Born on the 4th of July
Last updated 6/27/2023 at 10:27am
"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 - That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness."
Those 111 words, the heart of the Declaration of Independence adopted on July 4, 1776, shook the world. The articulation of the principle that governments are instituted with the consent of the governed and expected to serve them, and not the will of a sovereign or a narrow elite, opened the door to a better, freer world. The principles were universal, though in 1776 they were not universally applied. Gradually, over centuries of sometimes-bloody struggle, the right to Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness has been extended - though perhaps still unevenly - to all Americans, not just white men of property.
Liberty is hard-won, and always under threat. The founders of the American Republic were rightly skeptical of human nature - they understood that people naturally crave power over others. Sometimes the lust for power is a naked desire to impose one's will; often though, it's cloaked in a sincere desire to do good, or to make others do what you think is "for their own good." Unfortunately, regardless of motive, gaining and holding power becomes an end for its own sake.
The signers of the Declaration of Independence and the framers of the Constitution were acutely aware of the dangerous seductiveness of power, and that's one reason why the new United States dodged the descent into bloody-handed tyranny that characterized the French Revolution and so many other revolutions that followed.
But we're never really out of the woods; and we're always subject to the manipulations and power plays of demagogues and elites.
As we celebrate Independence Day next Tuesday, our national culture seems as fractured and vulnerable as it has ever been in our history. We are at our best when we cleave to our principles. When we get caught up in cults of personality and identity politics, we're treading on dangerous ground - a slippery slope that leads straight to hell.
Talking about the parlous state of the nation with Nugget columnist Craig Rullman, he kicked up an on-point quote from the French pilot and writer Antoine de Saint-Exupéry:
"Demagogy enters at the moment when, for want of a common denominator, the principle of equality degenerates into a principle of identity."
That sentence was written in 1942, but it touches our present cultural moment with a needle.
We have become so embroiled in identity politics that we sometimes forget that we are all Americans, bound together by an idea and a set of principles - not by blood and soil. We are not wanting for a common denominator - it's set down in our founding document. We only lose that common denominator if we choose to throw it away.
It's worth taking a moment when we unfurl the Stars and Stripes next Tuesday and slap some burgers and dogs on the grill to remind ourselves what we are celebrating. Because if we can stay true to what Thomas Jefferson and his colleagues wrote down on parchment 247 years ago, we're going to be alright.