The Lost Meaning of Independence Day


Independence Day is a time of backyard barbeques and fireworks, department-store sales and blockbuster movies, patriotic bunting and flying the flag––in short, a time of leisure and consumption, with a few obligatory nods to the momentous event that July 4 is supposed to celebrate. But as the years go by we have lost the significance of the Declaration of Independence, and that amnesia has made it easier for the progressive leviathan state to encroach upon our freedom.

Political freedom, after all, was the point of declaring independence. The thirteen colonies, having been denied their political freedom and citizen rights by England, announced the creation of an independent political community that reserved to its citizens the autonomy to chart its course and pursue its aims. This “state” would be free because it would not be subjected to any earthly power beyond the collective consent of the citizens as expressed through laws and political institutions to which politicians could be held accountable.

Bound up in this idea of freedom, however, was its dependence on the virtues citizens had to possess in order to use this freedom responsibly and for the proper aims. For freedom was not “doing as one likes,” which is not true freedom, but what the 18th century called license, a selfish indulgence that cares nothing for the state as a whole either now or in the future. To act on whatever appetites and passions arise in one is to enslave the soul to them and subject the self and the state to their destructive effects. As Russell Kirk wrote, “The worst enemies of enduring freedom for all may be certain folk who demand incessantly more liberty for themselves.”

True freedom, on the other hand, is defined by restraints and limits on destructive “passions and interests,” as James Madison called them. These limits were formally built into the government in the separation and balance of powers, and in a federalism that checked the centralized federal power and left the decisions directly affecting people’s lives as close as possible to those who would have to live with the outcome. Both these structures limited the ability of the ambitious or tyrannical to amass too much power at the expense of liberty.

And most important, government was limited by the notion of “unalienable rights” that were the gift of “nature and nature’s God,” rather than a privilege bestowed by earthly power.  These ideas, of course, were famously expressed in the Declaration’s second paragraph: “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.”

Ordered liberty, then, depended on the limited powers of government accountable to the consent of the citizens, and on the Classical and Christian virtues, particularly prudence and self-control. The political balance of powers and the personal practice of virtue make possible the “ordered liberty” the American political structure was designed to foster and protect––in the words of Orestes Brownson, “the sovereignty of the people without social despotism, and individual freedom without anarchy.” And “freedom from anarchy” required personal virtue: “Happy, thrice happy,” Madison wrote, “the people of America! Whose gentleness of manners and habits of virtue are still sufficient to reconcile the enjoyment of their natural rights, with the peace and tranquility of their country.”

Sadly, today such sentiments in our public culture are as quaint as powdered periwigs and silk knee breeches. Rarely do we hear about freedom and independence in the context of limits and virtue. Freedom means what horrified the Founders: doing what we want and indulging our appetites, regardless of the larger consequences for the whole political community. The transformation of political freedom into license has degraded our politics and paved the way for the “soft despotism,” as Tocqueville called it, of the progressive bureaucratic leviathan.

Plato observed this link between license and despotism nearly 2400 years ago in the Republic. Socrates scorns the “city full of freedom and frankness,” where “a man may say and do what he likes,” and everyone “is clearly able to order for himself his own life as he pleases.” The result of this state is “variety and disorder,” as each man is given over to “the freedom and libertinism of useless and unnecessary pleasures.” Eventually, drunk on the “strong wine of freedom,” these citizens will sell their political birthright to any tyrant who promises to allow them to continue indulging those selfish pleasures.

A few hundred years later Polybius carried this analysis further, connecting such tyranny to the attack on property needed to fund entitlement payments to the masses. Grown dependent on the gifts of the tyrant, Polybius writes, “the people have become accustomed to feed at the expense of others, and their prospects of winning a livelihood depend upon the property of their neighbors; then as soon as they find a leader who is sufficiently ambitious and daring . . . they will introduce a regime based on violence.” Social and political order will deteriorate until the people “degenerate into a state of bestiality, after which they once more find a master and a despot.”

