More than 240 years later, the words remain powerful and prescient:
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 are from the second — and the most famous — paragraph of the Declaration of Independence, as written mostly by Thomas Jefferson in 1776. On July 2 of that year, the Second Continental Congress voted to approve a resolution of independence from Great Britain; on July 4, the congress approved that resolution.
Such was the beginning of the United States of America, which from humble beginnings has grown into the most powerful economic and military force in the world. Such was the beginning of what we honor and celebrate today, Independence Day.
It is a powerful story, yet one that points out the need to constantly strive for enlightenment. The fact that women were not initially included in the declaration of equality, while being indicative of those times, is a blight on this nation. So is a history of discrimination and bigotry that must be opposed in all circumstances.
Amid all of this, there is an old and slightly amusing joke about the holiday: “Do they have a Fourth of July in Canada?” “Of course! And they also have a second, a third and a fifth!”
The point is that the Fourth of July could be just another day. To properly acknowledge and honor the uniqueness of the United States’ founding, to recognize the true meaning behind life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, is to embrace this nation and to embrace its potential while also recognizing its flaws.
Notably, Jefferson’s intonation of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” played off themes expressed a century earlier by English philosopher John Locke, who at one point wrote about “life, liberty and estate” while defining a government’s role as that of protecting property. Elsewhere, Locke wrote about “life, liberty, health, and indolency of body; and the possession of outward things” — which doesn’t quite roll off the tongue like “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
Now, as the United States celebrates its 243rd birthday, it is essential to ponder the origin of those words and to assess the willingness of modern America to live up to them. Many citizens view these as troubled times; others insist that we are making America great again. But the hope is that we can find a singular voice in celebrating the words and the actions that culminated with the founding of a nation that has endured for nearly two-and-a-half centuries.
The truths are that all of that is larger than any individual or group of people; that today’s celebrations are about ideas rather humans; and that applying those ideas and adapting them to a changing world remains essential to a nation’s survival.
As such, while we pay homage to the United States, we also recognize that words on a page are meaningless if not backed by a dedication to putting those words into action and to embracing the notion that all men are created equal and endowed with inalienable rights.