Why we celebrate the Fourth of July

Posted on July 3, 2019

This year, Donald Trump is twisting the traditional nonpartisan “Capitol Fourth” celebration in Washington, D.C. into a grotesque partisan rally featuring himself and military weaponry. This is wrong on so many levels.

The Fourth of July does not honor the office of President, much less the man and far less this man. The job of President wasn’t even created until more than a decade after 1776.

The Fourth of July is not a celebration of soldiers or sailors. We do that on Memorial Day and Veterans’ Day. It is simply not the point of Independence Day.

The Fourth of July honors the creation of—in Abraham Lincoln’s words—“a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” It was a nation formed to recognize the “unalienable rights” of individuals and dissolve the monarchical system that set some people above others merely because of the status of their parents.

The Fourth of July is a celebration of American values.

The best-known part of the Declaration of Independence is, of course:

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.

This famous line is more than a set of high-sounding platitudes—it is an assertion of American political philosophy. And it’s a progressive philosophy.

By “Life,” Thomas Jefferson and the signers of the Declaration did not mean simply the right to survival, which would suggest that being beaten almost to death is okay. They meant a right to personal security. By “Liberty,” Jefferson was referring to the kinds of freedoms that were ultimately written into all federal and state Bills of Rights, blocking the government from infringing upon speech, religion, the press, and trial by jury, as well as protecting individuals from wrongful criminal prosecutions.

And how do we translate Jefferson’s “pursuit of Happiness?” It cannot mean that everyone has the God-given right to do whatever makes them happy. Read “happiness” together with the earlier part of the same sentence, “all men are created equal.” Jefferson is not saying that people have an unbridled right to pursue happiness; he is saying they have an equal right to pursue happiness. In today’s language, we’d call that equal opportunity.

Here’s how these truths might read in updated language: “No one is better than any other—all of us have an equal right to freedom, opportunity, and security.” No one is above the law; everyone is equal under the law. No one is born above anyone else, we’re all equal as Americans.

Because we will never live in a perfect world, our job is to move American reality closer to American ideals. Thomas Jefferson wouldn’t have expected us to achieve equal access to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for all Americans. He would have expected us to try.

The founding fathers were so dedicated to these political ideals that they ended the Declaration with the words:

 …we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.

Their commitment to the creation of a new nation based on values took extraordinary courage. The Declaration was treason—and the text repeatedly insults King George III. They did not know—as we do—that they would win the war with Great Britain. If they had lost the war, these men would have been ruined and at least some hanged. The signers were among the richest men in America, they had almost nothing material to gain. They all stuck their heads in a noose, some fought and some died, for principles, for values, for a better tomorrow.

That’s what the Fourth of July is about. For some years, and especially today, we progressives have allowed right-wing extremists to hijack our ideals and wave them like a flag, rallying Americans to their distinctly un-American cause. It is time to right that wrong.