As we celebrate the Fourth of July with barbecues, parades, fireworks and a day off work, we should pause and give thought to what it is we are celebrating.
After several days of debate, representatives of the second Continental Congress voted on July 4, 1776 to accept the Declaration of Independence. Thomas Jefferson wrote the document and John Hancock, president of the Continental Congress, was the first to sign. The 13 colonies had officially proclaimed their freedom from British rule. For all practical purposes, the United States was born.
The first celebration of the signing was held on July 4 of the very next year. America's birthday has been an annual event ever since.
A few words from the document whose signing we mark today:
"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."
The words are as applicable today as ever.
"All men are created equal." These are the most powerful words in the declaration. They remind us that in the United States we do not stand for racism, that to discriminate against individuals on the basis of race, religion, gender or other attribute that does not speak to individual character is simply un-American.
"They are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." The words remind us that, for the past two-plus centuries, America has opened its arms to those seeking freedom from oppression and an opportunity at prosperity. They are words that our elected officials should commit to memory as they wrestle with immigration reform.
"Governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed." Ours is a government of the people, by the people and for the people. The power of government comes not from the individuals who are elected to govern but from the people who elected them.
Those who crafted and signed the Declaration of Independence understood the gravity of their decision. They had been fighting the British for more than a year, and had explored and exhausted alternative strategies. The declaration makes clear that the step they were taking, though extreme, was their only option:
"Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such government, and to provide new guards for their future security."
Our forefathers were dreaming of independence, but they had no guarantees on that Fourth of July 231 years ago. They were taking an enormous risk. Surely the notion that they were writing a document that would lay the foundation for the greatest country the world has known was beyond their wildest dreams.
It is proper that we take a moment today to salute their courage and their vision.