“In CONGRESS, July 4, 1776 . . .”
That was 247 years ago.
Today is the 248th Fourth-of-July in the era of the United States of America.
These days, gentlemen and ladies are apt to rush into battle over the Constitution, which became law thirteen years after Independence was declared. One of our three branches of government is largely absorbed by the task of discerning whether acts of government are within the Constitution or outside it. Then, once the Justices have their say, ladies and gentlemen rush to dispute the result, campaigning for either a change of heart or a change of Justices.
So, yes, the Constitution is important.
Yet in our darkest hour, our president, one of the great legal minds of his or any age, resorted not to the Constitution but to the Declaration of Independence, the more ancient document.
Abraham Lincoln reasoned that the Declaration preceded the Constitution. The Declaration in a sense fathered the Constitution and was superior to it—or at least more basic, more fundamental. The Constitution, he said, could not become a suicide pact for the nation; its strictest construction would not suffice for dissolving the Union.
The Constitution of 1789 codified the structure of government in a state that existed for larger purposes, announced in 1776. Before there was a Constitution, the Declaration of Independence already said “all men are created equal.” The Constitution—in which the framers parsed fractional numbers to satisfy fragmented constituencies—could not abrogate that original guarantee.
The Declaration’s 56 signers explosively asserted 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” and that “to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. . . .”
This doctrine was the necessary foundation of revolutionary acts. Inconveniently, it happened that some who signed this guarantee of freedom owned slaves, whom they had no intention of letting go.
Thus the stage was set for the Civil War 85 years later. In the midst of that orgy of blood, the Chief Executive chose to force the republic back upon its first principles.
In the days when children were thought capable of learning things “by heart,” we memorized Jefferson’s stirring preamble to the Declaration easily. It came ringingly off the tongue, while the stilted phrases of the Constitution’s preamble got lost in a chorus of mumbling. To promote the general welfare is fine and dandy—but Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness are the heart of our national mission.
Therefore, starting in 1777, we have always celebrated July Fourth as Independence Day.
Seventy years ago, the young men of our family—my uncles—in the small town of Knoxville, Illinois, used to go to Gil Hebard’s gun store and buy fireworks. Not only pinwheels, fountains, and sparklers, but also skyrockets and miniature buzz bombs were legal then in the Flatlands.
Enveloped in the sultry evening, my uncles Dick and Garrett LaFollette, Earl Chaney, and Richard Henderson fired their sky-sizzlers with great gusto, arching them above a huge elm tree that overspread Grandma’s yard. After the main event, we kids lit snakes and sparklers and shot up rolls of paper caps in our cowboy pistols.
The Public Square across the street was littered with scraps of pastry left earlier in the day by piggish contenders who plunged their whole faces into the pie-eating contest under a hot sun. There had also been sack races, three-legged races, and giant slices of watermelon for everyone.
A reasonable person might wonder, what had these hijinks to do with the deep principles of liberty that Jefferson wrote into the Declaration of Independence? It’s hard to say, Dear Reader, but—something, surely.
The hoopla was connected with our liberty. Otherwise, why did we get up to these robust exertions on July 4, but never in the more moderate weather of Constitution Day, September 17?
Now, seven decades after the spectacles that enlivened my youth, we still make a big deal out of Independence Day. We still have picnics, speeches, fireworks, and tomfoolery. We poise our politicians over galvanized tanks and give everybody with a pitching arm the opportunity to dunk them in cold water.
There is something republican, and also democratic, about that.
There would not be much need to celebrate, had 56 brave souls not inked their signatures to a parchment 247 years ago and pledged their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor to the twin dreams of freedom and equality.
Happy Fourth, and be careful with those sparklers. If you don’t watch out you’ll put somebody’s eye out.
Larry F. Sommers
Your New Favorite Writer