As Americans Celebrate July 4th, Can They Also Celebrate Independence?

While enjoying the barbecues, fireworks, parades, and other Fourth of July festivities, some might also reflect more deeply upon the significance of the holiday’s alternate Independence Day moniker and the nation’s founding principles.

You won’t get that contemplation from NPR anymore, since in 2022 the network stopped its 33-year-old tradition of reading the Declaration of Independence aloud, turning the occasion that year into a critique and airing of grievances about a feat still unmatched in human history.

So are we celebrating a spirit of independence, or has there been a departure from the Founding Fathers’ vision? We are independent from Britain, sure enough; but not from our own national government and its cradle-to-grave custodial ambitions.

Collectively, citizens haven’t heeded New York Governor George Clinton, who appealed to the public as “Cato” during the Constitution’s ratification debates two decades after the Declaration: “Is not your indignation roused at this absolute, imperious style?“ Clinton fumed in opposition to the Federalists’ vision of centralized power. He continued;

For what did you open the veins of your citizens and expend their treasure? For what did you throw off the yoke of Britain and call yourselves independent? Was it from a disposition fond of change, or to procure new masters?—if those were your motives, you have reward before you—go, retire into silent obscurity, and kiss the rod that scourges you, bury the prospects you had in store, that you and your posterity would participate in the blessings of freedom, and the employments of your country—let the rich and insolent alone be your rulers. …. But if you had nobler views, …are you now to be derided and insulted? Is the power of thinking, on the only subject important to you, to be taken away? And if perchance you should happen to differ from Caesar, are you to have Caesar’s principles crammed down your throats with an army? God forbid!

The Essence of Independence

This Fourth of July marks the 248th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, that monumental step in the fight for freedom from British rule. After throwing off that aforementioned yoke, the Framers sought to create a nation where political liberty and personal freedoms along with responsibility were paramount, not the procurement of “new masters” whose arrogance makes us wonder if we ought to have stuck with King George.

As John Adams famously wrote to his wife Abigail in 1776, the Fourth should be forevermore be celebrated with “Pomp and Parade, with Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations.” Here was an understanding that maintaining liberty would require vigilance and effort, not just annual celebrations as ends in themselves.

Erosion of Liberty

Fast forward to now, and the concept of independence seems alien. The administration talks of giving able-bodied adults “breathing room” in the form of handouts and the removal of responsibility, with programs that pay for ordinary existence. The federal government, not merely state or local, has expanded into many aspects of our everyday lives, from healthcare to education to retirement to our choices of household appliances. Big government progressivism rather than limited government runs the show, with a Universal Basic Income comprising its North Star as the COVID episode and various pilot projects attest. Social spending that induces reliance on government programs and benefits as positive rights paid for by others brings with it social regulation, including surveillance and interference in financial, transportation, health, and energy choices, for starters.

The pursuit of happiness ought not to entail the pursuit of entitlement at others’ expense but here we are. This is not independence, nor freedom with responsibility, but the deliberate trading of liberty for security. Some attribute to Benjamin Frankin the observation that when we try to make that deal, we get neither.

Political Discontent and Civic Responsibility

Political polarization on a range of spending, regulatory, and social issues has cast a shadow over our celebrations with some choosing to protest rather than celebrate the Fourth of July in recent years. Polls indicate a growing divide between those who are “extremely proud” to be American and everyone else.

Despite these challenges, the spirit of actual independence from government overreach—foreign and domestic—endures. Positive signs include disgust with COVID overreach, pushback against restrictions on free speech, and Supreme Court reaffirmations of eroded constitutional boundaries with new decisions limiting the unelected administrative state’s power to unilaterally make rules and regulations.

The Path Forward

As we reflect on our history, it’s essential to remember that the Founders did not envision a government that intrudes into life’s every facet. Instead, they advocated for and bequeathed to us a unique nation wherein individuals could pursue their own paths without undue interference.

The journey toward reclaiming a true sense of independence involves not securing some balance between government prominence and individual liberty, but an active tipping of the scales toward liberty.

While the Fourth of July will remain a day of celebration just as Adams hoped, it should also serve as a reminder of the never-ending effort required to preserve the freedoms that define our nation. The Framers already achieved it for us; our task is merely to carry on the tradition. But it’s still hard.

Independence was not a static achievement. Its maintenance is a continuous process of safeguarding liberty against encroaching illegitimate power. As we enjoy this year’s festivities, may we also commit to the principles of independence and ensure they remain at the heart of the American experience.

We can and should celebrate the spirit of independence, not solely July 4th.

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