July 8, 2012
Every Fourth of July, Americans celebrate with fireworks and barbecues and John Philip Sousa. Then we return to our regularly scheduled lives.
But Independence Day should be more than just an excuse to fire up the grill and spend time with family. It’s about celebrating our nation’s first principles. It’s about remembering what it takes to be self-governing citizens.
The Declaration of Independence announced to the world that the American Colonies were free and independent states, no longer ruled by Great Britain.
It articulated certain truths about people and governments: All men equally possess certain rights, and the government operates by our consent to secure these rights. The Declaration of Independence is about self-government.
Typically, that brings to mind the basics of political participation: voting, signing petitions, serving on a jury and complaining to your congressman. These activities are important, but they aren’t the entire story.
The founders understood self-government in a twofold sense: political self-government, by which we govern ourselves as a political community, and moral self-government, according to which each individual is responsible for governing himself.
The founders relied on four virtues to sustain individual self-government:
Self-reliance. Forged through hard work, it prevents citizens from depending on the state.
Courage. Self-confident citizens nourish freedom and defend liberty from foreign and domestic threats.
Responsibility. Independent citizens understand the limits of government and solve problems for themselves.
Moderation. Reasonable citizens control their impulses and respect the rights of others, the constitutional process and the rule of law.
But this understanding of self-governing citizens has been supplanted by a new version of the modern ideal citizen. Recently, Americans met Julia, the faceless cartoon woman starring in an online ad for the Obama campaign. She’s the modern American girl whose success in life can be chalked up to the helping hand of government.
She gets a federally subsidized education, college loans, free birth control, free prenatal care (when she “decides to have a child”), a small business loan and retirement security because of the ever-present and ever-President Obama.
Her success apparently has nothing to do with her own initiative, talent or hard work. It’s attributed to government programs, there to bless and subsidize every activity of life. The idea of self-government, which is at the heart of the Declaration of Independence, has been replaced.
We’re being told, essentially, that we’re incapable of governing ourselves. Instead, we need bureaucrats to determine what our children learn in Head Start and primary school. Other faceless desk jockeys will approve our college loans.
With the Supreme Court upholding the Affordable Care Act, even more bureaucrats will be necessary to select our health care plans.
Experts aren’t just “helping” with life-changing issues such as education and health care. There’s also a slate of bureaucrats to cover the mundane activities of life: picking lightbulbs, deciding credit-card terms and figuring out how much cola is safe to consume.
This isn’t what our forefathers fought for.
To name one: Levi Preston was in his early 20s when he fought in the Battle of Concord, the beginning of the American Revolution. Years later, he was asked why he fought.
Preston responded that it wasn’t the tax on tea. “I never drank a drop of the stuff; the boys threw it all overboard.” It wasn’t the burdensome Stamp Act. “I never saw any stamps.” Nor was it John Locke’s inspiring book. “We read only the Bible, the catechism, Watt’s Psalms and Hymns, and the Almanack.”
Well, what was it? “What we meant in going for those redcoats was this: We always had governed ourselves, and we always meant to. They didn’t mean we should.”
On the Fourth of July, we remember our principles and celebrate our self-government. Let’s do our best to live them out the rest of the year.
JULIA SHAW is program manager for the B. Kenneth Simon Center for Principles and Politics at The Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C.