How will you celebrate the 4th of July? Will you have/Are you having a picnic? Going to one? Picnics are fine, but all of us should also truly celebrate the essence of the Fourth – the propositions about rights and equality in the Declaration.
Picnics are the default social activity for Americans. It’s what we do on Memorial Day, even though the original intentions of the day – first known as Decoration Day because it was a day to adorn fallen Civil War soldiers’ gravesites – was to be a day of sober reflection upon the sacrifices of those soldiers who gave, in Lincoln’s words, “the last full measure of devotion.”
I suspect we’d have a picnic on Veterans Day as well if it fell earlier in the year.
Don’t get me wrong. There’s nothing wrong with picnics. But civic holidays exist to teach us about our country and the meaning of our citizenship. When it comes to celebrating civic liturgies, we Americans are really quite sloppy. I don’t expect great cultural trends to change quickly or even much at all, but we could add an element of civic education to this day.
I do have a suggestion as you celebrate this Independence Day: Get a copy of the Declaration of Independence and read it. In fact, read it aloud at the picnic you are attending.
It’s a document that we should not forget; it’s even more amazing that it’s a document we celebrate on Independence. We don’t celebrate the end of the Revolutionary War, which would be a logical day to celebrate. (Quick quiz – what day was the end of the Revolutionary War? Is it October 19, 1781 when Cornwallis surrendered at Yorktown or September 3, 1783 when the Paris Peace Treaty was signed? Answer: It doesn’t matter.)
Most nations celebrate the date of some significant battle or the date in which they became free from some colonial power.
We celebrate not simply the day in which we declared Independence – which was July 2. We celebrate July 4 because it is the day that the Second Continental Congress approved the Declaration of Independence and it is this document which contains the central propositions of being a US citizen.
It is not the easiest notion to grasp, but we are a nation that rests upon a set of ideas, which were believed to be “self-evident.” We have no common ethnicity, and our ancestors do not share a common history.
The second paragraph of the Declaration states this common core. At the center of the American political order is the notion that we all have equal natural rights. “All men are created equal and endowed by the Creator with certain inalienable rights.” There’s not enough space here to defend this passage fully, but the core founders truly did believe that all human beings were created equal. ‘Men’ was a common term at the time for all human beings. They certainly didn’t think that women could be killed with impunity; therefore, women had a right to life. Many founders believed that slaves were deserving of rights as well, but it was not politically possible to end slavery and fight for political freedom at the same time.
As persons with rights, we form a government and that government is based upon our consent. The Declaration states that “governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” Consent does not mean agreement with all that government does. Consent means that we agree to the basic framework. It is consent that makes a government legitimate, not merely the recognition by other political entities.
The third essential proposition is that “whenever any form of government becomes destructive” to rights of the people “it is the right of the people to alter or abolish that government.” This is the right of revolution, and, while essential, it is not to be exercised frequently or for less than the most serious reasons. The very idea of the right to revolution is important because, as John Locke (1632-1704) explained in the 1690’s, the right to revolution is a great “fence” for our liberties. That is, governments will think twice about systematically abrogating the rights of citizens if there is the possibility of citizen revolution.
So on this Fourth, even if it appears a bit odd, get a copy of the Declaration and read the first portion out loud. It will instruct you and others. All in your presence – from the WASP with oldest American lineage to the most recent naturalized citizen – will be reminded of what we share as Americans. Those ideas truly are worth celebrating.