be torture and death at the hands of English soldiers — the most lethal military in the world at that time.
The macabre seriousness of the occasion was forever memorialized in the closing line of the Declaration, as the signers pledged their “lives, fortunes, and sacred honor.” Their pledge remains somewhat famous. But often people forget to whom the pledge was made: They pledged all they had not to God and not to the citizenry at large. Their pledge was to one another.
They knew well that if any betrayed the trust among them, the revolution would fail and freedom would have to wait for another time, another place. But their loyalty to each other and to the cause of freedom was unbreakable. And we today are the beneficiaries of their mutual loyalty.
THE SIMPLE PART: ALL MEN ARE CREATED EQUAL
The moral and political premise of the Declaration of Independence was a simple yet radical idea: Every human being — regardless of the time or place of birth, or gender, or the color of one’s skin, or the language one speaks, or the gods one worships — possesses by nature a body that houses a free mind. In this way, all men truly are created equal. That’s the simple part.
From this simple observation flow radical implications: If a body is home to a free mind, then that mind is the only truly rightful governor of that body. Self-government is right because it is woven into the fabric of human nature.
THE RIGHTNESS OF HUMAN EQUALITY
Any form of slavery or tyranny — any attempt of the mind of one person to own, control or abuse the body of another — is therefore wrong. Every moral wrong between human beings is a testament to the rightness of human equality.
Further, if a free mind directs the body it governs to create something, invent something, produce something useful, then the fruit of that labor belongs solely to the mind that made it. It belongs to no one else. Here we see that the idea of property is less economic, emphatically moral.
No one has a right to any property or any wealth that has been produced or earned by someone else. The inventions of some people are never the rights of others.
Consider: No one knows what future products or services technology might invent. But we know that no one has a right to them. You’re free to work and earn and save in order to buy them, of course. But you have no right to them. If you did, then others would have an obligation now to invent them. Who has such an obligation? Answer: no one. And therefore no one has a right to anything that might be invented or produced by others, now or later.
A GOVERNMENT OF LIMITED PURPOSE
From all this, a radical new vision of government arose in America: The purpose of government would be limited to protecting the natural freedoms, natural rights and property of those who mutually and voluntarily consent to form a government.
A government of limited purpose should be a government of limited power, which is precisely why the U.S. Constitution was written and ratified — to enumerate the few powers We The People grant to the government we created, and to make clear that government may not rightfully do anything else. Period.
BINDING THE MONOPOLY OF FORCE
More: Citizens have good reason to trust one another, because none has any legal authority to take anything away from or harm others. But government is different. Every law, every regulation, every rule and order and decree issued from government is ultimately backed up by the barrel of a gun. Government is a monopoly of force.
So while government may always be necessary, it’s also always dangerous. A people who are wise and expect to remain free might extend civic trust to one another, but they should bind their government officials by the chains of the Constitution.
And if ever government exercises unjust and unauthorized powers, and we have no peaceful remedy available to us, we always reserve the natural right to choose revolution once again, just like we did on July 4, 1776. That’s what freedom looks like. And that’s what Independence Day is all about.
So let us celebrate this Fourth of July, 2014. As you enjoy the fireworks after sunset, let them be a reminder of the explosive fighting and dying required to establish the freedom you enjoy today. Remember how they fought, that for which they fought, and why we all are better off for it.