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 …
Many of us tend to think of the Fourth of July as a day to celebrate patriotism, which it is, in a way. But it’s good to remember the actual holiday is Independence Day and it celebrates a revolutionary act of defiance and protest against established state power.
We celebrate the nation today with flags and bunting in red, white and blue, which is a grand thing to do, and we applaud it.
At its core, though, the holiday is about the individual, not the state.
The power and rights of nation-states had been established long before July 4, 1776, when 56 proto-Americans representing 13 rebellious colonies bent on separating themselves from mother country and monarch signed our Declaration of Independence.
What’s most remarkable and enduring about the document we celebrate today isn’t that it set the stage for the creation of a new nation. That had happened for eons.
What was new and revolutionary, in the broad sense of that word, was that it established individual rights among that new nation’s fundamental principles, and that it claimed for the people the right to govern themselves and to change the government themselves.
Today we’re celebrating what is arguably the most eloquent and influential political protest in history.
Americans don’t have a monopoly on political protest. But protest and dissent, more than obedience, is a central part of American patriotism.
What we’re celebrating is a spirit of independence that asserts that people have rights that government can’t trample.
On July 4, 1776, that spirit was expressed in an intellectual protest that inspired many others, including some that are alive today and others that will break out tomorrow.
Those who signed the Declaration of Independence had been loyal British subjects, but they had a long list of grievances. They contended the lawful government time and again had trampled on their rights.
Some of their protests might sound eerily familiar. The signers of the declaration claimed, for example, the government was interfering with private citizens who simply were minding their own business. They claimed the government was imposing taxes without really hearing from the public.
The Declaration of Independence asserts that repeated violations of individual rights cannot be tolerated. It concludes that any government that systematically violates the natural rights of individual citizens surrenders its claim to authority.
When people who deserve better get sorry treatment from those who govern, they can accept it meekly or they can protest.
Independence Day is a day to celebrate the spirit of those who spoke up — and still speak up today.
• Michael A. Smith
Editor’s note: A version of this editorial first appeared July 4, 2017.