America’s cities and towns will soon fill with parades, fireworks, and barbecues. They will be celebrating the Fourth of July, the 226th birthday of America. But one hopes that–on this first post-September 11 Independence Day–the speeches will contain fewer bromides and more attention to exactly what is being celebrated. The Fourth of July is Independence Day, but America’s leaders and intellectuals have been trying to move us further and further away from the meaning of Independence Day, away from the philosophy that created this country.
What we hear from politicians, intellectuals, and the media is that independence is passé, that we’ve reached a new age of “interdependence.” We hear demands for mandatory “volunteering” to serve others, for sacrifice to the nation. We hear demands from trust-busters that successful companies be punished for being “greedy” and not serving society. But this is not the message of America. It is the direct opposite of why America became a beacon of hope for the truly oppressed throughout the world. They have come here to escape poverty and dictatorship; they have come here to live their own lives, where they aren’t owned by the state, the community, or the tribe.
“Independence Day” is a critically important title. It signifies the fundamental meaning of this nation, not just of the holiday. The American Revolution remains unique in human history: a revolution–and a nation–founded on a moral principle, the principle of individual rights. Jefferson at Philadelphia, and Washington at Valley Forge, pledged their “lives, fortunes, and sacred honor.” For what? Not for mere separation from England, not–like most rebels–for the “freedom” to set up their own tyranny. In fact, Britain’s tyranny over the colonists was mild compared to what most current governments do to their citizens.
Jefferson and Washington fought a war for the principle of independence, meaning the moral right of an individual to live his own life as he sees fit. Independence was proclaimed in the Declaration of Independence as the rights to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” What are these rights? The right to life means that every individual has a right to his own independent life, that one’s life belongs to oneself, not to others to use as they see fit.
The right to liberty means the right to freedom of action, to act on one’s own judgment, the right not to have a gun pointed at one’s head and be forced to do what someone else commands. And the right to the pursuit of happiness means that an individual may properly pursue his own happiness, e.g., his own career, friends, hobbies, and not exist as a mere tool to serve the goals of others. The Founding Fathers did not proclaim a right to the attainment of happiness, knowing full well that such a policy would carry with it the obligation of others to make one happy and result in the enslavement of all to all. The Declaration of Independence was a declaration against servitude, not just servitude to the Crown but servitude to anyone. (That some signers still owned slaves does not negate the fact that they established the philosophy that doomed slavery.)
Political independence is not a primary. It rests on a more fundamental type of independence: the independence of the human mind. It is the ability of a human being to think for himself and guide his own life that makes political independence possible and necessary. The government as envisaged by the Founding Fathers existed to protect the freedom to think and to act on one’s thinking. If human beings were unable to reason, to think for themselves, there would be no autonomy or independence for a government to protect. It is this independence that defines the American Revolution and the American spirit.
To the Founding Fathers, there was no authority higher than the individual mind, not King George, not God, not society. Reason, wrote Ethan Allen, is “the only oracle of man,” and Thomas Jefferson advised us to “fix reason firmly in her seat and call to her tribunal every fact, every opinion. Question with boldness even the existence of a God.” That is the meaning of independence: trust in your own judgment, in reason; do not sacrifice your mind to the state, the church, the race, the nation, or your neighbors.
Independence is the foundation of America. Independence is what should be celebrated on Independence Day. That is the legacy our Founding Fathers left us. It is a legacy we should keep, not because it is a legacy, but because it is right and just. It has made America the freest and most prosperous country in history.