In Stonington, the lampposts and businesses are bedecked in flags and bunting, and at private homes tiny American flags wave gently in the breeze from the harbor as the citizens celebrate our oldest, and most bedrock, American holiday. The local newspaper has done its part by reprinting, in full, the text of the Declaration of Independence, which is of course the reason for this celebration in the first place.
It is interesting that, in America, our first national holiday commemorates the simple publication of a declaration, not a victory in a bloody battle. In fact, most of us would be hard-pressed to identify the date of the Battle of Yorktown that caused Great Britain to finally acknowledge our independence, or the date of the peace treaty that formally recognized it. We celebrate the Fourth of July because that is when the united colonies bravely issued a document that spoke of concepts of equality, inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and the proper relationship between citizens and their government. Many people in mighty England laughed at the temerity of the sweeping declaration issued by this disparate group of states, but it is the Declaration, and not the scoffers, that has stood the test of time. They are long forgotten, while the Declaration is still remembered and celebrated, 245 years later.
Of course, the authors and signers of the Declaration weren’t perfect, and the colonies themselves did not meet the lofty ideals the Declaration articulated. There were slave holders among them who not only didn’t implement the concepts of equality and personal liberty reflected in the Declaration, they personally, and brutally, enforced the opposite. Women’s equal rights also were not recognized, and there were countless other instances of imperfection and benighted thinking. But, as Abraham Lincoln recognized, the Declaration of Independence is best seen as an aspirational document that established goals for what the new nation hoped to be. Lincoln repeatedly drew on the Declaration for inspiration, including in the Gettysburg Address. He knew that its concepts would help to rally the Union forward, end the scourge of slavery, and allow the nation to experience a “new birth of freedom.”
In the same way, we can always benefit by reading the words of the Declaration, understanding it’s aspirational message, and never losing sight of the importance of striving to reach the concepts of equality, liberty, and the true role of government and governed that it embodies.
Happy Independence Day, everyone!