July 4th conjures up memories of easy-going BBQs and awe-inspiring fireworks. The lone summer holiday, it epitomizes the season with its outdoor activities, ode to grilling, and water fun. But just as the meaning of Christmas can get buried beneath a mountain of well-intentioned customs like presents and decorating, so too can the true meaning of July 4th get lost in its own traditions.
July 4th, or Independence Day, is the anniversary of the day we officially declared our independence and freedom. It’s basically America’s birthday. On July 4, 1776, the thirteen colonies formally adopted the Declaration of Independence and set in motion a chain of events that led us right up to this present moment.
The Declaration of Independence was a daring and bold act of courage, the first time a nation’s people ever formally stated and declared their right to choose their own government. Everyone who signed it was committing treason in the eyes of England. Had we lost the Revolutionary War, they would all most certainly have been hung. England was an enormously powerful country at that time, and it was an audacious act to defy that power and assert our own.
What is even more profound are the values and principles laid out in the Declaration:
“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.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”
These few lines of text are the bedrock of our country. They are our ideals and values – our mission statement. They are the fabric of our nation and the heartbeat of its people. In the context of the times it was written, these were courageous and heroic words to scribe on paper. The men who signed the Declaration came from a world that was the exact opposite of these sentiments. It was a world without equality; a world with very little chance of improving your station in life; a world that did not believe in inalienable rights; and a world where the average person had very little say over how they were governed.
Now, however, many people worry that our country is no better than the England we declared our independence from almost 250 years ago. What has become evident over these short 250 years is that the founding principles were in reality reserved only for men who looked like the signers of the declaration. These men were fighting for their own freedom and equality from an oppressive and tyrant king, while at the same time many of them were slave owners themselves. They declared their own equal right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness but did not offer that same right to African Americans they enslaved, to Native Americans, or to women.
What has given all of us hope, however, is the long tradition America has of the excluded using these founding principles to ensure that they were included. From the founding fathers on, excluded Americans have claimed these rights as their own, declared these rights as their own, and fought to make sure they had the same equal rights as everyone else. These principles have been fought for again and again in America; our country went to war with ourselves over these principles.
Sometimes it feels unbelievable that after all this fighting and battling for equal rights, we still struggle for true equality today. Too many Americans are left out in the cold, while others are handed the keys to the kingdom. The racism and injustice of our criminal justice system, the horrific police brutality, the policies that continue the long line of racial injustice in America are an assault on our democracy – and these are just a few of the inequality issues we face in America. It can all make one feel hopeless, even desperate at times. But history has shown that the American spirit is an indomitable force, and, in these moments, we must remember that America has always had a long tradition of activists who challenge the system and fight for what is right.
We stand on the shoulders of thousands of everyday men and women who marched the cause of democracy forward. We enjoy more equal rights because of their efforts and commitment to these ideals. These were the men and women who fought to abolish slavery; the suffragettes who fought for women’s equality and the right to vote; the Civil Rights activists who fought for equal rights for African Americans; the LGBTQ activists who fought for the marriage equality act; the human rights activists who spearheaded the Black Lives Matter movement, just to name a few. There are many, many more, known and unknown, past and present.
The fate of our country, of our democracy, of our very freedoms – the freedoms of those who live with us now and those who will come after us – ultimately rests on our shoulders. Every generation holds within its people the power to move democracy forward or backward.
“Human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable… Every step toward the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering, and struggle; the tireless exertions and passionate concern of dedicated individuals.” Martin Luther King, Jr.
The founding principles scribed in the Declaration of Independence will not survive behind glass on lovingly preserved parchment paper. If they remain only there, they will die. They can only live if they reside in the heart of every American, and every person that wants to be American. We must commit to them, embody them to the best of our ability, imbue them with new life and vigor, and carry them forward. They cannot live unless they live through us.
If we wish to preserve our ideals or, rather, finally live up to our ideals, we must continue to fight for justice and equality for all. As John F. Kennedy said, “The rights of every man are diminished when the rights of one man is threatened.” And, later, as Barack Obama said, “My liberty depends on you being free, too.” If we cannot all be free, then none of us are really free. If we do not all enjoy the inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and a government that supports those rights, then none of us really do.
We are all in this together, in this audacious American experiment predicated on the lofty ideals of equality and freedom for all. The health of our country can be measured by how well we live up to our ideals, both as individuals and as a nation; how well our government secures those ideals and rights for all of its citizens and for global citizens abroad; and how hard we fight to alter any injustices that encroach upon those rights and founding principles, whether they affect us personally or not.
Independence Day is an opportunity to renew our commitment to our founding principles and to take stock of where we are as a nation and as an individual. It is an opportunity to honor the people, known and unknown, who have fought for justice and endeavored to secure our freedoms, both at home and abroad. It is an opportunity to be thankful for those who continue this long tradition today and to join their ranks if we haven’t already.
Finally, July 4th is a profound opportunity for us all to take the founding principles set forth in the Declaration of Independence back into our hearts and then out into the world in our own unique way.