10 Things to Read to Remember What the Fourth of July Means
After the Second Continental Congress approved Richard Henry Lee’s resolution for independence on July 2, 1776, the colonies had–by the power of a mere 80 words and a lot of guts–become independent of the British crown. It wasn’t until two days later that the Congress laid out their justifications for the American Revolution in the famous document we remember with a national holiday: the Declaration of Independence.
With national politics now being as polarized as ever, and with many young Americans looking to abandon their country’s founding principles in favor of some frightening policy ideas, it’s as good a time as any to remind yourself of what the Fourth of July truly means for America. Check out these ten short readings to explore the principles that shaped the American Founding, courtesy of the Ashbrook Center’s TeachingAmericanHistory.org. Estimated read times are provided, not to deter you from reading them, but to let you know that you can squeeze some quality reflection in between games of cornhole. (Definitely the 1-minute reads, but maybe save that 53-minute one until after the in-laws have finally gone home.)
1. “The Rights of Colonists” by Samuel Adams, November 20, 1772. Read time: 11 minutes.
Adams, an influential statesman from Massachusetts who was second cousin to John Adams, discusses the prevalent idea among the colonists that they possessed rights not only as English subjects, but as men. The expression of that idea in the Declaration—that all men are created equal and possess certain unalienable rights by virtue of their simply being men—would become the foundational principle of the United States.
“In the state of nature every man is, under God, judge and sole judge of his own rights and of the injuries done him. By entering into society he agrees to an arbiter or indifferent judge between him and his neighbors; but he no more renounces his original right than by taking a cause out of the ordinary course of law, and leaving the decision to referees or indifferent arbitrators.”
2. “A Summary View of the Rights of British America” by Thomas Jefferson, 1774. Read time: 34 minutes.
Remember that long list of grievances against the king in the Declaration? This is its precursor. Jefferson pleads with the king to recognize the rights of the colonists and address many abuses of power. Read this to get an in depth look at what was causing such unrest in the colonies prior to the American Revolution.
“The great principles of right and wrong are legible to every reader; to pursue them requires not the aid of many counselors. The whole art of government consists in the art of being honest. Only aim to do your duty, and mankind will give you credit where you fail. No longer persevere in sacrificing the rights of one part of the empire to the inordinate desires of another; but deal out to all equal and impartial right.”
3. “The Declaration of Independence” drafted by Thomas Jefferson, July 4, 1776. Read time: 8 minutes.
Okay, this one seems obvious. But when was the last time you actually sat down to read the document that formally brought into being our new nation and subsequently became one of the most influential political documents of all time? As TeachingAmericanHistory.org puts it, the Declaration “justified the American Revolution by appealing to ‘the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God,’ universally applicable in all times and places. It was the first time in history that a political society founded itself upon such principled considerations of natural right rather than simply upon tradition, accident, or force.”
“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…”
It can be hard to decipher what Jefferson meant in parts of the Declaration because our use of the English language has changed over time. But never fear: the Claremont Institute has published this nifty online interactive Declaration of Independence, which includes three annotated versions of the text to help you take a deeper dive into the meaning of its principles, terminology, and historical context.
Want to go one step further? Read Jefferson’s rough draft, which contained some remarkable language that ended up being removed, including this bold statement: “He [the king] has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating it’s most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating & carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere, or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither.”
4. “Information to Those Who Would Remove to America” by Benjamin Franklin, November 1782. Read time: 16 minutes.
Immigration is probably the hottest public policy issue today, and it’s worth taking a look at what the founding generation thought of the issue. Franklin explains to prospective immigrants from Europe what it’s like to live in America and what kind of immigrants would be welcomed in the fledgling nation.
“Much less is it adviseable for a Person to go thither who has no other Quality to recommend him but his Birth. In Europe it has indeed its Value, but it is a Commodity that cannot be carried to a worse Market than that of America, where People do not inquire concerning a Stranger, What is he? but, What can he do? If he has any useful Art, he is welcome; and if he exercises it and behaves well, he will be respected by all that know him; but a mere Man of Quality, who on that Account wants to live upon the Public, by some Office or Salary, will be despis’d and disregarded.”
5. Federalist No. 1 by Alexander Hamilton, October 27, 1787. Read time: 8 minutes.
Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay wrote a series of newspaper editorials under the pseudonym “Publius” in order to convince the people of New York to ratify the new Constitution, but collectively these essays would also serve as a great work of political philosophy to teach future Americans about the structure of their republic. In this first essay, Hamilton explains the task before Americans; that they must, as the Declaration bids them, establish good government by prudence.
“It has been frequently remarked, that it seems to have been reserved to the people of this country to decide, by their conduct and example, the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not, of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend, for their political constitutions, on accident and force.”
6. “Letter to Henry Lee” by Thomas Jefferson, May 8, 1825. Read time: 1 minute.
Almost 50 years after drafting the Declaration, Jefferson succinctly explains its purpose.
“Not to find out new principles, or new arguments, never before thought of, not merely to say things which had never been said before; but to place before mankind the common sense of the subject, in terms so plain and firm as to command their assent, and to justify ourselves in the independent stand we are compelled to take.”
7. “Letter to Roger C. Weightman” by Thomas Jefferson, June 24, 1826. Read time: 2 minutes.
Half a century has passed, but Jefferson still hopes that the Declaration can serve as an example for all mankind.
“May it be to the world, what I believe it will be, (to some parts sooner, to others later, but finally to all), the signal of arousing men to burst the chains under which monkish ignorance and superstition had persuaded them to bind themselves, and to assume the blessings and security of self-government.”
8. “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?” by Frederick Douglass, July 5, 1852. Read time: 53 minutes.
Douglass, now a free man at this point in his life, reflects on the promise of equality expressed in the Declaration that, although noble and good, had not yet been fulfilled for slaves.
“With them, nothing was ‘settled’ that was not right. With them, justice, liberty, and humanity were ‘final;’ not slavery and oppression. You may well cherish the memory of such men. They were great in their day and generation. Their solid manhood stands out the more as we contrast it with these degenerate times.”
9. “Fragment on the Constitution and Union” by Abraham Lincoln, January 1861. Read time: 2 minutes.
Lincoln explains that the principle of “Liberty to all” expressed in the Declaration is now preserved by the Union and Constitution. For more on what Lincoln thought of the Declaration, read this short “Speech at Independence Hall.”
“There is something back of these, entwining itself more closely about the human heart. That something, is the principle of ‘Liberty to all’ — the principle that clears the path for all — gives hope to all — and, by consequence, enterprize, and industry to all.”
10. “Speech on the 150th Anniversary of the Declaration of Independence” by Calvin Coolidge July 5, 1926. Read time: 22 minutes.
Much of Coolidge’s speech, though given nearly a century ago, still rings true today. Having lost faith in the principles of the American Founding, many Americans look to discard those principles in favor of modern theories. Coolidge reminds us that what the Declaration stood for then is still relevant today.
“The American Revolution represented the informed and mature convictions of a great mass of independent, liberty-loving, God-fearing people who knew their rights, and possessed the courage to dare to maintain them.”
This top ten list should give you plenty to read and think about should stormy weather keep you inside and away from picnics and fireworks this Independence Day, but even if you do spend the entire day celebrating with friends and family—as you very well should!—take some time over the next few days to learn or relearn the true meaning of Independence Day. As we get bogged down in the gritty details of contemporary public policy debates, we oftentimes forget to consider politics through the lens of the enduring principles that gave rise to our nation. If our grand experiment in self-government is to endure, studying the Declaration and reapplying its principles today is essential.