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.
Today, take just a moment to look back – 238 years ago – to the tumultuous period that birthed not just a new nation but also a new government. The Constitution, signed 11 years later, prescribed its rules and structure, but the Declaration of Independence we celebrate today established the philosophical basis for the new government. A federal republic, exercising legitimate power by the consent of the governed, is the result.
The founders looked to John Locke’s Second Treatise on Government for the foundation of their landmark proclamation, establishing the right to overthrow a government that denied citizens their unalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. They sought independence to form a government of their own to advance those rights.
Today, however, the government forged in those exceptional times seems to be a source of angst and anger for many. The harshest of the critics paint it with many of the same terms the colonists used. They speak of tyranny, trampled rights, of a government exceeding its authority. They attempt to portray themselves as modern-day revolutionaries and statesmen, under oppression every bit as great as the colonists endured under the monarchy. In doing so, the freedoms and rights Americans now enjoy are taken for granted and the remarkable wisdom and work of the founders is overlooked.
Just consider the breathtaking strength and endurance of the government created at the nation’s founding. It is a government tested by the most horrific of challenges – a bloody civil war that ultimately reinforced the new nation conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. It is a government that has met and conquered attacks by outside enemies – emerging even more dedicated to its principles. It is a government that has flexed to extend rights to women and blacks – growing stronger with their inclusion.
Viewed through the context of our history, there is nothing exceptional about these days or the challenges we face. They are vexing not for the government we have, but for the reluctance of some leaders to govern. Fortunately, the founders – who experienced life under a monarchy – created a government with the means to choose new leaders.
Asked whether the framers of the Constitution had created a republic or monarchy, Benjamin Franklin is famously recorded as responding, A republic, if you can keep it.
Today, we must remember that we celebrate not the war with the British but the changing political philosophy that precipitated the revolution. We celebrate not our independence from government but the independence we won to establish our own.