When the American colonies finally agreed to separate from England in order to establish a country where liberty was the law of the land, it was a turning point for liberty in the world. The American Founders declared their reasons for the separation in the Declaration of Independence.
July 4th, 1776 was the day that the Declaration was officially adopted by Congress.
From The Charters of Freedom – Declaration of Independence: A History: “Jefferson’s account reflects three stages in the life of the Declaration: the document originally written by Jefferson; the changes to that document made by Franklin and Adams, resulting in the version that was submitted by the Committee of Five to the Congress; and the version that was eventually adopted.
“On July 1, 1776, Congress reconvened. The following day, the Lee Resolution for independence was adopted by 12 of the 13 colonies, New York not voting. Immediately afterward, the Congress began to consider the Declaration. Adams and Franklin had made only a few changes before the committee submitted the document. The discussion in Congress resulted in some alterations and deletions, but the basic document remained Jefferson’s. The process of revision continued through all of July 3 and into the late morning of July 4. Then, at last, church bells rang out over Philadelphia; the Declaration had been officially adopted.”
This should be a precious document to anyone who knows the crucial value of living by his or her own honest intelligence, free from those who would impose their own beliefs and will through coercion. Liberty enables the honest and the intelligent to go their own way (as well as the dishonest and stupid to go theirs, as long as they don’t use force or fraud to gain their ends), and to thus live with self-respect and to pursue happiness according to their own judgment and conscience. The result is an outpouring of intellectual, scientific, and material discovery and invention, a contentious but productive marketplace of ideas and goods.
When all agree on the principles of liberty, the widest variety of views can live in physical peace with each other (although the field of argument can become verbally heated and even ugly), and live by their own judgment and conscience. It is when someone’s conscience includes the view that he must enforce his own particular ideology or religion on his ideological opponents that the protective wall of liberty is broken and a society of free people needs to rally against that breach.
The founding documents of the United States give the American people a strong foundation for liberty. Those documents, however, do not guarantee that liberty will persist. That depends on the American people, their educators, their writers and artists and other cultural contributors. It depends on the American people’s understanding of what liberty is, why it’s so crucial to human well-being, and what upholds or destroys it.
Liberty has been a driving theme in my life ever since, as a young child, I began questioning whether God existed or not, and “going into” all the issues I could discover for myself that grew out of that questioning. I realized, for myself, that I had to “keep an honest mind” or I wouldn’t be able to stand living with myself in my own head. I didn’t know what I would eventually conclude about God, or if I ever would be able to conclude anything, but I knew that most people believed in God, that I didn’t know enough to be able to decide one way or another yet, and that I needed to be able to openly ask questions and challenge what most people believed in order to bring my own ideas closer to the truth – and maybe help other people to get closer as well.
If people could punish me – to imprison me, rob me, beat me up or kill me – for not believing in God, that would be a bad thing for my ability to live by my honesty and the search for truth. I saw for myself that honesty and a freedom to explore ideas was how human beings (not just me in particular) travel from a less accurate grasp of truths to a more accurate one. I saw that it was those who threaten this process by using force (or fraud) to derail inquiry and disagreement in favor of some official view who are the enemy of the best in me and in any honest human being who is serious about trying to grasp “The truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.” (I learned that phrase from watching Perry Mason. 🙂 ) And to live by what one grasps.
So I love the Declaration of Independence because I love my mind, my honesty, and my liberty to live according to those treasures of mine. And I love living in a world where others are free to live by theirs as well.
I love my Life, my Liberty, and my Pursuit of Happiness.
Thank you, Founding Fathers, for the documents that grounded liberty in law. May the American people take those values seriously, understand them deeply, and never let them go.