On July 4, 1918, Winston Churchill chaired a meeting in London to deliver a message to the American people celebrating their Independence from Great Britain: “[We] rejoice that the love of liberty and justice on which the American nation was founded should in the present time of trial have united the whole English-speaking family in a brotherhood of arms.”
Churchill, then serving as Britain’s minister of munitions, had good reasons to be grateful for the United States. After four years of slaughter in the First World War, over 900,000 British soldiers lay dead—and Britain and her allies were hardly any closer to declaring victory than when the conflict had begun. The French army was demoralized, the Italians were in disarray, and the Russian army had collapsed. A few months earlier Churchill warned that the entire Allied cause was in peril. But the arrival of the American Expeditionary Force in France in the summer of 1918 made the defeat of German despotism almost inevitable.
Always the historian as well as the statesman, Churchill observed that the Declaration of Independence “is not only an American document. It follows on the Magna Carta and the Bill of Rights as the third great title-deed” on which the liberties of the democratic West were founded. The Magna Carta (1215), of course, declared that no political leader was above the rule of law. It affirmed the principles of due process and trial by jury. A product of England’s Glorious Revolution, the Bill of Rights (1689) reasserted the concept of constitutional government, that is, government by consent of the governed. These documents laid a new foundation for individual rights in the Western tradition. Together they shaped the fundamental laws of the North American colonies.
Indeed, the American revolutionaries, demanding their rights as Englishmen, drew on these declarations when they did some declaring of their own. “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.”
Here, for the first time in human history, a political society comes into being asserting the natural rights and equality of every human being, a claim rooted in the Judeo-Christian tradition. Here is a demand for self-government that builds on the inheritance of the West to launch a radical experiment in democratic freedom.
Few statesmen were as clear-eyed about the triumphs and tragedies of Western civilization. Yet in the history of the English-speaking people, Churchill discerned a legacy of liberty, equality, and justice that eclipsed the failures of Britain and the United States to achieve these ideals. It is in this shared tradition, he said, where people struggling against tyranny can find inspiration to avoid “the shame of despotism” on the one hand and “the miseries of anarchy” on the other.
The thousands who continue to arrive each year in Great Britain and the United States—fleeing political and religious persecution—bear testimony to this simple truth. It is a fact worth recalling in our age of rage.
Indeed, in ways rarely appreciated, American exceptionalism drew its moral strength from British exceptionalism. It is a story of freedom that both countries can celebrate this July Fourth.
This piece originally appeared in the National Review