Our modern tyrants, the big-government progressives, have become much more sophisticated and insidious than the tyrants of old, their “totalitarianism with a human face” as effective as violence in destroying true freedom. Ordered liberty has indeed been reduced to mere license, as the ancients predicted. The first step in this process in our time has been secularization, the driving of religion from the public square and the reduction of it to a private lifestyle choice. In this way the moral order sanctioned by “nature’s God” and the “Supreme Judge of the world,” as the Declaration describes the divine order, that enforced limits on license and self-indulgence can be marginalized and bereft of its power to sanction destructive behavior, leaving the state as the only authority for regulating people’s lives.

Moreover, the modern tyrants have understood that sexual license is the most effective appetite to exploit in order to distract people from their loss of autonomy. Hence the sexual revolution of the Sixties––with its cheap contraception, destruction of sexual taboos, pornography, and at-will abortion––legitimized sexual indulgence and eroded the classical political virtues of self-control and restraint. At the same time, by separating sex from procreation, it weakened the family as an intermediary authority between the individual and the state. Worse yet, government has encouraged this license with state-funded birth control and abortions, and with school curricula that legitimize and encourage it. Sexual freedom––which is in fact what the ancients would have called the enslavement of the mind to the body’s pleasures––has now replaced political freedom and autonomy as the highest expression of liberty.

Next, as Polybius says, the redistribution of property through taxation and entitlement spending also erodes the autonomy of the citizens by fostering dependence, at the same time the state has to grow ever more powerful and intrude ever more intimately into private life in order to manage and control this distribution. The citizens gradually become more and more hooked on various transfers from the state, even as they surrender more and more autonomy over their lives to ensure that the state-funded benefits keep coming. Thus the erosion of their freedom is masked by the short-term pleasure of getting something for nothing. Virtues like self-reliance and self-responsibility, vital for political freedom, disappear, even as the Constitution’s balance of powers is disrupted by an activist judiciary and by an overweening executive branch and its massive and minutely intrusive federal bureaucracy. The traditional limits on license thus disappear, paving the way for governmental tyranny and the decay of freedom.

This process has obviously accelerated under Obama and his bureaucratic minions in the Department of Justice, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Internal Revenue Service, and the other unelected, unaccountable factotums of the federal behemoth. His administration has attacked religion by forcing churches to fund abortions. He has “evolved” his position on same-sex marriage, contributing to its legitimation at the expense of the traditional limits on sexuality. He has accelerated the redistribution of property through a war on wealth, higher taxes, and multi-trillion dollar increases in entitlement spending, from Obamacare to the stimulus. He has fostered a new, punitive regulatory regime, from the 848-page Dodd-Frank bill to the EPA’s war against carbon. And he and his bureaucratic henchmen have, like a classical tyrant, abused this expanded power by targeting political enemies through the IRS and the DOJ, unleashing the EPA to stifle energy development, and spying on the press. Meanwhile half the citizenry is distracted by hedonistic license and the promise of even more entitlement transfers.

In short, the current administration has grown the state at the expense of economic growth and, more important, to the detriment of the ordered liberty and autonomy we are supposed to commemorate on July 4. That’s the sober lesson we should all contemplate as we munch our burgers, ogle the fireworks, and head for the Cineplex.

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  • The Dead Critic

    NEVER in my life would I ever have guessed that a sitting president would take the 4th of July celebrations away from military installations, so he could basically finance his 100 million dollar personal expense accounts.

    The Grinch that stole the 4th of July. What a English Kings stooge.

  • CurmudgyOne

    This article nicely describes the reasons why We The People should make a concerted effort, in the 2014 elections, to REMOVE EVERY INCUMBENT in every elected office who is running. Only this extreme action would put the Fear Of The People back into these politicians. Sure, some good ones (2, 3?) would be kicked out, but the overall effect would be to wake them all up.

    We, The People, still have the power, if we will simply use it!

  • BS61

    As everyone wished me a happy 4th, I wished everyone a happy Independence day with hope that they will remember what that means!

  • Arnoldr

    Agreed, our fireworks celebrations, where they are permitted, have become just entertainment. Does anyone think of the tremendous sacrifices the founders made; their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor to provide us liberty?

  • Kate Curry

    It seems as though no one ever truly learns the lessons of history, no matter how much they are studied.

