Reflections on the Fourth of July:  Reading and Living our Declaration of Independence

By Bernard Levy



Only Americans can hurt Americans.

Dwight D. Eisenhower



    The July 4th has come and gone; most flags have been diligently retired in our closets.  The memories of spectacular fireworks linger as do the soul-stirring music and speeches.  The acrid smell of purchased “firecrackers”—many of which were probably illegal—has long been cleared by the night air, although their sounds and sights still produce fitful sleep for my pets.


    The importance of the day and the significance of our Declaration of Independence needs to remain in our hearts, souls and brains during these days of attacks on our liberties and the essences of our democratic, constitutional society established for a pluralistic nation.


    We were and still are the hope of many nations and peoples, not because we convey to the world materialistic, consumer-oriented living styles, but because we are the revolutionary success that established a relatively stable country of many nationalities, ethnicities, religions and perspectives. 


    In these days of patriotic fervor and attacks on our rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, we are again called upon to stand up and be counted to defeat the outside and inside forces that challenge and jeopardize these liberties.


    Unlike most of my neighbors, I celebrate the 4th of July by reading the Declaration slowly and with gusto, applying its prescient words to today’s society.  Firecrackers, fireworks and flag-waving don’t do it for me; I go directly to the genesis document of our great country to charge my patriotic batteries and connect with our country’s foundation.


    Don’t get me wrong.  We put out our flag, enjoy the fireworks and get goose bumps when the veterans marching in our parade pass by.  I even hold a brief memorial for my Uncle Ben, who was awarded a Medal of Honor in Word War I.  But this “patriotic passion” is not enough.


    Each year’s Declaration reading brings new meanings and revelations.  The filters through which we view and act out our lives are impacted by the events that have occurred since the last read. 


    Depending upon who publishes the Declaration, the number of paragraphs range from 25 to 31.  Most of the Declaration lists our objections to actions of the King of Great Britain and clearly narrate England’s wrongdoings against the colonies.  The drafters and signers believed that, even though enough was more than enough, they owed it to themselves and the people to list our many grievances against the King and his rule to emphasize the power of the Declaration’s final message, “…appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the Name and by the Authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly public declare…” our freedom.  Consistent, repetitive reading is only a start.  The key to the Declaration is to apply its contents to our lives, experiences and observations.  Well-meaning documents are wonderful to have around, but the Declaration and its progeny, the Constitution and its amendments, are meant to be lived. 


    Consider the following portions of the Declaration:  “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.” … “He (the King of Great Britain) has forbidden his Governors to pass Laws of immediate and pressing importance, unless suspended in their operation til his Ascent shall be obtained; and when so suspended, he has utterly neglected to attend to them.” … “He has refused to pass other Laws for the accommodation of large districts of people, unless those people would relinquish the right of Representation in the Legislature, a right inestimable to them and formidable to tyrants only.” … “He has made Judges dependent on his Will alone, for the tenure of their offices…”  (In enumerating the various wrong-doings of the King of Great Britain – “For taking away our Charters, abolishing our most valuable Laws, and altering fundamentally the Forms of our Governments.” … “He has excited domestic insurrections among us…”  “And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the Protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor.”


    Does any of the above bring to mind some of the current actions and non-actions of today’s government?  Spying, authorized by the Executive Branch of our government, without duly seeking consent and/or notifying our elected representatives; the Executive Branch’s actions of avoiding the laws passed by our elected representatives; and Executive Branch suspension of laws and rules of law when it suits it to do.


    Even though the 4th has passed (and especially because it has), please take the time this week to read the Declaration to your family, friends or even alone.  The words are prophetic beyond imagination; they speak about “all men (being) created equal,” in a time when slavery was the rule rather than the exception, and many minorities were not even considered human, let alone given the rights granted in this document of overwhelming importance.


    Actions speak louder than words; protect our way of life by living our birthright.