For The Past and The Future. July 4, 2009
By David Van Os
Today is July 4, 2009. It is the 233rd marking of one of the most remarkable events in the history of humanity. It is our national birthday. It is our Independence Day. It is a day for celebrating both the past and the future.
It is the anniversary of the day when the people’s representatives of 13 ex-British colonies on the North American continent proclaimed their freedom and independence. On that hot summer day, July 4, 1776, the subjects of an empire became the self-governing citizens of a republic. The owned became the owners. Monarchy dissolved and democracy arose.
In the hearts of royal despots everywhere a tremble of fear arose. In the hearts of their millions of victims a beacon of hope was lit. For not only did our national forebears announce a new nation, they altered the very definition of nationhood.
The people’s representatives assembled in Philadelphia who took this bold step on behalf of their fellow citizens were normal flesh and blood human beings. Just like all of us, they were full of the countless flaws and infirmities of the human condition. But also just like each of us, they were also vessels for the most remarkable potentials of the human race. They were petty and political. They were also brilliant, enlightened, visionary, and courageous. Just like each of us, they had the innate human capacity to rise to their best when their time on earth required it.
These representatives of the people of the 13 ex-British colonies decided to do something that proved extremely important. It turned out to be one of the most important things ever done in the history of humanity. They decided to write down their reasons for declaring revolt against the British Empire.
Their reasons for risking their lives as traitors to the British Crown are why our national Independence Day is so valued by us and why it is honored around the world today. For they took such a dangerous step not only to be separated politically from Great Britain, but also to establish an entirely new vision of how human society should be ordered and governed. They put it down in writing for the posterity of their nation and the world.
In one remarkable passage they gave to their fellow citizens, to their descendants, and to all of future world history their new blueprint for human society:
"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 there 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, –"
If you have not lately paused to read these words slowly and to contemplate their meaning, there is no better time than today, the anniversary of their first public utterance. Read the words slowly. Absorb their meaning.
You will then understand that the incredibly courageous and visionary founders of America redefined the very meaning of government and nationhood. In their vision, government existed not as the tool of a ruler or ruling class, but only as the extension of the self-governing people themselves, and only for the purpose of securing the human rights of the people. They created a country for the purpose of carrying out this vision. This is why America exists. This is why we have a national identity as Americans. This is what our country is here for. It is the new definition of nationhood that our national forebears birthed.
It is not only for the past that we pause to honor the birth of the vision 233 years ago. Equally, or perhaps even more importantly, we honor it for the future. The words of the Declaration of Independence are not just a history lesson. The vision of which they speak is not just a quaint artifact of the past.
The Declaration of Independence announces a mission. It is our responsibility as legatees of the American Revolution to understand that the vision is not a static object that lies frozen in time behind us, but a vibrant goal for us to commit ourselves to reaching.
It is a mission that has never been fully realized. Most of the authors of the Declaration were male supremacists and many were slaveholders. Many were moneyed elite who preferred to preserve voting rights solely for their social class. They were far from perfect examples of the vision they articulated.
But they nevertheless envisioned what was possible for humanity, and they sacrificed everything they had to make sure their great experiment had a chance to take root. We honor them for that, but at the same time we look forward in the recognition that each generation of Americans is responsible for advancing further toward realization of the Declaration’s vision as our goal. We accept that responsibility for our time, and we look to the future in the determination to deliver the vision to our descendants closer to fulfillment than it was left to us.
So on this day, July 4, 2009, for the sake of those who came before us and for the sake of those who will come after us, we rededicate ourselves to the task of fulfilling the magnificent vision of the Declaration of Independence of the United States of America. For the 233rd time, we declare it anew.