It’s not the amber waves of grain or purple mountains’ majesty.
It’s certainly not the rocket’s red glare or bombs bursting in …well …you know. It’s not even the free market or diversity or apple pie or fireworks or the Grand Canyon or the heartland or even the military (as much as I love them). And I’m going to go out on a limb here, and say that it isn’t even the beloved and genius Constitution.
No, the one thing that is the foundational tone-setter for what would become The United States of America (at least, in my opinion) is the Declaration of Independence.
Before anybody won a battle; before anybody ran for president; before anybody pledged allegiance (or took a knee), somebody decided to write something down that had never been written down. It was something you dare not utter and was only spoken of in hushed tones, under baited breath. It was an idea that had been formulating for centuries and was waiting on JUST the right moment to present itself.
It had cousins and predecessors. But it hadn’t found the precise historical context in which to be born. The Greeks and Romans had theorized about it. Barbarian warriors had fought for something they thought of as close to it. The Ottomans and Africans and Indians and Asians had all formulated classes and castes and tribes that provided some semblance of it, for some people, in some places on the globe. But no one had established a base-line for human rights; a written, governing principle to which future generations could aspire.
The Declaration of Independence was quite possibly the biggest gamble in the history of the world, up to that point. The story of the American Revolution is often portrayed as David and Goliath struggle between a rag-tag band of marauding rebels pitted against red coated soldiers who were too well-trained in “proper battle” for their own good. And part of that is certainly true. But the American colonials didn’t just rise up and throw tea into a harbor and bitch about taxes and prance about in powder wigs, dancing to harpsichord music. Issuing a secession letter to the King of the world – basically breaking up with the most powerful nation on earth – was nothing short of insanity.
Doing something like was considered sedition. But the Declaration made it a righteous battle. Those words were a line of demarcation. They set down a marker, stating, “if we win this …nothing after it will ever be the same. This is the line in the sand between Monarchy and birthright …and self-determination; between what someone else decides for the most average human …and what that human decides for himself; between being loyal to a crown and a ruling class …and being loyal to one’s own convictions.”
No one had ever guaranteed the right to literally “pursue happiness” in writing before. No one had dared declare that all men were created equal. And no one had ever ventured to stand up and tell their rulers, “no thanks …we’ll govern ourselves. It’s been fun.”
The Declaration of Independence separates the American experiment from all other forms of freedom fighting. It told the greatest Empire in history, exactly what it wanted. It gave its composer and co-conspirators no way out but victory. And it sent a signal to the world; if you want something, put it in writing …and sign it in blood.
The Declaration teaches us, if you’re not willing to document and declare your intentions, whatever freedom you gain will be cheap.
Obviously, the Declaration was incomplete on the day of its signing. It would be decades before slaves were free and women voted. But that document was the largest step in the direction of personal liberty, the world had ever seen to that point. And if the Revolution had not been won, who knows how long it would’ve taken for its principles to be re-discovered and re-written …and re-lived?
In the course of human events, the Declaration of Independence is a miracle. And its legacy grows stronger and stronger with each new person who shows up under their inalienable right to live. The children of the Declaration still fight over rights and freedoms, over two-hundred and forty-some-odd years later. That spark, of declaring to the world what you will and won’t do, is a raging fire that will most likely never extinguish.
With all the problems we have in our country, I like to remember, on July 4th, why all this craziness started in the first place. It was an idea. And it was a damn good one. Somebody took the time to write it down …and make copies. And it caught on.
The tiny penmanship and eighteenth century language are weird for us to relate to, today. July 4th is a day off and a good time behind the grill or on the water.
But I personally like to take a few minutes of the day and imagine a sweaty, thirty-five-year-old rebel, sending a “come-to-Jesus” note to the most powerful man on earth. I like to imagine a smirk and a sip of wine when he was proofing it. I like to image fifty-six dudes signing it and someone looking at the guy next to him and saying, “that’s it …send it.” I like to imagine the adrenaline that must’ve raced through their bodies as they watched it being couriered away …sealing their collective fates forever. I like to imagine what they thought they were starting …or ending.
And when I do that, I don’t hate my fellow Americans so much with whom I disagree. We’re all just rowdy children of that insane break-up letter. And we won’t be told what to do.
And as we watch the fireworks and eat the hot dogs, I like to remember that we all carry a copy of that parchment in our pockets …whether we know it or not.
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