What is the meaning of Independence Day for today?
We know it’s about more than hot dogs, apple pie, and fireworks.
But how much more?
Well, we know it’s about celebrating, as a matter of historical reality, the adoption of the Declaration of Independence by the Second Continental Congress on July 4, 1776, and the American Revolution that won our independence.
But what’s the deeper meaning of the Declaration of Independence and the American Revolution?
Now, we’re getting down to brass bugles.
At one level, of course, it’s not that complicated. The Declaration itself proclaims – on behalf of what it calls, in the first sentence, “one People” – the self-evident Truths, “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.”
By the time the Constitution of 1787 was framed, the Declaration of Independence’s “one People” had become, in the Constitution’s very first three words, “We the People.”
“We the People.” We Americans.
But beyond the self-evident truths, what do the Declaration of Independence and the Revolution mean for America and the world today? Several months ago I read a new book, The Great Debate: Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine and the Birth of Right and Left, by Yuval Levin, editor of the journal National Affairs. I commend the book if you wish to learn a considerable amount about the lives and political philosophies of Paine and Burke. But for my purposes here, I want to focus just briefly on the different perspectives of these two political theorists regarding the meaning of American independence and our revolution.
Even before the Declaration of July 4th, Thomas Paine, in his famous tract Common Sense, published in January 1776, wrote: “The cause of America is in great measure the cause of all mankind.”
In this early view of American exceptionalism, Paine did not waver. In his Rights of Man, published in 1791 in direct response to Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790), Paine declared: “The independence of America, considered merely as a separation from England, would have been a matter but of little importance, had it not been accompanied by a revolution in the principles and practice of governments.”
Paine always considered America’s fight for independence, its revolution, to be a fight about fundamental, yet abstract, principles – equality and liberty – about which, in the nature of government and politics, there should be no compromise, no middle ground.
Like Paine, Burke supported the colonies’ quest for independence. Indeed, from his seat in Parliament, he did so eloquently, in the midst of the fevered politics of the moment. But his understanding of the causes of the American Revolution, and its ultimate meaning, was much different than Paine’s. Burke maintained that England simply pushed the colonists too far, not taking into account the particular needs and circumstances of the colonists as they had developed over time in the New World. In his view, the separation could have been avoided by practical adjustments addressing the colonists’ grievances.
Thus, Burke had little use for the abstract ideals that Paine proclaimed as universal truths applicable to all of mankind. He said in the House of Commons that America should have been governed “not according to abstract ideals of right; by no means according to mere general theories of government.…” For Burke, taking due account of the actual customs, habits, and obligations that shape a particular society is more important in establishing and maintaining a consensual, workable government than unbridled devotion to a theory of rights. In other words, a political theory like that espoused by Paine.
With whom do you identify more closely when you think about the meaning of the Declaration of Independence and the ongoing American experiment – Thomas Paine or Edmund Burke?
This at least is food for thought on Independence Day, while we go about enjoying the hot dogs and apple pie.
As for Thomas Jefferson, the Declaration’s lead draftsman, his views were always more closely aligned with those of his friend, Tom Paine. In his September 1821 letter to John Adams, Jefferson wrote: "And even should the cloud of barbarism and despotism again obscure the science and liberties of Europe, this country remains to preserve and restore light and liberty to them. In short, the flames kindled on the 4th of July 1776, have spread over too much of the globe to be extinguished by the feeble engines of despotism."
There surely remains much despotism around the world, and much cruel deprivation of liberty and basic human rights. And I suppose there will be for a long time to come. But, for myself, I still pay homage to the flames kindled on July 4th, 1776, and I still hold that the cause of America – the ideals that the Declaration rightly proclaims as self-evident Truths – is, in large measure, the cause of all mankind.