  • Jeff Ludwig

    Wow…this is most wise and pertinent article. The author shows us how far we have strayed from the Hellenistic roots of our civilization. Even those roots emphasized virtue and not only freedom without license, but a citizenry that is autonomous and not dependent on the redistributions of the state. It might be useful to add that the Hebraic and Christian roots of our civilization added to these classical concepts by going beyond the mere “nots” of not engaging in license and not depending upon tyrants for our economic well-being, but shows us that virtue and independence is increased by dependence upon a forgiving, wise, compassionate, and just GOD. So if our present path was warned against by some of the great Greek thinkers like Polybius, how much more should we be warned when this Greek stream is merged with the streams of Judeo-Christian values, and a relationship with Christ Jesus? We are really wallowing in the mud now. We are filthy in our own manure. Culture — filled with narcissism and vulgarities of every type — is polluted. Our politics both reflects this decline and furthers this decline. May God have mercy on us all.

  • herb benty

    God bless you. Marx said America would be destroyed from within and they now control the U.S.A. government. I know that I will never look at that typical, “marxist professor” that preaches at any local school, college or university. It must have started with the idiotic “intellectuals”. Imagine, a tenured, benefit loaded, 6-figure educator indoctrinating our children into communism, innoculating them against common sense, etc. It’s hard to imagine how ungrateful, stupid and evil Education has become! Boys wanting to use the girls bathroom because they think they might really be a girl and furiously backed up by “educators”, is a snippet to show their work.

  • Canuck

    Here’s where I have a problem with this article:

    “The first step in this process in our time has been secularization, the driving of religion from the public square and the reduction of it to a private lifestyle choice. In this way the moral order sanctioned by “nature’s God” and the “Supreme Judge of the world,” as the Declaration describes the divine order, that enforced limits on license and self-indulgence can be marginalized and bereft of its power to sanction destructive behavior, leaving the state as the only authority for regulating people’s lives.”

    He is just another zealot pushing an agenda of desecularization and trying to subject people to control by religious authority.

    By invoking ideals from Plato and other ancients and conflating them with the original intent of the founding fathers he muddies the water and tries to make a case for a faith based civic authority.

    He needs to remember that the First Amendment stipulates that there is no state religion, regardless of the source of man’s inherent rights. Secondly, the Declaration of Independence also makes it clear what men are endowed with by their creator: “Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” not “Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness subject to the religious ideals and personal determination of prescribed virtues envisaged by those those invoking Christian values who are better able to make those judgements”.

    I’m all for prudent behavior, forbearance and restraint. But they are for me to decide. What is wrong with having religion as a personal and private lifestyle choice? The state is indeed the only authority that is supposed to regulate people’s lives in America… and only as prescribed by the Constitution – not somebody else’s notions of what Christian orthodoxy permit.

    • Jeff Ludwig

      I think you are reading too much into this article. There’s no mention of Christianity. You’re too worried about somebody imposing a theocracy or “their values” on you. The one thing you might think about is that values are being “imposed” on all of us all the time. Philosophies of pragmatism, utilitarianism, and instrumentalism have become part of our cultural fabric, so to some extent all of us, even orthodox Christians subscribe to these philosophies. Polybius and the article’s author are not writing about imposing prudent behavior, forbearance and restraint on anyone. However I would. Why? Because these values are the proper antidotes for rampant impulsive behavior (opposite of prudence), insults, bullying, and vendettas (opposites of forbearance), and wanton acting out (the opposite of self-restraint and norms requiring self-control, i.e.”if it feels good do it”). Stop worrying about Christian orthodoxy so much Canuck. It’s not in the article, but it a healthy dose of this orthodoxy would certainly help you and all of us.

      • Canuck

        I specifically quoted the section that I was troubled by… and it most definitely is in the article. He’s railing against secular society. Secularism is one of the things that makes America great. And it’s worth remembering that ‘secular’ doesn’t mean ‘atheist’. It also doesn’t mean rampant hedonism or indulgence.

        He doesn’t have to reference Christianity explicitly but it’s clear where his sentiments lie. However, substituting any religion you have the same problem. He does explicitly oppose secular social institutions which is exactly what the founding fathers prescribed.

