by Howard Stephenson
July Fourth is called Independence Day in part because it is the day the thirteen colonies officially declared independence from Great Britain. But we often forget it is the day we celebrate the independence of the individual; the public acknowledgement that God made man free.
“We hold these truths to be self-evident,” they declared, “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.”
This individual liberty, protected by rule of law, free markets, and private property rights has produced more than two centuries of unprecedented prosperity. The Declaration of Independence, according to Joseph L. Bast of the Heartland Institute, gave birth to “. . . an economy where consumption and investment were guided by prices and profits, rather than by privilege and the force of arms.”
The long road to freedom
Living in a nation of abundance and relative peace, we too often forget that the rights of the individual have been denied throughout most of the world’s history. But thankfully, a few brave visionaries were willing to sacrifice all they had, including their lives to advance these rights, although the advances were extremely incremental. In 1215 English barons threatening armed rebellion, forced King John to sign the Magna Carta, establishing the rights of the aristocracy and limiting the power of the King. In 1305 William Wallace of Scotland gave his life in advancing the concept of individual rights and in challenging the mistaken notion that the king could do no wrong.
Then, on April 19,1775 on Lexington Green a shot was fired which has continued to echo around the world.
The signing of the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776 by those pledging their lives, fortunes, and sacred honor proclaimed to the world that the fight for liberty had only begun. As I read the accounts of the winter at Valley Forge just 20 miles from Philadelphia – the capital and most important city in the Union which had been captured by the British – I am amazed that the patriot soldiers did not give up.
The soldiers were mostly without shoes, many clothed in rags or with only a blanket to cover them. Rations were short and often dinner was only a mouthful of soup made of burnt leaves. Congress was unable to supply the soldiers with regular wages and tales of suffering at home were frequent.
Three years later, at West Point, the army was in worse shape than at Valley Forge. Hunger stalked the encampment and ammunition was scarce. Once again, gaunt soldiers stood shoe-less in the snow with nothing to cover them but a blanket. Washington wrote: “The prospects of the Continental Army have never been blacker. We have never experienced a like extremity at any period of the war. It seems now inevitable that West Point must be abandoned and the troops dispersed to prey upon the countryside for food.”
I am always amazed that these patriots were willing to pay such a high price for the liberty which we so often take for granted.
What would the founders think of us?
Joseph Bast of the Heartland Institute argues that the individual liberty and limited government established by the founders has been systematically eroded over the years:
“America once had a vibrant system of private schools–what Alexis de Tocqueville in 1835 called the finest education system in the world. It was undermined and largely replaced in the second half of the nineteenth century by government schools designed by elites and financed by coercive taxation. Horace Mann and John Dewey gave up on liberty and embraced its opposite. By destroying private schooling they kicked the legs out from underneath a free society.
“At the start of the twentieth century the Progressives gave up on free markets and limited government. They called for municipalization of services once privately provided, including everything from garbage collection, hospitals, charitable aid to the poor, and parks to municipal water systems, electricity, airports, and even traffic lights on city streets.
“During the 1930s, in the depths of the Great Depression, many people gave up on freedom and limited government. The modern welfare state–with its confiscatory tax rates, massive bureaucracies, and invasive regulations–was born. The irony of it, of course, is that government caused the Great Depression and once it arrived, government kept the private sector from climbing back out for 10 painful years.
“People all around us today are still giving up, calling for increased government spending, more regulations, and higher taxes. Republicans and Democrats alike get elected by promising more–never less. The ethics that once supported a culture of self-government are rarely discussed, even less often taught to the next generation.
“If the Founders were here today, what would they think of a federal government that spends 20 percent of the country’s GDP and runs up a $400 billion deficit in a single year? Would they be pleased that government owns and operates the schools 90 percent of our children attend, pays for 40 percent of all health care expenditures, forces the top 10 percent of income earners to pay two-thirds of federal taxes, and allows 36 million families to pay no income taxes at all?” Mr. Bast asked.
Time for renewal
Henry David Thoreau’s essay Civil Disobedience, written in 1849, explained his reasons for going to jail rather than obeying an unjust law. Thoreau wrote, “There will never be a really free and enlightened State until the State comes to recognize the individual as the higher and independent power, from which all its own power and authority are derived, and treats him accordingly.”
It is my hope that we will all consider the thoughts of Mr. Thoreau and our founders before we ask government to do even more of those things we can and ought to do for ourselves.