THE MEANING OF INDEPENDENCE DAY
Thomas Jefferson and John Adams died on the same day, July 4, 1826, the fiftieth anniversary of the date officially recognized for the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Ten days earlier, on June 24, 1826, in response to a request that he attend a ceremony commemorating that anniversary, Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence, wrote to Washington, D.C. Mayor Roger C. Weightman a response that preserves the essential reason we celebrate. It is not simply that America is celebrating a birthday or the courage it exercised to throw off the yoke of tyranny in the War for Independence. It is, rather, that we celebrate a unique event in the history of the world—a moment when men possessed of governing power chose not to vest sovereignty in themselves but to dedicate their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor to the hallowed principle that all men are created equal and are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and that no government is just except that which is based on the consent of the governed and is instituted to protect the rights of the governed. That is the essential reason we celebrate Independence Day.
As those principles have receded in practice with the growth of big government, the patriots among us have fought to restore them, mindful of the blessings that victories for liberty bring to us and our posterity. Let us endeavor to recover the spirit of 1776 that caused a people bravely to sever the bonds of slavery and dependence and assume the full mantle of freedom.
In his letter to D.C. Mayor Weightman (his final letter as it turned out), Jefferson declined an invitation to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the Declaration of Independence with regret but imparted to Weightman the very purpose of the holiday (to rededicate ourselves to the rights of man). Jefferson wrote: “The kind invitation I receive from you, on the part of the citizens of the city of Washington, to be present with them at their celebration on the fiftieth anniversary of American Independence, as one of the surviving signers of an instrument pregnant with our own and the fate of the world, is the most flattering to myself, and heightened by the honorable accompaniment proposed for the comfort of such a journey. It adds sensibly to the sufferings of sickness, to be deprived by it of a personal participation in the rejoicings of that day . . . . I should, indeed, with peculiar delight, have met and exchanged there congratulations personally with the small band, the remnant of that host of worthies, who joined with us on that day, in the bold and doubtful election we were to make for our country, between submission or the sword; and to have enjoyed with them the consolatory fact, that our fellow citizens, after half a century of experience and prosperity, continue to approve the choice we made.
May it be to the world, what I believe it will be, (to some parts sooner, to others later, but finally to all,) the signal of arousing men to burst the chains under which monkish ignorance and superstition had persuaded them to bind themselves, and to assume the blessings and security of self-government. That form which we have substituted, restores the free right to the unbounded exercise of reason and freedom of opinion. All eyes are opened, or opening, to the rights of man. The general spread of the light of science has already laid open to every view the palpable truth, that the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately, by the grace of God. These are grounds of hope for others. For ourselves, let the annual return of this day forever refresh our recollections of these rights, and an undiminished devotion to them.”
As we celebrate this magnificent holiday of independence, unique in all the world, we necessarily reflect on the enormous sacrifice paid in the American Revolution, and in wars since, so that we may be free. Imperiled as we are from enemies within, enemies who have replaced the Republic the great men of the founding era gave us with a bureaucratic oligarchy, we must come to appreciate, as our forebears did in the darkest hours of the war for Independence, that securing individual liberty from oppression is worth the price we must pay.
Although we now work under the burden of a government too large to be anything but oppressive, we should take solace in the fact that the inexorable direction of human history is in favor of liberty and away from governmental restraint, and that governments that take from us our freedom do so against the backdrop of that history, which so often establishes the fate of those governments as beneath the feet of those who demand their freedom.
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This Independence Day we should appreciate, more so than perhaps at any earlier occasion, that we have it within our power to restore the great Republic given us, to make liberty its centerpiece again. In a letter to John Adams dated September 12, 1821, Thomas Jefferson expressed this confidence in us: “The flames kindled on the 4th of July 1776 have spread over too much of the globe to be extinguished by the feeble engines of despotism. On the contrary they will consume those engines, and all who work them.”
© 2011 Jonathan W. Emord - All Rights Reserved