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The Gift of Freedom

Most of us seldom give much thought to the Fourth of July. It’s one of the most important holidays on our national calendar, one of the very few that is observed simultaneously by all Americans without regard to faith, origin or regional whim. It is, some say, the only holiday specifically dedicated to celebrating this nation. For all that, we mostly celebrate with barbecues or trips to the beach. If we seek some holiday spirit, we might watch a parade or catch some fireworks. A few of us might even get to thinking — some joyfully, others with mixed feelings — about patriotism, the flag or our soldiers overseas.

But there is much more to Independence Day. This year in particular, it’s worth taking time to sit and recall why we celebrate. This is the anniversary of the ratification by the Continental Congress of the Declaration of Independence, proclaiming the United States a free and independent country. On this day the Congress decided — for the first time in history, so John Adams stated recently on HBO — to create a new nation where none existed, as a deliberate experiment in democracy, human dignity and freedom. On this day Congress signed the document declaring its decision to the world and spelling out the principles it meant to protect and the factors driving it to this extreme.

It’s worth taking time this July 4 to reread the old document, all the way to the end. Most of us remember the soaring principles that the Founders meant to advance: the inalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, and the notion that governments existed to protect these rights — and had no right to exist independent of that obligation.

Most of us barely remember the rest — the litany of offenses against Americans that rendered King George III unfit to rule them. It’s worth reading them, perhaps aloud, so that we can remind ourselves of the founding principle that governments have no rights — only obligations to the citizen.

It is a powerful, angry list with a strikingly contemporary tone. Here are some of the king’s crimes:

He has refused his assent to laws… necessary for the public good…
He has affected to render the military independent of, and superior to, the civil power…
He has combined with others to subject us to a jurisdiction foreign to our Constitution…
For quartering large bodies of armed troops among us;
For protecting them, by a mock trial, from punishment for any murders which they should commit on the inhabitants of these states…
For transporting us beyond seas, to be tried for pretended offenses;
For abolishing the free system of English laws in a neighboring province, establishing therein an arbitrary government…

It’s particularly worthwhile rereading the declaration in this election year. It speaks to us. It reminds us how precious a gift the Founders bequeathed us, and how close we have come to losing it.

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