        With freedom comes responsibility? Yes of course. That’s a truism.

        Who’s to define what’s unacceptably impulsive? Apparently you. You don’t suggest it, you don’t claim that Polybius is imposing it but you say that you would.

        Also, your understanding of forbearance is incorrect. Forbearance just means temperance and restraint. You’re claiming it’s there to stop bullying and vendettas which are entirely different forms of behavior. It doesn’t follow.

        I will agree to temper my own passions and exercise restraint in the way my behavior may affect others… can you agree to not appoint yourself the moral authority who decides what is to be restrained? Orthodox or otherwise?

        Freedom is the most precious thing we have and you must make a case for how something affects you before you advocate to prescribe the behavior of others.

        • JoJoJams

          He wasn’t espousing a theocratic regime, but the removing of any
          influence of religion whatsoever from the public sphere. Like demanding
          creches not be allowed on public grounds, or saying “Merry Christmas”.
          He’s talking about the removal and pushing religion (which, in this
          nation, is 90% Christian) completely out of the public sphere. Clearly,
          the “wall of separation of church and state” was only meant to keep the
          government from imposing it’s ways on the churches (which is what is
          starting to happen now….) and the churches “ruling” over us.
          Surprisingly, for all the fear of those that worry of a “theocracy” in
          America, for 200 years of Christian religious expression in this nation,
          no one EVER tried to impose a theocracy. That doesn’t mean we didn’t
          have laws regarding societies behavior, based on religious views, but we
          definitely haven’t had a theocracy.

          Sadly, what we have now is
          a secular government (and many on “the left”) all too willing to impose
          THEIR “beliefs” regarding the size of the soda you drink, whether or
          not you can protect your family (gun control laws) etc. As stated by
          Jeff, no matter a belief is “religious” or secular, those in power still
          try to control and regulate moral behavior – or, at least, what is
          “moral” for the time….

          • Jeff Ludwig

            You make a lot of sharp observations JoJoJams. Your last two paragraphs especially show the dangers inherent with the power trippers in government positions.

        • Jeff Ludwig

          Well, I’m not saying that a “secularist” can’t be a good citizen. And I’m not saying every secularist is an atheist although I can see how, from my comment, you might think that’s my view. However, if there are not transcendent norms, then mere consensus or “majority rules” will determine the norms of society. Norms are always being established. How do they get established? Where do they come from? I think the norms of “natural law” should govern in general, although even there, there are gray areas. Judeo-Christian morality should generally be the norm. Where does that morality come from? It comes from God, not from me or any individual(s). However, you are right in my opinion in the sense that even with an overarching or transcendent non-secular norm there are going to be variances between those norms and each individual’s conscience, and sometimes it can be very difficult to resolve those (legitimate) differences at the societal level. Roger Williams had some of those differences with the Mathers and others leading the Massachusetts Puritans. Of course, here were differences between two non-secularists. Clearly if their differences could arise, differences between theistic secularists and Christians like myself could and would arise. However, despite summoning as much balance and goodwill as can be mustered, in the last analysis the secularists should step down. [Sometimes in a supervisory role, I have issued directives that have been opposed, and had to discipline those who did not follow those directives. However, later, upon reflection, I determined I was wrong in my original directive and that I would not make that mistake in the future. In short, even though it was a mistake, it was my mistake to make, and my directive had to be followed. Likewise, the interpreters of God’s will may prove to be wrong, but in the meantime, their views should be followed — examples being abortion and same-sex marriage.] Thanks for your comments though. It seems you found a couple of my remarks insulting, and I’m sorry about that. It was never my intention. Rather, I appreciated the chance to engage with a person of obvious good will with whom I differ.

  • edgineer

    People would pay more attention if someone would point out that progressive and communist are not all that different.

  • popseal

    I encountered leftist professors at college. They dominated the College of Education at the University of New Orleans (then LSUNO) and were training future school teachers. Assaulting America’s traditions was their stock in trade. That was in 1970. We now are experiencing the success of their nefarious work.

  • sujeet

    independence day is always a proud day for any country and for their people. you described very well