“We, therefore, the representatives of the United States of America, in General Congress assembled, 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 publish and declare, That these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, FREE AND INDEPENDENT STATES…” – The Declaration of Independence
On July 4, 1776, 13 American colonies collectively asserted their individual independence from Great Britain. Today Americans celebrate July 4th as the “birth of our country.” In reality, it was no such thing.
The Declaration of Independence established no common government between the thirteen erstwhile colonies. Historian Kevin Gutzman notes that the Continental Congress that adopted the Declaration “was, as…John Adams put it, a meeting place of ambassadors” of sovereign states. Likewise, states were not understood to be administrative units of a central government but themselves independent nations. They were “on par not with Brittany in France or Yorkshire in England,” writes Gutzman, “but with France and England.”
This was not the end of decentralist sentiment in the United States. The Articles of Confederation and its successor, the Constitution, ultimately did set up a common government between the states. But even these documents attempted, and for a time succeeded, to institute a decentralized system of government.
What Americans celebrate on July 4th is secession and decentralization, concepts centered on the idea that local self-rule is preferable to centralized power. So how do most Americans celebrate this history? With displays of honor and professions of devotion to a centralized government dramatically more oppressive than the one their forefathers rebelled against.
It’s hard to determine if this development is ironic, poetic or just pathetic. The spectacle of a population that chooses one day out of the year to celebrate ideas that it has totally rejected the balance of the year must be amusing to outsiders. Indeed, were the founding generation alive today, its members would be reviled for holding crazy beliefs that have long since gone out of style.
There are very few Americans today who know and still believe in the founding ideals. This is true even among segments of the population that claim to revere the Founders. The same people flying their “Don’t Tread on Me” flags hold passionately to the idea of one, indivisible nation, all the while failing to recognize the blatant contradiction in their symbolism.
The way that modern Americans view July 4th is like a nation of atheists celebrating Easter. They enjoy the day off work, they might even appreciate the commercial symbols. But their worldview stands entirely in opposition to the principles underlying the holiday.
The truth is that you cannot claim to celebrate the American Revolution while continually saying how much you miss George W. Bush, nor can you clamor for the rights embraced by the Founders while cheering Barack Obama’s policies. What the vast majority of Americans – left and right – want the federal government to do would have been anathema to the American revolutionaries.
So go ahead, America, grill your hamburgers, set off your fireworks and fly your flags. And most of all, try not to think about how what you’re celebrating contradicts everything you politically hold dear.