As we celebrate Independence Day, it’s worth remembering that the men who signed a document 242 years ago in Philadelphia knew that if things went wrong, they’d be dead weights swinging from the ends of English ropes.
The signers had the courage to die for principles founded in the Enlightenment, a movement of ideas that said public life, politics and social order must be founded on reason and science — not on superstition — and that individuals must be freed from lives one philosopher described as “nasty, brutish and short.”
The men in Philadelphia dedicated themselves to the belief that there are truths everyone could recognize: “that all men” — and that should read “people” — “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.”
These words can’t be allowed to remain static — enshrined on marble walls or worshipped under glass at Freedom Hall in Philadelphia. They must be actively defended every day, just as the ideas of the Enlightenment must be re-emphasized in our era. Ronald Reagan summed up this idea of vigilance: “Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction.”
Recently, the policy of our government, instigated by the president and the attorney general, involved separating small children from their parents and sending many of them thousands of miles away to be lost in a bureaucratic maw. Top officials are on record as saying this was needed to “deter” illegal immigration, and was done in the name of American values. But nothing, no explanation, can diminish the wrongness of what was done in our names.
Fortunately, the people who founded the country wrote a Bill of Rights that helped stop this shameful policy. If courage is the virtue that guarantees all the others, the First Amendment to the Constitution guarantees all other rights, with a defense against polices that are tyrannical at worst and idiotic at best. Declaring that a free press and the right of individuals to protest peacefully for redress of grievances against their leaders must be honored has time and again revived the Spirit of 1776 throughout American history,
When the catastrophe happened at the border, most Republicans in Congress stayed silent or were mealy-mouthed in their objections, while the administration loudly defended the indefensible. That’s until journalists — enemies of the people, according to the president — exposed the base inhumanity, and the president caved.
The “optics” looked bad, it was said.
Although the separation of children and parents has now stopped, the debacle is ongoing, as the effort to locate children and reunite them with their families drags on.
Living up to the ideals of the Declaration of Independence has always been tested. Slavery was eliminated at the cost of 620,000 Civil War casualties. Bigotry, injustice and discrimination are scourges that a free press, the right to assembly and a majority of brave elected officials have overcome time and again.
The Greek historian Thucydides, to whom the authors of the Enlightenment looked for guidance in a world ruled by tyranny and corruption, wrote: “Be convinced that to be happy means to be free. And that to be free means to be brave.”