Picnics and Politics: Celebrating the Fourth!

This article appeared in the Tribune Review (Greensburg, PA) on July 3, 1999.

Most Americans will mark July 4 with picnics, cookouts, ballgames and days at the beach. And such festivities are more appropriate than most imagine. There is a solid connection between that merrymaking and the event of more than two centuries ago that resulted in this annual holiday. What's the bond between picnics and politics? The answer begins with a close look at the Declaration of Independence, drafted by Thomas Jefferson, that on July 4, 1776, gave birth to the United States.

The Declaration begins: "When in the Course of human Events, it becomesnecessary for one People to dissolve the Political Bands which haveconnected them with another, and to assume among the Powers of the Earth,the separate and equal Station to which the Laws of Nature and Nature's Godentitle them, a decent Respect to the Opinions of Mankind requires thattheyshould declare the causes which impel them to Separation."

Most wars in human history were fought to determine who would be king oversome subject people. It was one would-be Caesar, feudal lord or tyrantversus another. But the Americans were doing something different. Theywere fighting not only to determine whether they would be ruled fromEnglandbut also why they should be ruled at all. The United States wasestablished, by conscious decision, on the principle that only a regimecomprising certain moral percepts, not one based on force, was fitting forman. Thus the Founders wanted not only to prevail on the battlefield buttoarticulate the reasons for rebellion, and to win the hearts and minds ofmen.

So what are those principles on which the country is based? TheDeclarationcontinues: "We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men arecreated equal." Certainly the Founders understood that each individualdiffers in particular abilities and capacities. So how are we "equal?"Allmen share with one another a rational capacity that raises us above loweranimals. We can think, we can understand the world around us, we can learnfrom one other, we can plan for the future. We survive and flourish onlythrough the use of that capacity. Thus it is just that we be equal beforethe law.

So to what does our rational nature entitle us? The Declaration statesthat all men "are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights,that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness." In otherwords, each individual owns his or her own life. Your life is not thepossession of a king, government or any political authority. You should befree to do what you want and live as you please. But since we are equal inour rights, you must deal with others on the basis of mutual consent, notforce. This means you have the right to the "pursuit of happiness,"including the acquisition of property through your own efforts andexchangeswith others, but not through theft, and certainly not with governmentaidingin such theft, that is, redistributing wealth.

Why then do we need a government? The Declaration states: "That to securethese Rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their justPowers from the Consent of the Governed." The British thinker John Lockewas correct to maintain that the people give the government limited powersto establish objective laws, to maintain police and armies to protect usfrom criminals, foreign and domestic, and law courts to impartiallyadjudicate disputes. Note that civil institutions such as families,churches and fraternal organizations are not created by or beholden togovernments. Governments are created to perform limited, protectivefunctions that allow individuals and institutions to flourish.

Based on its other principles, the Declaration rightly concluded "thatwhenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these Ends, it istheRight of the People to alter or to abolish it." That is why bravecitizen-soldiers stood with their guns on Lexington Green and why so manyothers risked or lost their lives to secure liberty.

The Founders created a country like no other in history, one thatrecognizes the dignity of each individual and allows each individual tolivefree. The normally dour Declaration signer John Adams exhorted that theanniversary of the country's founding "ought to be solemnized with pomp andparade, with shews, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires and illuminationsfrom one end of this continent to the other."

America has strayed far from the vision of the Founders; liberty has beeneroded and should be restored. But in the meantime, it is fitting that onJuly 4 Americans celebrate and enjoy a precious day in their own lives,withtheir families and friends, for it was just such freedom that theDeclaration established.

Edward L. Hudgins is director of regulatory studies at the Cato Institute.